too many choices in the cereal aisle
Sometimes an abundance of choice leads to paralysis. Such is the case with the collaboration software world today PHOTO: Mike Mozart

It’s usually good to have choices. If the only food available was broccoli, a lot of people might starve (including me). Instead, we have more choices of what to eat than at any time in history. 

Choice usually is progress. The same is true in technology. Having more than one type of information technology fights against monoculture and allows for different needs to be met. The more diverse the technology landscape, the more varied the products, the better the fit to a problem.

Still, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. When IT has an overabundance of products trying to solve the same problem, the result is diffusion — not diversity. The ecosystem becomes unmanageable, and the choices overwhelm users. In some cases, the original problem is made worse, not solved.

So Many Tools, So Little Time

That’s the current situation with collaboration and communication software. There are too many ways to share messages and content. In the communication portfolio, the market has both web-based and traditional desktop email clients. There is also instant messaging, web conferences, VoIP, persistent chat, such as Slack and Microsoft Teams, and enterprise social networks. On top of all that, there is social collaboration baked into a host of applications — the chat functionality in Hootsuite and shared commenting in Microsoft Office, for example.

For content sharing we still have content management systems (CMS) such as SharePoint, dedicated intranet software, enterprise social networks, and sync and share (of which there are dozens). These compete with intranets based on website management software, such as Drupal and Wordpress, and specialty content sharing, for example Adobe’s Document Cloud.

Worse yet, there is significant overlap between products in these categories. Microsoft SharePoint has a bit of all of the content-sharing features, and chat applications share the communications aspects of IBM’s SameTime and Microsoft’s soon-to-be-discontinued Skype for Business.

The Microsoft collaboration portfolio is a great example of too many overlapping products. Microsoft has the classic SharePoint for content and workflow management, OneDrive for Business (which is file sync and share on top of SharePoint), Dropbox competitor OneDrive, Skype, Skype for Business, Yammer, Outlook — web-based, mobile and desktop — and Teams. Microsoft Office 365 customers can “message” each other in Yammer, SharePoint, Skype, Skype for Business, Outlook, Teams and the entire Office for Business suite. 

That’s an insane 12 applications (and I may be undercounting) that all have some form of similar messaging that are independent of each other. Seriously, there should only be Teams, Outlook/Exchange and SharePoint for business users and Outlook, Skype and OneDrive for the home consumer. All other messaging should derive from one of these programs and be available across all platforms.

This is not just to pick on Microsoft. In the market, there are too many overlapping products. Every major vendor seems to have a Slack clone. Atlassian even has two of them — Stride and HipChat. There are a dozen or more cloud-based and on-premises file-sharing applications outside of OneDrive, Box and Dropbox. 

Choice is good, but too much choice confuses the market and makes buying decisions more difficult. It’s time for some consolidation both between and within companies.

Spreading Our Already Limited Attention Even Thinner

The abundance of choice has created a productivity problem for the average knowledge worker as well. When many ways of collaborating exist in a company, attention and time are spread over many platforms. Even if the company enforces a one-platform rule — using just Microsoft Office 365, for example — departments have so many choices that cross-departmental collaboration forces knowledge workers to use multiple forms of communication each day. 

Instead of having less and more-focused communication, business users have a great amount of diverse information to look at and respond to each day. In an attempt to create one place to find everything, companies have forced employees to manage many competing channels that demand constant attention.

Consolidation Is the Answer

Vendors must know that the inevitable outcome of a landscape this large is consolidation. Microsoft certainly does and has already announced the end of life of Skype for Business, aka Microsoft Lync. Expect further consolidation within product lines to happen. The current model is unsustainable, so it’s likely that several companies and products will exit the market either by choice, acquisition or failure.

For organizations, it’s time to get behind one or two models of communication. Email is still necessary, since it’s the most ubiquitous form of business communication. Pick one other communication channel and stick with it. The same is true for content sharing. A single corporate repository is enough for content sharing with an intranet for mass read-only communication.

Until this happens, knowledge workers will be stuck in a bind. They can’t just stop using what their teams use, but they can’t keep up with all the different ways to share messages and content. Any company that values its workers and productivity will act soon.