Collaboration chaos: How to stay productive

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The collaboration app market is getting overcrowded, and confusing.

To embrace digital transformation, businesses need to be able to collaborate using technology, whether in the office or working remotely. But the number of options available can be overwhelming, as not only are there a host of independent startup apps, such as Slack and Huddle, but larger firms have muscled in on the market with all-encompassing solutions, including Microsoft and Facebook.

In this crowded environment, ease of use has become one of the most important features to look for.

Many employers simply can't afford to spend time and resources on teaching staff how to use new software. Slack is popular because the basic features are incredibly easy to use, with its UI heavily inspired by user-friendly services like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

"The common differentiating feature is simplicity, not a plethora of features," says Matt Ballantine, research associate at Leading Edge Forum, a research group belonging to DXC Technology. "As platforms develop, though, they tend to add functionality, and then features that complicate things so that new platforms enter, again trumpeting simplicity as their USP."

This can lead to a "confusion of options", according to Rob Bamforth, principal analyst of business communications at research house Quocirca. "Tools need to be acceptable to the organisation in terms of delivering productivity, interoperability and some control, but users want personal preferences, choice and to be able to use it anywhere. With everyone thinking they can do a better job, we end up with a confusion of options."

"So much for unified communications, all that's been unified is the plumbing and not the higher-level interaction between people," says Bamforth.

Addressing business needs

What is missing is control, says Bamforth. "Not rigid dogmatic structure, but mechanisms that ensure communication and collaboration is leading somewhere - i.e. a common goal.

"The tools that stand out will be those that combine flexibility for users to have their personal preferences like mobility, with the lightweight impact 'project management' control to get the job done."

CRM firm Salesforce developed its 'Chatter' app as a mobile-first enterprise social network platform, embracing the 'go where they work' approach.

In terms of adoption, many organisations will avoid disruption in favour of the status quo. Apps need to convince customers that their platform is the best solution to deal with their business needs, despite the substantial costs of jumping ship.

Clarity of purpose remains key, says Ovum principal analyst Richard Edwards. "Businesses want vendors to provide product strategy, and not a knee jerk reaction to the next Silicon Valley Unicorn," he explains.

"Business and IT managers want to see that vendors have a real insight into the different work styles of their employees," says Edwards. "Many of the 'hot' collaboration products have emerged from the software development and IT operations area, and have not been designed, for example, with the sales admin clerk in mind."

Cloud collaboration firm Box has made an effort to distance itself from rivals, by offering focused solutions. For example, the acquisition of medical firm MedXT in 2014 allowed Box to provide clinicians with integrated tools to share and annotate medical data such as X-rays.

As more tools enter a workplace, businesses want greater integration for interoperability between software and devices. "Services companies can step in here to provide the integration glue," says Bamforth, "either as real software integration, or a service wrap to remove the complexity that might otherwise hold back adoption."

The source of Slack's popularity comes from the number of varied integrations on the platform, which currently provides over 400 related applications. This turns a relatively basic chat tool into a powerful and tailored collaborative service. Microsoft has also promised more than 150 partnerships with popular app platforms for its Teams messaging platform, allowing users to view Twitter analytics and access Skype for video calls.

Social collaboration

Unsurprisingly, Facebook has pushed the idea of business communication as a 'social' experience. Workplace is essentially a re-skin of the social network to look more business-like.

Employees have access to dashboard analytics, multi-company group chats and a news feed for work updates, all built into an experience that looks and feels like a social media account.

However, Facebook may struggle to find longevity in the market, as it flies in the face of any attempts to get employees to stop using social media at work. "Conceptually I'm not convinced by the Facebook Workplace proposition," says Ballantine. "People tend to use Facebook as very much their 'not work' platform, and so I can see a level of cognitive dissonance about it being introduced into the workplace, especially in places likes banks that have traditionally blocked their employees from using Facebook while at work."

