Competition in the workplace collaboration technology market has been heating up. While upstarts like Slack and Atlassian hit the enterprise market first, Microsoft, which previously considered purchasing Slack, introduced Microsoft Teams last fall, and Workplace by Facebook premiered in October.
A lot of time and money is being invested in workplace collaboration tools in an effort to help improve employee productivity and teamwork. Collaboration technology can improve an organization’s operational efficiency and competitiveness, according to a recent study by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services sponsored by Insight. The vast majority of the 421 respondents believe greater efficiency is an extremely valuable business result of collaboration tools.
In fact, more than 80% of the respondents said collaboration technology solutions can help organizations’ top business goals, while 90% said they expect collaboration technology to become more important to their organizations over the next two years.
Jonathan Nolen, principal product manager for HipChat at Atlassian, says his customers are experiencing a fundamental transformation in the way they work, primarily from an individual, siloed approach to one that centers on teamwork.
"Meeting today's complex challenges increasingly requires the power of a diverse team," said Nolen. Communication tools allow teams to collaborate around a "shared purpose, regardless of geography, skill-set, or hierarchy."
"As we shift from individual work to teamwork, CIOs are increasingly deploying collaboration tools that can help teams organize, discuss and complete work in an agile and efficient way," Nolan said. "Teams that use collaboration technology solutions are more autonomous, more responsive and ultimately more productive."
Of course, any tool that seeks to fundamentally improve the way people work together is bound to encounter some challenges. Despite the understood benefits, organizations have also struggled with some aspects of collaboration tools, according to the Harvard Business Review study.
For example, 46% of respondents said they are challenged by the inability to include contractors, consultants and other non-employees, while 40% complained of complicated set up and about one-third complained of difficulty of use.
Fortunately, makers of such tools are paying attention, and responding to help evolve tools and technologies.
"We are seeing the proliferation of both new and next generation technologies specifically designed with simplicity and the non-tech end user in mind," said Doug Fink, director of the collaboration practice at Insight. "This will help ensure that your employees use them and that they generate their promised return on investment."
While workplace collaboration tools can help teams change their behavior, and those teams can realize enormous benefits from adopting collaboration technology once they get use to the idea, Nolen said it can at first be uncomfortable for enterprise employees to break from the traditional work style they are used to.
Despite the improvements and enhancements to workplace collaboration tools over the last several months, there are still some fundamental shortcomings to enterprise chat, according to David Lavenda, technology and marketing strategist and harmon.ie co-founder. The primary issue? Chat is inherently a small group capability.
"Think about having a conversation with five people vs. 50 people — at some point, a few people become dominant, most people drop out or become observers," said Lavenda. "This is not a lack of functionality in chat in general or a missing component of Slack in particular, it is a fact about humans interact. Academic studies have shown that the effectiveness of chat drops off a cliff beyond a certain size group."
Lavenda believes enterprises need multiple channels to communicate. For example, sometimes it makes sense to speak directly, communicate within a small working group or reach a large audience. And often you need to exchange legally-binding written communications like contracts and proposals.
"Different tools work best for different kinds of communication," he said. "So, while Slack has added great features, companies like Microsoft which offer multiple communications tools like email, Teams, and Groups are still at an advantage when it comes to offering a full collaboration suite. On the other hand, Microsoft still has a huge task ahead trying to get all those tools to work together and to be built upon a common platform, so communications can span more than one modality."
That means Slack has a huge opportunity to work with partners, or be bought by a bigger player, to fill in its gaps to provide a full collaboration suite, Lavenda said.
Moving forward, the battle among workplace collaboration providers will likely be fought over ease of use, integration with existing platforms and pricing plans. And don’t be surprised if companies like Box and Slack combine force to make a run for today’s integrated platforms like Microsoft and Google.
"Regardless of who is left standing, at the end of the day, one type of collaboration tool is never enough – which means there is a huge opportunity for one of the successful upstarts to scoop up companies in related spaces and create a new integrated collaboration platform," said Lavenda.
So what are the keys to success? Experts agree that in order to implement workplace collaboration tools effectively, C-level executives must lead the charge.
But the Harvard Business Review study results revealed that these expectations aren’t quite met yet. While two-thirds of respondents agreed that their collaborative culture needs to be led by C-level executives, only half believe their executives are modeling this behavior.
"As with any organizational change, buy in from and leadership by the senior team is an imperative," said Fink. "They not only need to make a commitment in terms of investment, but also commit to using the tools themselves."
Nolen suggests IT leaders allow teams to self-organize and rally around specific problems, eliminate barriers by making it easy for anyone in the team to reach out to anyone else, reward transparency and foster cross-pollination.
"Create reasons for a diverse set of people to gather around shared interests," said Nolen. "These random, social interactions can connect into the flashes of insight that lead to true innovation. Once someone has experienced an environment like that, it's impossible to imagine working any other way."