Chat is hardly a new idea. But the digitization of conversation-driven collaboration into "ChatOps" — where the chat interface becomes the focal point for applying discussion and automation to getting things done — is a world away from simple instant messaging. It is no wonder then that we treat these collaboration tools as something revolutionary for the digital workplace. Microsoft Teams and Slack are probably the most discussed of the rivals, although plenty more services follow a similar collaborative pattern.

However, what other new ways of collaborative working in the digital workplace might be possible that go beyond the real-time, operational context of ChatOps?

Rethinking Distributed Version Control

Distributed version control is another work management system which is related to ChatOps and has it has origins in software development. The best-known platforms include Atlassian Bitbucket and GitHub, which was recently acquired by Microsoft. These tools were designed to help teams of software developers to edit code individually and then provide a way to merge their work in a controlled way, yet the workflow could apply in any case where people need to collaborate around text-based data.

In some respects, these types of distributed version control tools are similar to enterprise wikis, but they offer a structured workflow with a built-in method to "narrate your work." The potential for distributed version control tools in the digital workplace is to provide a platform for an open and transparent work culture. But the learning curve for using distributed version control is much higher than a wiki or file-sharing tools, such as Microsoft OneDrive or Box. 

We may need to wait for someone to create a business user-friendly distributed version control solution for this approach to gain more mainstream adoption, a la Slack.

Related Article: Developer Collaboration Tools Beyond Slack

Digital Prototyping With VR and AR

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are examples of technology that are slowly, but surely, finding application in the workplace. Solutions include Google Daydream and Glass; Oculus VR, a division of Facebook; and Microsoft Hololens. Current practical use cases are often related to training and knowledge-sharing, but their use for collaboration is more elusive. 

Obvious applications, like virtual meetings, may come with time but this relegates the technology to being another substitute for traveling, like existing conferencing options. A more compelling case might be to create a digital workplace experience that makes use of spatial, immersive and gesture technologies to change how we interact with digital information as we collaborate in person. The current state of the art here is Oblong Industries' Mezzanine, but the cost of this system currently puts it out of reach for most knowledge workers.

Learning Opportunities

I would argue that the revolutionary role of VR and AR technology for digital workplaces must instead lie in the ability to provide a digital prototyping canvas, where anything is possible and virtual experiments are risk-free. In this context, collaboration in the digital workplace becomes an inherently creative process, not just grows in efficiency.

Related Article: Virtual and Augmented Reality Are Ripe for the Enterprise

Moon Shot: Disrupting the Very Nature of Organizations

Distributed version control, and virtual and digital prototyping both present opportunities to work differently. They can create digital workplaces that are open, transparent and creative. Even more so than ChatOps, they also both suggest possibilities to disrupt how organizations operate in a more meaningful way than merely displacing email.

But perhaps the ultimate disruption to the digital workplace and how we collaborate is to consider platforms that reengineer the very nature of organizations. For example, can we take the collaboration technologies that underpin the gig economy business models exemplified by companies like Uber and Airbnb and apply them to companies?

Author Dan Pontefract explores a similar situation in his article, "Why Your Organization Needs and Internal Gig Economy Platform." By opening up collaboration outside of the prescribed lanes of job titles, businesses give people the opportunity to use talents that might otherwise go underutilized in their current roles, increasing engagement, agency and job satisfaction in the process. While it may sound far-fetched, it may just be the key to retaining top talent and turning around the dismal yearly stats on employee engagement.

I can imagine an entirely new kind of organization where collaboration is no longer a tool in the digital workplace, but a collaborative platform used to scale how we work in a wholly agile and flexible way.

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