Nevertheless, the 'social network' style of collaboration is becoming popular, as we see more collaborative functionality built into existing tools. "Enlightened organisations will focus on delivering collaborative functionality into the tools that people use, rather than them being isolated into stand alone places," says Ballantine.

"People have conversations at the water cooler because it's a place conveniently within the office. The social network approach is akin to managing water coolers."

Microsoft's 'water cooler' is Teams, built from the ground up around the tech giant's Office 365 tools. It provides the communication structure that so many users have come to love with Slack, underpinned by a robust suite of apps built into the platform. As a result this feels like a natural progression for Microsoft, as users are now able to work from one application to access the entire suite, instead of switching between packages.

With Microsoft's buyout of LinkedIn, the firm will want to integrate some of that professional data into its collaboration platform. LinkedIn is currently the only place where inter-organisational data and sharing exists at scale, according to Ballantine.

Remaining competitive

As most collaboration apps offer very similar services, like file sharing and integrations, it is easy for an app to price itself out of competition. Most now offer some form of 'freemium' model, with a handful of tiered price plans to cater for varying needs.

At just $3 per person per month for smaller companies, Facebook Workplace has positioned itself at the lower end of the price range, with free versions available to schools and non-profits. More than 1,000 companies have already signed up to the beta, including RBS,, Starbucks and the entire 143,000-strong civil service in Singapore.

Microsoft Teams is also at the bottom end, bundled in with Office 365 business plans starting at £3.10 per user, going up to £7.80. For business owners this is a huge incentive to take up the new software, as it provides the most cost effective way of integrating new collaboration tools, particularly for firms paying extra for third-party services.

Yet despite a significant undercut by larger firms, three-year-old Slack still dwarfs most other chat-based collaboration apps, boasting four million monthly active users, although only 30% of these are on paid subscriptions starting at $6.67 per user.

This highlights a prevailing need for simple, free tools, particularly in smaller businesses that don't need feature-rich platforms. The biggest selling point for Microsoft Teams is also its biggest obstacle to adoption, as customers are forced to buy into Office 365 to use it. Slack operates a much more end user-friendly approach to subscriptions, as companies only pay for those accounts actually in use, and can hand out free guest accounts to temporary users.

The longlasting power of email

What can be said for certain is that no app has yet proven to be the 'email killer'. Despite the attention that apps have received, email remains the primary collaborative platform within and between organisations.

"Email is often described as a significant 'problem', but the success behind its ubiquity needs to be understood," says Ballantine. "It's a simple service that is remarkably extensible by end users, and it follows open standards allowing for simple communication across businesses."

One advantage email has over the plethora of other platforms now in use is that it's universally available to every organisation with an internet connection. Access to email repositories remains a priority, and allowing users to maintain a connection to such legacy systems is a step forward for any collaboration tool, according to Edwards.

The transition to new platforms therefore needs to be smooth, and cannot force users to leave older systems entirely behind.

They will increasingly need to integrate with one another if they are to eventually surpass email. But there is currently a distinct lack of common open standards in the collaboration market, largely due to fragmented solutions from a range of companies over the years. While efforts such as OpenSocial and W3C Social Web Working Group have tried to address the lack of standards, the collaboration app landscape has yet to get its 'SMTP'.

"Simple tools that are extensible by the user are the most likely to get adopted," says Ballantine. "I'm seeing a growth in very simple messaging platforms like WhatsApp being used both within and between organisations. IT generally doesn't know how to react to such adoption as they can' control or regulate such consumer platforms."

Email is not likely to disappear anytime soon. Microsoft and Facebook are heavily touted as the 'Slack Killers', in much the same way that Slack was meant to kill off email. After three years, email is still here.

Who knows? It could even outlive Slack.

Dale Walker

Dale Walker is the Managing Editor of ITPro, and its sibling sites CloudPro and ChannelPro. Dale has a keen interest in IT regulations, data protection, and cyber security. He spent a number of years reporting for ITPro from numerous domestic and international events, including IBM, Red Hat, Google, and has been a regular reporter for Microsoft's various yearly showcases, including Ignite.