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PHOTO: Md. Golam Murshed

A useful collaboration hub, in theory, is about removing friction from collaboration. It brings people together so they can access shared information and work collectively towards achieving their particular business objective. Collaboration hubs are just as often deployed for the underlying reason of simplifying the technology environment. 

But who does the collaboration hub serve if, in our pursuit of simplicity, a collaboration hub uses a single-vendor solution, like Microsoft Office 365, Google G Suite or Salesforce?

Collaboration Hubs: Delivering on Vision or Business Needs?

Our digital workplaces are often caught between the ideals of our vision (or vendor hype!) and the practical challenges of delivering a fit-for-purpose experience. For years I have applied a human-centered design (HCD) approach to enterprise technology to help navigate the complexity of the human and technological systems in our workplaces. While it is always tempting to look for technological shortcuts, like the concept of a single vendor based collaboration hub, the design mindset encourages us to step back and look at the whole problem.

A collaboration hub might need to serve any number of goals or purposes. People might need to collaborate around a business process, a customer or a client, some other kind of business asset (like a product or building), or a project. But while some users may need to complete the same generic knowledge worker tasks in any of those contexts, others with different roles or responsibilities may need to work with specialized information systems.

The question with the mainstream single vendor-based collaboration hubs is how well they can support this. The data suggests that in reality, most businesses rely on a heterogeneous environment of overlapping general and specialized line of business solutions to get work done. For example, this year, Okta reported that the majority of its customers who use Office 365 are not Microsoft-only environments.

In addition to people working in specialized roles, businesses whose main focus is on customer experience or that are organized in agile teams will also find collaboration needs to occur across their value chain, not just within a single line of business. In these situations, a one-size-fits-all approach is more likely to fail.

Related Article: How Technology Can Hinder Workplace Productivity and Collaboration

A Human-Centered Design Approach to Collaboration Hubs 

A better approach is treating collaboration hubs as a design or an internal consulting process first, not as a technology solution. This approach will involve several different layers and is intended to help us recognize that relying on a single vendor is unlikely to deliver the friction-free environment we imagine.

The first layer is to provide a “collaboration knowledge hub.” The knowledge hub is a place people can learn about available solutions, how to apply them, and where to seek advice if they believe they have an unmet need.

The next layer is to provide people with a repeatable methodology, so they can negotiate with each other how they will collaborate and the tools they will use for a particular business goal or purpose. Over time you will build a repeatable set of proven patterns to meet different use cases — these will require little or no negotiation, just an agreement to start. However, renegotiation will be necessary from time-to-time as technologies change or different business requirements emerge.

Finally, we come to the technology layer. Our goal here is to offer a cohesive, ideally integrated set of collaboration solutions which offer the best possible fit for all purposes. Giving people choice is important. That way they can decide themselves what the trade off will be between the unavoidable friction of imperfect integration and the overall effectiveness of how they will collaborate. However, if your overarching goal for a collaboration hub remains driven by an urge to simplify the technology environment, and in doing so you also remove choice, you may end up creating a white elephant that no one effectively uses.

Related Article: Providing Employees Flexibility in Workplace Tools Doesn't Mean It's a Free-for-All

A Final Caution

Technology simplification is only a worthy objective when it equally serves end-users, lines of business and technology management. My advice is to be careful not to accidentally introduce hidden friction into collaboration by a blinkered or vendor-biased perspective on collaboration hubs.