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Is business collaboration software mostly for document sharing?

While sophisticated collaboration software can do more than enable workers to share documents, evidence suggests companies often want the basics.

Today, collaboration can't be based on workers getting up from their desks to talk to co-workers. As workforces have become increasingly global and scattered, enterprise information has become more chaotic and complex.

Workers need more than human interaction to get the job done. They need business collaboration software to centralize information, share documents, manage projects and communicate in real time, securely in a common space.

According to IDC's Worldwide Semiannual Software Tracker report, in mid-2014, the annual growth rate for collaboration software is now more than 10%. The tool sets are also growing more complex to accommodate sophisticated enterprise needs, with companies like Jive Software and Zimbra offering rich feature sets to enable communication and knowledge sharing.

But evidence suggests that workers want collaboration software to be simple. User fatigue with too many applications and skepticism about having to learn yet another app has created preference for collaboration tools such as cloud-based file-sharing systems.

We're not willing to commit that much capital to perfect document control.
Barry Keungstructural engineer, Hardesty & Hanover

According to AIIM's 2014 Content Collaboration and Processing in a Cloud and Mobile World report, internal collaboration is "crucial" for 63%, and sharing of documents is by far the most common need for collaboration tools (80%), with workflows (50%) and project sites for teams (43%) a distant second and third.

"Inevitably, many users will turn to consumer cloud file-sharing services such as Dropbox, Skydrive, iCloud, Google Drive and YouSendIt," the report concluded.

Just document sharing?

If there isn't yet a "killer app" ready to swoop in and overtake email collaboration, using other tools for narrower needs is the name of the game -- enabling workers to share documents, for example.

At Centric Projects in Kansas City, Mo., co-founder and partner Richard Wetzel said his company uses other applications to manage projects and to communicate internally, but the company really needed a way to centralize documents and store them -- without having to manage the infrastructure to do so.

Cloud-based Dropbox, a file-sharing application that enables workers to access files from a central location, has eliminated the need for the company to manage and pay for servers and has enabled remote or off-site workers to access documents.

Everyone uses Dropbox all day long, and we have never needed to invest in the hardware: servers.
Richard Wetzelco-founder and partner, Centric Projects

"At some point, we asked ourselves, 'Do we need to ever invest in a server?', and we decided, 'No, we don't,'" Wetzel said. "We have 45 people now, 125 devices [laptops, tablets and phones]. Everyone uses Dropbox all day long, and we have never needed to invest in the hardware: servers."

But tools like Dropbox still have a way to go in terms of more complex document management. It has yet to solve core issues like version control, where multiple employees can work on the same document without overwriting one another's changes. This is why more complex, heavy and costly software like enterprise content management (ECM) tools have made inroads in the market. But smaller companies may not worry as much about version control -- at least Centric Projects doesn't.

"I think people work on the same document less than people think," he said. "We found that your files are your files, and people aren't getting in that often. And if they are, they are getting in to review, but not necessarily to make changes."

Wetzel says that the company has created a workaround to identify possible file conflicts. "Once a week we do a search for any files with the word conflict in the filename to identify files that may be in conflict with one another," Wetzel said. "If files have specific problems, we say, 'OK, you two, there may be conflicts and you have to resolve them.'"

Collaborating not ready for prime time?

While Wetzel said version control isn't a huge concern for Centric Projects, other companies have turned to collaboration tools for document control -- without breaking the bank.

With headquarters in New York, Hardesty & Hanover LLP, a bridge engineering firm with offices throughout the U.S., looked at file-sharing tools like Box and Dropbox, but ultimately decided it wanted a cost-effective tool that was also user-friendly and had good document version control. The firm's marketing department had used another collaboration tool, but adoption was poor because the tool was clunky.

Once the company turned to Huddle, a tool for team collaboration, adoption at the firm took off. After piloting Huddle on a project, use has spread enterprise-wide, growing from 25 users to 250. In Huddle's debut project, engineers that were located in different parts of the country needed to be able to communicate with other team members and get sign-offs on drawings and calculations from senior engineers. So the company turned to Huddle to enable multiple people to view and edit files without concerns about overwriting changes.

When the firm piloted Huddle, "We couldn't just rely on [phone calls and email]. We wanted to improve how we handled document control," said Barry Keung, a structural engineer at the firm.

While Keung said the tool serves the firm's purposes for certain projects and it has brought Huddle enterprise-wide, it doesn't use it for live files, only files for preparatory phases of a project. The company isn't ready to put the company's crown jewels -- live drawings for sites and active projects -- in a cloud only-based service and risk data exposure, document overwriting and other hazards.

"We're not ready for that yet," Keung said. "I prefer to have [live files] at headquarters. But I'm sure that will change as the landscape changes." While he doesn't foresee using Huddle for production files, the increasing globalization of the company may require some other way of collaborating across physical boundaries.

Collaborate -- when you can

Evidence indicates that companies are still bringing on tools in a patchwork way to address specific needs rather than using a single application to cover all collaboration tasks, such as document management, real-time communication, meeting organization and social networking. Companies often hew to a few specific uses and continue to rely on other tools for the things that collaboration software doesn't do as well.

Ultimately, Keung said, the firm needed a tool to share files without breaking the bank. "We're not willing to blow a million dollars for some highfalutin, cloud-based engineering file thing with caching servers in all our offices," he said. "We're not willing to commit that much capital to perfect document control."

And it's still a two-way experiment, Keung said. Companies, too, are still pivoting, and trying to figure out what users really value in collaboration software and how to build that functionality into their tools.

"Every [vendor] is doing the same thing: making their way into the enterprise space and seeing which new features they can provide to clients."

For more on how companies are using collaboration tools, see part two on enterprise uses of collaboration for crowdsourcing.

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Does your organization use business collaboration software? For more than file sharing?
We use a variety of tools, such as email, Jabber for instant messaging, Webex for  screen sharing and meetings, and Sharepoint for file sharing and wiki pages.