A Twitter conversation earlier this week got me thinking — and now writing — about a subject I have covered a few times over the last decade: namely, aggregation of information. I previously covered this subject from the angles of: RSS will rule the world; portals will solve everything; maybe Outlook is the new portal; activity feeds will fix it; and more recently both MS Teams is the new portal; and alerts, notifications and subscriptions are where it’s at.

The bad news is the problem keeps morphing and we are still talking about it. Is there any good news? I'm not sure yet.

Will Interoperability Ever Be the Norm?

The Twitter discussion started with my old buddy and newly minted AIIM Fellow, Jesse Wilkins (@jessewilkins) lamenting the lack of a “lowest common denominator” protocol like SMTP for linking together enterprise social network-type platforms. We pulled in CMSWire contributor Laurence “Pie” Hart (@piewords), community management guru Rachel Happe (@rhappe) and digital transformation and collaboration expert Dion Hinchcliffe (@dhinchcliffe), among others.

Hinchcliffe reminded us that “back in the day” he was on the board of the Open Social Foundation, an organization that did its level best to push for open standard protocols to link public web, and enterprise social networking platforms to provide a good level of interoperability. As far back as 2014 he was writing articles about the benefits of a protocol analogous to SMTP, but for social networking and social collaboration platforms. The Open Social Foundation work was taken up by the W3C Social Web Working Group, but there are no signs of activity on that page since early 2018. So no help there it seems.

We discussed email as the lowest common denominator. If we define collaboration as a group of people working together towards a common goal, then email is a communications tool that can be used to facilitate collaboration — but it wasn't designed as a collaboration platform. Yes, we can all admit it is easy to use, but it isn't optimal. So would an interoperable protocol with a global address space provide us with the best route? Maybe, but no one seems to be working on this (unless you know something I don't know?).

It was noted that I approach this problem from a selfish perspective: that of an empowered knowledge worker, who can use different tools to accomplish various tasks as part of my overall business processes. The problem is I have no single “flow” to my day-to-day work, so the idea of deeply integrating an enterprise social network platform (say Yammer or Jive) or a social collaboration tool such as Teams or Slack into my flow, embedding it into the business process, simply does not work for me — but it may work for many. In cases where large organizations have successfully deployed such platforms, it has been because of the integration into the user's workflow, and the removal of context switching, which is the bane of using multiple tools.

Related Article: Slack Shared Channels: You Can't Spell Email Killer Without Interoperability

So Many Tools, So Little Integration

So if you are like me, or you work in a large organization that has taken the “right tool for the right job” approach, and yet you are at the confluence of a number of teams or processes, necessitating the use of different applications, where does that leave us?

Not everyone needs to use an enterprise social networking platform for their core tasks. They may be members of a community of practice, or community of interest, in which case they may only hit the platform once a day, if that. However, if enterprise-wide working out loud is encouraged, you might have no choice if you wish to participate, thus necessitating the switch between tools again. Some vendors integrate their own tools, so for example you may be using Microsoft Teams and Yammer, and you may not need to stray away from the Teams interface for infrequent use of Yammer.

Learning Opportunities

Custom API to API integration is a possibility, and it doesn't need to be messy. Some low code / no code tools already tout their ability to integrate Slack and Teams for example. However, to minimize that context switching, I want one tool to rule them all. This is why some 10 or so years ago, I was writing about RSS and pinning my hopes on portal software. It’s why I got my hopes up when Microsoft integrated an RSS reader into Outlook, at least then I could read everything handily in one place.Then Yammer came along and it looked as if it could be my single activity stream, as my employer talked about creating all sorts of integrations to get notifications pushed into my Yammer stream. Then I changed employers, and Yammer was no longer an option, but Teams was. We started discussing which tools we should integrate into Teams before deploying across the enterprise, and how in effect Teams could become the portal.

Now I work for a software company. I use our own platform and Office 365. I am in product management, so I use Slack, because it’s where all the software creators are, the developers and support engineers, due to some specific integrations. With product management and marketing colleagues I use our own collaboration software. I use Twitter to have awesome conversations with the big brains in our industry, and LinkedIn to chat with other professionals. I even have Workplace from Facebook for a particular professional network I am a member of. I cannot connect any of them together, I cannot aggregate RSS feeds or an activity stream from all these tools in one place. I cannot scan activity across these platforms in a glance.

Related Article: Is Microsoft Teams the 'Portal' We've Been Looking For?

Will the Call for Interoperability Be Heard?

Last July I wrote about how alerts, subscriptions and notifications could help by acting as the glue to bring together the many disparate elements. And while this could certainly provide at least part of a solution, following the twitter conversation, I wondered if the current pandemic crisis and the sudden rush to home / remote working will force the push for a more elegant solution?

Might dissatisfaction with the whole remote working experience, the constant context switching between disparate interfaces, the lack of familiarity with a multiplicity of video conferencing, shared white board, social collaboration and other tools push the industry towards some form of interoperability? Will I ever get my one aggregator to rule them all, or will we go further than that and drive towards standards-based interconnection between different vendors products using a truly 21st century equivalent to SMTP (but with security built in)?

Time will tell if this happens, but in the interim, I hope that you and all of your families are healthy and well.

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