Proliferating enterprise collaboration tools reshape the workplace

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Enterprise collaboration tools get their mojo

Companies have struggled to show ROI for enterprise collaboration software, but the tide may be turning as organizations securely extend collaboration beyond their walls.

Susan Schneider was in a meeting in Shanghai when it hit her that there was a better way to communicate with her team -- and with suppliers -- than resorting to email.

As Schneider scrolled through the Chatter news feeds generated by the collaboration software embedded in her company's CRM software tool, Sales Cloud, she realized something: The updates provided by enterprise collaboration tools contain key information that wasn't readily available via her inbox.

"I felt more connected to the people in our company than I ever had," said Schneider, president of Plus Relocation Services Inc. in Minneapolis. "And it wasn't a matter of them having to copy me on an email. I realized, 'I know what's going on.'"

Plus Relocation helps companies move employees across the country, or across the globe. The company works as a point of central location to shepherd all aspects of the move, helping to sell homes, identifying schools for children of relocated workers, and getting visas for workers moving to new countries. Plus Relocation enables all specialists and suppliers focusing on a move to work together cohesively.

To move beyond email and enable the company's counselor-specialists, suppliers and workers to communicate more effectively, Schneider purchased collaboration software licenses for Salesforce Community Cloud -- and the move has paid off.

Collaboration tools make work easier

Although enterprise collaboration tools make work easier by centralizing documents and communication, many companies have struggled to justify the associated licensing fees. These platforms include Jive, Huddle, Slack, Chatter, Jira, SharePoint, Basecamp and others. Collaboration tools were all the rage a few years ago -- promising a new era of teamwork -- but the narrative of enabling teamwork fell flat more than it rang true.

As a result, companies have to rationalize collaboration software purchases based on cost savings, streamlining business operations and improving customer experience. For Plus Relocation and many other companies, one way to achieve both is by bringing partners within the company's four walls -- without compromising security. Instead of having to grant suppliers login information to access documents that reside on a company's network or, worse, having to email files (which creates version-control and security issues), a collaboration platform enables enterprises to make common files available from a secure, central location.

According to industry experts, bringing partners closer to work processes has been pivotal in making enterprise collaboration tools more than a nice-to-have and an essential part of doing business. "It's gone from being a digital water cooler but not something that helps them to get their work done" to experiencing adoption in specific scenarios where collaboration promotes efficiency, said Craig Le Clair, a Forrester Research analyst. One key scenario is the ability to bring partners into the business, which makes "collaboration more productive than it has been in the past."

Moving to formal enterprise collaboration tools

Plus Relocation's sales and marketing teams used the Salesforce Sales and Marketing clouds, but until 2015 the company didn't have a formal enterprise collaboration tool for its counselor-specialists, suppliers and workers to communicate.

Instead, the company used a homegrown portal that housed static documents. But the portal offered no meaningful interaction between transferees and counselors. They couldn't work on common files, nor could transferees ask questions of other transferees or counselors in real time. All communication took place in email, which posed version-control issues for files and posed security problems.

"There wasn't engagement," Schneider said. "Employees and counselors could download something, but it was a passive portal, static. They needed two-way interaction."

[Employees and counselors] needed two-way interaction.
Susan Schneiderpresident, Plus Relocation Services

Today, Plus Relocation counselors, employees and suppliers log in to the same community, attach or edit documents, comment using Chatter or upload key status updates and documents, from mortgage documents to schedules for a move across country. For example, transferees can enter a secure community and ask another about, say, the best neighborhoods to live in in South Korea or school systems in Chicago.

"Now we can put transferees at the center of the process and invite all the suppliers we work with -- contact counselor, the mortgage person, the real estate broker -- into that process," Schneider said.

The benefits of community building

For companies like Plus Relocation, creating a centralized community has not only created operational efficiencies but also boosted sales. Since April 2015, when it brought on the Salesforce Community Cloud, the relocation services company has experienced a 50% increase in sales conversion rates for new customers.

The moving services consultancy went live with a self-service community for employees to manage their own moves (Elo Assist) in April 2015, and a client community for HR workers handling the move for employees (Elo for Mobility Teams) launched in November 2015.

Plus Relocation has some items on the wish list, though. One is greater mobile app functionality for Community Cloud.

"Some of the apps in Saleforce1 [the Salesforce mobile platform] aren't ready for the community yet," Schneider said. Mobile apps require fewer clicks and stripped-down menus and workflows to make tasks easy to accomplish on the limited real estate of a mobile device. Field service workers "up on a pole," for example, need a streamlined app.

Another wish-list item is to be able to integrate the data that resides in a workforce management application like Workday for staff scheduling and other HR information with other Salesforce apps.

