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PHOTO: Jeremy Bishop

The collaboration software market has experienced a significant overhaul in the past couple of years: several major players, including Jive and Atlassian, have exited the market, fewer startups are entering the fray, and we've seen the increased blurring of tool segments, for example through the merging of Skype for Business and Microsoft Teams.

Despite the breadth of different collaborative technologies at our disposal — both in the collaboration tools themselves and where collaborative features are embedded in other business applications — collaboration remains a challenge for many organizations. What's more, the technology often feels like it gets in the way rather than making collaboration easier. In my firm CCS Insight's recent Digital Workplace survey, over a quarter of employees struggled with knowing which tool to use when, while 21 percent cited an excess of tools as a major challenge at work. We believe this is a critical contributor to the high degree of dissatisfaction with workplace technology. Our 2017 survey found that 36 percent of employees felt their IT department was out of touch with their technology needs.

Perhaps the answer is a single collaboration solution that addresses a range of different collaboration needs and scenarios? It's tempting to think so — it's a cleaner solution for IT organizations than having to manage and secure multiple different products. But we don't think this approach will work: it's not flexible enough to support the multitude of work styles in an organization, and it also fails to address the issue of employee choice by taking a one-size-fits-all approach.

Addressing the Technology Overload Problem

Without a doubt, technology overload is a problem for employees in the digital workplace, particularly in the area of collaboration software. Not only do we have different tools for different types of collaboration (for example content sharing, messaging, meetings, task management, communities, teamwork and so on), but within a single organization we often have multiple applications of the same type being used by different teams. It's not unusual to see Box, Dropbox and Google Drive all in use in a single organization for content sharing, for example.

There are also significant overlaps between the collaborative features of different technologies. For example, a discussion comments thread about the creation of a sales proposal could take place in Google Docs where the document is being created, in Box where it's stored, or Salesforce under the account record. Organizations are often coping with dozens or even hundreds of collaboration and productivity tools — some supported by corporate IT, and others brought in as "shadow IT" by employees to help them get their job done.

The fundamental issue is there is no standard way of working: different people, different teams, different cross-organization teams have different technology preferences and working styles, and there is no real way to standardize this. One size does not fit all, however much the IT organization might want it to. Added to this is the problem that people tend to prefer the tools they've chosen themselves, and generally resist those that are imposed on them, even if they work in a very similar way.

However, when you dig deeper, tool overload is often actually less about the number of tools, and more about the workflow around the tools: how you move from task A to task B, or how you connect this conversation with that action when the process spans multiple systems and potentially multiple teams or even organizations.

Related Article: Don't Know Which Microsoft Collaboration Tool to Use? You're Not Alone

Simplification Through Integration

The newest generation of collaboration technologies aims to address these problems through an integration-based approach, effectively creating a digital workplace "hub." The hub concept sees applications providing a platform for integrating workflows and data to streamline work, enabling IT departments to provide a managed, unified and curated experience across a range of third-party applications.

As a provider of standalone collaboration Software-as-a-Service, Slack champions the "best of breed" approach, allowing users to choose point solutions (whether collaboration or other types of application) from various suppliers, and integrating these through the Slack activity feed. Organizations can create their own custom workflows to support their processes, and Slack is starting to develop deeper integrations with other collaborative technologies to support users wanting to work together using different technologies. An example of this is Slack's integration with Google Drive, which supports comments threads that span both products, allowing collaborators to work in whichever application they want. At its recent customer event, Slack showcased strong adoption of custom workflows among its customers.

It's not just Slack embracing this approach. Microsoft and Facebook are also investing heavily in integration and workflow support, using bots for more-natural interactions that simplify the user experience. Cloud content management provider Box is developing workflow and integrations that remove the friction of working across a diverse set of applications, and Citrix recently acquired Sapho to infuse its micro-app technology into Citrix Workspace and simplify application workflows.

Related Article: Digital Hub Platforms Can Improve Enterprise Collaboration 

Early Days for the Digital Workplace Hub Approach

This is a promising direction for collaboration technology and the employee experience as a whole, but it's still an emerging capability with some challenges. At present, creating custom workflows demands technology skills, and yet for them to fit each individual, team or process, the tools to design workflows need to be in the hands of business users. Slack is investing here through its acquisition of "no code" automation supplier Missions, but it's yet to be released to customers.

In addition, for workflow-enabled collaboration applications to gain widespread adoption by organizations and become embedded in the way people work, employees need a helping hand in understanding what's possible. This is not simply about giving them the skills to design their own workflows (although this is important); it's about helping them identify the processes that can be streamlined and providing the building blocks to help them get started. Not everyone is a business analyst with experience teasing out the business requirement. And although an adoption program can help teams identify places to start, doing this on a large scale takes time. Suppliers need to do more to capture and share examples of types of process that are relevant to different roles, industries or departments, to support adoption teams and accelerate the rate of take-up.

Finally, although this democratization of workflow definition is vital, it's also critical that organizations have the tools to manage and control the type and breadth of integrations, mainly for compliance and security purposes, but also to avoid sprawl. Granular analytics of what is being created, combined with tools to manage the lifecycle of workflows (for example, monitoring which workflows are being used, and enabling archiving policies and processes to remove clutter) will help to provide balance between usability and manageability.

Additionally, companies like VMware and Citrix are creating unified management and security frameworks for what they call digital workspaces, to enable IT departments to offer control but also choice of a multitude of collaboration applications and deployment on any device.

Related Article: Slack-Atlassian Deal Marks a Turning Point in Team Collaboration Market

Streamlining the Digital Workplace

Although simplification is always appealing, in practice new tools will always be emerging to help people get their work done, and employees will continue to seek out new, better applications that suit their particular needs. This may bring complexity, but shutting down the opportunity is not conducive to delivering a positive employee experience. We need to find a way to embrace the diversity and choice in the way people want to work — in a controlled and managed way, of course. There's still much to be done, but this new focus on integration and streamlining work processes in the digital workplace promises to dramatically improve the way we work.