Proliferating enterprise collaboration tools reshape the workplace

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What's next for workplace collaboration?

Workplace collaboration tools are becoming an integral part of efficient teamwork -- and the software is finally catching up.

Make no mistake, 2016 was a busy year for the workplace collaboration market. As companies in the global marketplace become more dispersed across various regions, the antidote to far-flung work teams has been workplace collaboration technology. Of course, technology is only part of the answer to this problem; collaboration also depends on an organization's culture.

Microsoft launched Teams for Office 365, and Facebook finally brought out Workplace by Facebook. Slack software stepped up the competition with plans to provide integration with Google's Team Drive. Atlassian -- which has several collaborative tools on the market -- unveiled a data center version of HipChat, a group chat, file sharing and videoconferencing product.

These tools join dozens of other competitors, from stand-alone apps such as Glip, Ryver, Zinc, Teamwork and Hibox to enterprise platform products like SAP Jam, IBM Connections Suite and Salesforce Chatter. Revenues from the worldwide enterprise messaging app market are expected to top $1.9 billion by 2019, according to Compass Intelligence, an IT market research company. If we add collaborative tools like file sharing, social networking and videoconferencing to the category, the market is due to reach $8.4 billion in 2020, market research firm Apps Run the World stated in its report on the worldwide collaboration applications market.

The demand for collaborative apps emanates from the increasing youth and social media savvy of workers as well as the inability of email messages to handle the communication overload that a typical worker faces. By 2020, 50% of global workers will be millennials, noted Craig Le Clair, principal analyst for enterprise architecture at Forrester Research. Millennials have grown up with sundry new online tools, from texting and instant messaging to wikis and Facebook. They want work tools like the social media and chat apps they use in their private life, Le Clair explained. At the same time, Le Clair noted, the amount of email the average employee receives is overwhelming, and it all must be opened, read, responded to, forwarded or deleted. These workers are eager for alternative tools to help them organize and even automate some of that workload.

Too much email is what drove Hawk Ridge Systems' decision to evaluate messaging apps for its 200 employees scattered among 15 offices in the U.S. and Canada. They chose Glip, a cloud-based tool owned by VoIP provider RingCentral, which has real-time messaging, group chat, videoconferencing, shared calendars, task management and file sharing all in one place. "I've gone from 100 to 200 emails per day down to around 30 a day," said Samuel Eakin, operations manager at Hawk Ridge Systems. "Employees have said it makes it easier to connect with each other."

Bringing order to communication chaos

Cloud-based applications like Glip, Slack and Teams give users a way to corral their conversations and work collaborations into one place -- accessible from desktops, tablets or smartphones -- without having to sort through email messages, log into multiple apps or travel for meetings. Typical features can include team spaces or pages, real-time chat, screen sharing, file sharing, surveys, whiteboards, videoconferencing, task management and group calendars.

Analytics is the future of collaboration.
Craig Le Clairprincipal analyst, Forrester Research

Historically, app fatigue has been a hurdle for workplace collaboration; users have to log into numerous apps to collaborate, which can create more work in the course of collaboration. Feature complexity and needless add-ons were also a problem in the past. But today, many vendors are providing open APIs and integration with other collaborative tools, instead of building new features into their products. For example, Ryver, a Slack competitor, has integrations with a dozen or more products, from the customer service app ZenDesk and workflow tool GitHub to Wrike, a project management app, and Box, for cloud-based file sharing. Slack has app partners in 17 areas, including analytics, file management, human resources, productivity and security.

Adam Davis, chief marketing officer at technology startup Thingthing Ltd. in London, uses several integrations with Slack, including Google services and Freshdesk, a customer service app, so that communications from Freshdesk show up in Slack.

Other cloud tools enable users to integrate and automate simple workflows. Cloudpipes, billed as "duct tape for the internet," lets users create integrations and automate tasks between cloud applications. Davis uses Zapier to automate action between apps. For instance, if someone posts an event to the global calendar, it will also get posted to a Slack channel. Those kinds of integrations enable customers to use a stand-alone chat app as a hub with links to other communication channels and work apps.

Chatbots and digital assistants

The market for industry-specific tools is also heating up, said Jordan Jewell, a research analyst at IDC. Consider regulated industries that require more security features than a generic chat app can provide. "You'll see more vertical products such as in healthcare that are HIPAA-compliant," Jewell said, citing TigerText, a healthcare messaging app, as a tool that addresses the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and Symphony, a financial services app. "Companies that focus on a niche spot will find they're a lot richer when they do that."

Another trend under way is the injection of analytics and automation in the form of chatbots and smart bots. Chatbots and digital assistants to automate simple tasks -- including cross-posting messages, tracking updates to a document, or answering questions -- are already available. Apple's Siri is one of the best-known examples. The next likely step, experts predict, is AI agents in collaborative apps to help handle the flood of daily messages and information. Experts predict intelligent agents will analyze conversations, automate responses, schedule meetings based on your priorities and handle other tasks that a human assistant might perform -- if most of us could have human assistants.

"Machine learning will become more integrated," Jewell predicted, "so an app will complete processes for you or pull information from past meetings, discussions, etc., without pressing a single button." In October 2016, IBM previewed its Watson Workspace application, which uses cognitive APIs to learn a worker behavior to identify priority messages, consolidate others and automate everyday communication tasks.

"Analytics is the future of collaboration. You're going to see it in 2017," said Le Clair, noting that the value of collaborative applications lies in the ability to bring intelligence and order to an often-disorganized workplace. "It's the ability to rank and surface information. It's not in just text messaging in small groups."

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