The ups and downs of enterprise collaboration software

There's no shortage of enterprise collaboration tools available. Will a few rise to the top of the heap and gain critical mass among users?

As projects grow more complex, with workers logging in from remote locations, companies are trying to maximize productivity with enterprise collaboration software.

Companies need to give workers access to files even when they're not in the office -- and ensure that they work on the right version. Workers want easy, native ways to communicate about the documents they share, without having to install, learn and use entirely new apps to communicate effectively.

But enterprise collaboration software hasn't always been mature or full-featured enough to enable these capabilities. Users often use a patchwork of tools as a result, which tends to undercut the goals of centralization, collaboration and single versions of documents.

As a result, the story of enterprise collaboration tools is a mixed bag. There has been a proliferation of tools in the marketplace, and often departments within a company aren't in agreement on which tool to use. According to the 2014 AIIM survey Content Collaboration and Processing in a Cloud and Mobile World, of more than 400 respondents, 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.

Despite that, more than 60% of respondents to AIIM's survey say that internal collaboration tools are very important to getting the job done. However, 50% also say that their organization has shortfalls in technical support for internal collaboration.

A collaboration experiment

I polled 10 colleagues inside and outside my organization on which enterprise collaboration tools they use. Together, they listed 26 different tools that included Google Drive and Google Docs, Dropbox, Slack, Yammer, GitHub, Basecamp, Skype, Alfresco, and Google Hangouts.

Some of the tools address particular collaboration needs (such as the Confluence Wiki platform from Atlassian), while some are multipurpose (Basecamp). Some are taking a platform approach where a core tool, like Slack, opens itself for integration with other tools and capabilities.

As just one example of the rapid growth of the market, consider Slack, a cloud-based collaboration tool. Slack released a beta in August 2013 and reached a half-million users in February 2015. By the end of 2015, Slack had an estimated 2 million users.

"The proliferation of competing apps in all of the collaboration categories is only going to continue," said Frank Gilbane, founder of the Gilbane conferences and a technology analyst.

While collaboration tools have long been touted as email's replacement, it has yet to happen. That may be because of user frustration with features or integration with other tools.

"I'm not surprised when teams are reticent to chase the shiny new thing in collaboration," said Jake DiMare, a digital strategist and a frequent speaker on content technologies. He added that there is frustration with the proliferation of enterprise collaboration tools. "I also think organizations are right to be wary of the 'land and expand' strategy employed by many solutions," which then run a risk of leaving knowledge and data trapped in a solution that doesn't ultimately catch on. "Well-defined and properly communicated IT governance has become more important than ever," DiMare noted for collaboration software to succeed.

Mary Laplante, vice president of client services at Digital Clarity Group, added, "I see the perception of app fatigue influenced by a firm's and the team members' appetites for occasional chaos. I don't use the phrase with a negative connotation here, but as referring to that (usually temporary) state in which the existing order is suddenly upended." It's a cultural issue for Laplante. "Is the company willing to do the latest and greatest and deal with the disruption?"

This brings me back to my poll of colleagues -- and, by extension, the tools we use in my workplace. When I asked about which collaboration tools users prefer, only one Slack user emerged. But last week, a colleague started organizing a Slack user committee. We have 10 users signed up already.

But today's popular tool may be tomorrow's outdated tool. The marketplace for enterprise collaboration software is in flux and shifting. Slack has come out of nowhere, but it may not be an enduring tool, and there is no shortage of other options available from which to choose. Whether the market coalesces around a set of smaller, more viable collaboration tools remains to be seen. We'll be watching.

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