Just as the Apple Newton was an idea ahead of its time in the evolution of the tablet computer, the ill-fated Google Wave stands as an abortive precursor of today's emerging digital collaboration tools. Designed as a platform that would combine core functionality from email, instant messaging, wikis and social networking, Wave tried to do too much too soon.
It was not the first attempt at what Microsoft ten years earlier had called a "universal canvas ... enabling users to interactively create, browse, edit, annotate and analyze information.” (Hat-tip a June 2003 ReadWriteWeb article). Technologists have long aspired to build a universal, collaborative canvas as the ideal platform for digital teamwork.
In 2017, the dream is finally taking shape. Just as Apple's iPhone used the nascent user interface technology of touch to reinvent the tablet computer, so today the rise of conversational computing is providing the final piece of the puzzle to complete the picture.
This conclusion, however, was not evident at the beginning of the year, when I set out to map the future of enterprise collaboration. It seemed clear that purposeful collaboration needed to be rooted in some kind of structure. But at the time, I could only conceive of some form of connected document as the container for that structure.
As I continued my research, other structures came to light that proved equally valid. I found that, rather than anchoring collaboration in a container designed for content, a more universal approach is one that channels collaboration in a container designed for workflow. Thus the definition of the collaborative canvas I'll outline today has changed since I first mooted the concept.
Kanban meets conversational computing
One of the factors in this change of heart was discovering the rise in the use of Kanban to organize workflow in digitally connected teams. Originating in Japanese lean manufacturing, Kanban is a system that displays the work a team needs to do as a picklist of atomic tasks. The structure is not a document, but a noticeboard organized into sets of cards, giving team members visibility of work in progress and what needs to be done next. Kanban has spread beyond manufacturing into agile development, customer service, and sales and marketing teams, leading me to conclude:
This self-service transparency is why Kanban is going to become more and more prevalent in the digital enterprise. Kanban is a tool that’s uniquely suited for supporting agile, iterative work patterns in distributed, highly collaborative teams.
The second factor has been the rise of conversational computing, a new way of interacting with computers in natural language, whether by speech or messaging, enabled by artifical intelligence. This means users can access functions or information from a range of applications simply by conversing with an intelligent agent or chatbot.
This creates a phenomenon I've been calling headless applications. Back in the early days of cloud computing, the computers that went into data centers were known as 'headless servers' because they no longer needed keyboards and monitors. Similarly, conversational computing creates 'headless applications' that don't need a keyboard and screen for users to interact with them.
A big deal for messaging in digital teamwork
This development is a very big deal for messaging platforms, because it means they can become the primary medium for interacting with a wide range of applications. By partnering with a workflow automation platform such as Workato to provide the integration and workflow processes, they can become a purposeful collaboration canvas for many different teamwork goals.
This doesn't automatically mean that the messaging vendors have won the battle to become the center of gravity for collaboration and teamwork in the digital enterprise. But it does put the likes of Slack back in contention, alongside Dropbox, Box, Atlassian, Microsoft and Salesforce. Each of these vendors offer some form of collaborative canvas that provides a structure for purposeful teamwork. That structure doesn't have to be a document, so long as it offers some way of representing, organizing and tracking the work the team has to complete.
What does this mean for enterprises and their collaboration platform choices? All of these platforms will continue to evolve, and none currently offers a complete solution — even if there are winners, they will tend to support an ecosystem of different add-ons around a core platform, rather than a one-size-fits-all solution. Today, therefore, an enterprise should aim to settle on a combination of offerings that bring together the various components required to support effective digital collaboration.
Eight characteristics of collaborative canvas
At the core of this architecture there should be some form of collaborative canvas — a flexible, connected framework for participants to digitally share, organize, track and progress the work of a team. That canvas must be a platform that either natively — or, more often, via a partner ecosystem — provides all of the following eight capabilities:
- Messaging — the immediacy of messaging means it's invaluable for rapidly resolving queries and crises, and also helps build team camaraderie. It's useful to be able to hop out of text-based chat into voice or video conversations for more complex discussions. And as mentioned above, messaging is increasingly important as an interface into applications and other AI-enhanced resources.
- Content — shared content is such a pervasive feature of enterprise collaboration that I originally argued that content bests messaging when it comes to selecting an enterprise collaboration platform. I've now revised that view, but it's still essential to make access to content as frictionless as possible.
- Sync — a crucial aspect of handling content in digitally connected teams is making sure that everyone's on the same page — literally. Without sync, you'll rapidly descend into version control hell.
- Search — one of the most frequently cited statistics about collaboration is the time wasted searching for people, content, context, policy and many other essential resources. A comprehensive search capability is crucial — one that quickly fetches answers and reaches deep into content stores, applications, databases and people directories.
- Applications — seamless connections into applications are a crucial component of effective collaboration. There are two ways to achieve this. Many enterprise applications are integrating powerful collaboration capabilities. But as I've described above, that trend is now being superseded by powerful integration capabilities that subsume applications into messaging platforms.
- People — amidst all this technology, it's important to remember that teams are people, working together to achieve outcomes. Platforms and the organizations who use them must pay attention to the human dynamics of teamwork to achieve optimal performance.
- Permissions — enterprise governance demands that collaboration platforms manage and track who has access to what. Identity and access management is therefore a crucial component that either has to be part of the core platform or, increasingly, is handled via a single sign-on provider.
- Workflow — the final ingredient is some kind of framework for sharing and tracking progress towards the intended outcome of collaboration. Often this will be implicit in how the collaboration platform is configured rather than being implemented as a formal Kanban process. The crucial point is to have visibility into what needs doing next and who is responsible for making it happen.