Technology has long played a role in facilitating workplace collaboration. Think of all the times you’ve drafted a document or created a PowerPoint presentation and then emailed it to a colleague for their input. Your parents and grandparents even relied on technology to collaborate with their co-workers, albeit with typewriters, rather than computers.
Never have collaboration tools been as crucial as they are today, due to the rise in geographically diverse teams and a dramatic increase in the number of people working remotely. At the same time, a “new way of working” has emerged in which deliverables are generated at the same time by an entire team, rather than each team member taking a turn and then passing it along to the next person, according to Craig Roth, research vice president at Gartner.
That shift has created the need for tools that allow multiple collaborators to work on the same deliverable simultaneously. Enter Slack, Dropbox, Google Drive, Cisco Spark, Workplace by Facebook and a slew of others, as a deluge of digital-collaboration tools floods the workplace. Such tools have been warmly welcomed by the workforce, with 70% of employees saying collaboration platforms are changing their workplace interactions, according to Bersin by Deloitte.
The sheer volume of offerings in the marketplace poses a challenge for employers, as they find themselves overwhelmed with choices and unsure which tool will best suit their needs.
“I feel like, every day, I wake up and there’s a new collaboration tool out there,” says Tammy Bjelland, CEO of Workplaceless. “That’s fantastic because it reflects that people are thinking about these problems in strategic ways, but it’s a challenge for teams to identify which tools will work best for them.”
Getting companies to think in terms of tools—plural—is critical in helping them make a purchase decision, according to Roth. There are so many different facets to collaboration that it’s hard to capture them all with just one tool, he says. “There are a few big [vendors] that offer workstream-collaboration tools, while others do collaborative-work management,” says Roth. “Still others do more of the social side of things, while some are focused on just content. There’s no end to it.”
Roth estimates there are 20 or more categories of collaboration tools on the market today. He recommends companies begin by choosing a couple of tools that “hit most directly at the kind of work they do.” Companies that have team members working in many different locations and want to have the project documents “bundled up in the same place” will best be served by a content-collaboration tool, like Dropbox, OneDrive or Google Drive, he says. Likewise, Roth predicts companies that desire to have a “persistent chat going on,” while also having the ability to share documents, will find more value in workstream-collaboration tools, like Slack and Teams.
Rasmus Holst, chief revenue officer at Wire, divides the digital-collaboration-tool marketplace into three subsegments he calls Pillars: integration, cloud suite and security. All three fulfill the promise of making work more efficient and optimizing communication, he says. Therefore, the discussion needs to center on where the organization sees its future.
“Do you see your future being a lot more diverse from an IT perspective, with a lot of integrated applications?” he says. “Do you see it as an integrated, one-vendor type of strategy? Or do you see the risk from cyber threats becoming your worst nightmare and you, therefore, need to secure your intellectual property and all the discussions you have in your collaboration product?”
Regardless of which platform(s) companies select, they won’t succeed in facilitating collaboration unless employees engage with the technology, says Roth. They need to see the value of using them, which is more likely to happen when HR leads the roll-out, he says. Organizations also need to remember there is sure to be a learning curve, says Bjelland, so they must dedicate sufficient time for employees to learn the ins and outs of the technology and then discuss as a team the outcomes of implementing the new tool.
As organizations survey the collaboration-tool landscape, Jeanne Achille, CEO of the Devon Group, is concerned about the tendency of such technologies to over-complicate processes. She advises companies to proceed cautiously and with care to select systems that will accommodate each employee’s working style.
“There has been a significant increase in such tools, many of which over-architect the basic goals of collaboration and communications,” says “Requiring workers to use overly complicated tools that might be in opposition to their work style, skills and/or responsibilities sets up both employer and employee. The best collaboration systems keep a lighter touch that facilitates inclusiveness, while respecting the inherent differences each employee brings to the team.”