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Future of collaboration technology: More Slack and AI, less email

Companies have moved beyond messaging and email to Slack, Teams and even AI-powered scheduling and voice recognition. Are you ready for collaboration hubs and virtual assistants?

Somewhere between live chat and email, team collaboration tools began to grow. Enterprise teams needed more than email threads -- but not necessarily instant messaging -- to stay on top of projects and share files. And vendors like Microsoft and Google weave productivity applications into virtual meeting rooms. As artificial intelligence evolves, experts remain bullish on its prospects to enhance productivity as enterprises set a course for the future of collaboration technology.

Chat tools like Slack and Teams let employees carve out productive time on their terms, according to Tim Banting, principal analyst at Global Data PLC. While all parties need to be online to chat with instant messaging, collaboration tools let participants respond asynchronously as they toggle between tasks. Other key functions include real-time communications like video or online meetings as well as shared calendars and task management, he added.

The future of collaboration technology also calls for enterprises to be able to engage in communication outside the company, Banting noted. Many organizations now work with partners, suppliers, part-time staff and contingency workers, creating a complex supply chain that still needs to communicate.

Business teams gravitate to 'work hubs'

The integration of team collaboration tools with file-sharing services, social platforms and front-office applications like customer relationship management and project management software has led to the development "work hubs" that are central to how employees complete tasks, according to Banting. For example, Microsoft Teams integrates across the Microsoft Office 365 productivity suite.

As more employees choose to use these tools, internal email traffic tends to decline, Banting said. Email threads can grow quickly, becoming unwieldy and difficult to manage. However, team collaboration tools allow users to open a project room, add files, create virtual whiteboards and schedule impromptu meetings, he explained.

[Slack] helps to keep the team accountable because everyone can clearly see where a project stands and the deadlines that come with it.
Brandon Choppdigital manager, iHeartRaves and Into the AM

Essentially, the future of collaboration technology lies with tools that can streamline communications and save time for end users. "Instead of trying to communicate through phone calls, texting, email and Skype, everything runs smoothly because it's integrated directly into [Slack]," said Brandon Chopp, digital manager at fashion brands iHeartRaves and Into the AM. "Employees can talk about various subjects in different channels so that everyone on the team is able to see any updates, pictures, files and more."

Rather than struggle to maintain long email threads, Chopp uses Slack to search through threads to find the content he needs. "It also helps to keep the team accountable because everyone can clearly see where a project stands and the deadlines that come with it," he noted, adding that he typically works 45 to 50 hours a week -- but would be putting in even more hours if he didn't have this tool.

AI may not be ready for collaboration -- but has potential

The future of collaboration technology also holds the promise of artificial intelligence, such as scheduling meetings, providing transcription and marking keywords, according to Banting. That allows users to be active participants, rather than observers, and keep up with conversations and projects.

Additionally, data culled from cloud-based video conferencing may provide an easier way to schedule meetings, according to Lifesize CTO Bobby Beckmann. "This data, aided by artificial intelligence and machine learning, could allow us to optimize the use of the platform and increase the effectiveness of meetings," he said, noting that trends like virtual assistants are powered by AI.

At the most basic level, AI could help employees determine the optimal length for a meeting, ideal number of participants or best time of day to hold the meeting to improve productivity, Beckmann explained. Voice recognition, he added, could take that one step further, analyzing the content of meetings, comparing it against other meetings in the same organization and making suggestions about connections between people with complementary skills or knowledge.

However, AI still has a way to go before it will be fully ready for the enterprise. "It's not very intelligent and all too artificial," Banting said. AI helps by anticipating, augmenting and automating. Right now, AI can anticipate by leveraging data, so if you're having a meeting with Jennifer, the AI engine can bring up all the notes relevant to interactions with Jennifer. It can augment with virtual assistants by finding a time that works for a meeting with Jennifer, Brad and Tim, and if it's connected to CRM, AI can automate back-end processes to analyze sentiment on social media to provide information to use at the meeting.

Collaboration tools are just scratching the surface with what AI can do to enhance them, Banting said. Microsoft and Google are both investing in their business productivity suites, and these data points can train AI engines to make important decisions.

The future of collaboration technology may see the end of email as a preferred form of internal communication. And as AI matures, more features will be released inside these tools, making collaboration more efficient for internal and external teams.

This was last published in May 2018

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