"If we could just bring in information on employees from Workday into Salesforce, it would make things so much easier," Schneider said. The ability to integrate data between the Plus Relocation's CRM and Workday would preempt time-consuming and error-prone data re-entry.

Salesforce recently debuted Field Service Lightning, with new field service capabilities that may benefit mobile workers trying to access information in Plus Relocation communities.

Collaboration brings greater efficiency to clinical trials

Other companies are using collaboration software like Community Cloud to give partners real-time information to improve operations. Continuum Clinical, a healthcare research and communications company, uses marketing so pharmaceutical companies can identify and recruit patients for clinical research trials.

Continuum Clinical works with research sites to facilitate data gathering generated from these trials. It also creates a community of practitioners who can gather and discuss issues related to patient recruitment in a secure environment. If a particular trial encounters challenges recruiting patients, for example, Continuum can try to identify the problem through interaction in the community and, possibly, recruit additional patients.

"[If facilities running trials are] going through the process of seeing whether they qualify for a study, and they are failing for some reason," said Sean Reed, head of product management at Continuum Clinical, "maybe because of the medications they're taking -- if researchers are seeing this rate increase," we can go into the community and ask, 'Who else is seeing this?' And possibly learn from other clinical sites a way to circumvent this."

This offers an opportunity to use the data to improve the number of patients that can be recruited for a trial. "When we can run that against our historical data set and come out of that with a clearer action plan," Reed said, "that will position us at the table even better than we are today."

While data is currency for Continuum Clinical, the company isn't chomping at the bit to use a key feature of the Community Cloud, which is embedded analytics on community pages via the Analytics Cloud. Salesforce delivered embeddable Wave Analytics in the Community Cloud in March.

The ability to present data directly on a page where employees are already working is beneficial for Continuum Clinical. The company is developing its own product, due this summer, to provide research sites with a data set on their clinical trials and the factors that have enabled them to achieve a certain patient goal -- or not.

But Reed said he wants to take an incremental approach to using tools like embedded analytics with the Analytics Cloud.

"We're going to start with standard dashboards and reports capability," he said

Huddle up, get rid of collaboration patchwork

Although designed to bring partners closer to company processes, collaboration software can't do it all. Some companies need to enlist other applications to handle additional processes, such as project management.

It's common to have a patchwork of tools for document sharing, real-time messaging and project management.

It's common to have a patchwork of tools for document sharing, real-time messaging and project management. Of more than 400 respondents to the 2014 AIIM survey Content Collaboration and Processing in a Cloud and Mobile World, 53% have different systems in use, often with overlapping capabilities. That can make centralization of information and collaboration difficult, because there's no common system among departments.

Initially, Pacific, a digital marketing agency in San Mateo, Calif., enlisted Huddle, a collaboration software platform, to help resolve the crazy quilt of enterprise collaboration tools that had been in use -- though it hasn't solved the problem completely.

Ivette Ralph, Pacific's operations supervisor, said the company turned to Huddle after using the file-sharing cloud-based application Dropbox and encountering issues with data privacy and document version control. According to Ralph, the marketing team had instituted a protocol for updating documents so workers wouldn't overwrite the most current file, but it had little impact on user practices.

"People weren't changing the version number on the name of the file," Ralph said. "It created a lot of confusion and mess-ups." Once Pacific employees started working in Huddle, users no longer had to identify the latest version; that's an automatic feature of the tool. "It's very clear to see who updated it last and what version you're on," Ralph said. "Now we say, 'No file-sharing outside of Huddle.'"

Huddle was key to bringing clients into the process. "With clients, it became so much easier," Ralph said. "There are a lot of moving pieces, a lot of people that touch the documents before they are finalized. There's no room for mistakes about versions between us and our client."

At the same time, Huddle hasn't eliminated the need for other collaboration applications. Pacific uses Asana project management, for example, to keep everyone on task. Although Huddle links can be embedded in Asana to link to files, Pacific workers work in multiple applications "100% of the time," Ralph said.

Building a community takes time

If enterprise collaboration tools haven't solved the "patchwork problem" of requiring multiple apps, user resistance can also block the usefulness of these tools. Ultimately, tools like Huddle and Community Cloud necessitate some change management to ensure user adoption. Plus Relocation's Schneider said that although the collaboration tool creates a common workspace that's easy to use, employee adjustment is par for the course.

"There's a paradigm shift of working in Chatter versus email," Schneider said. Users "like it … but it takes getting used to."

Similarly, Pacific's Ralph said Huddle took some evangelizing among clients who were accustomed to email and phone rather than going into a central location. One client continued to ask questions in email, and Ralph's response was to refer her to the files in Huddle. Finally, the client relented and started logging in to Huddle.

"After she tried it, she stopped reaching out to us in email as much, and she could go into Huddle to find what she needed," Ralph said. "Things got easier for all of us."

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