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Are digital collaboration apps the best answer to busywork?

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright August 21, 2019
Are Slack, G Suite, Teams and the rest the last word in digital enterprise collaboration or are they just emergency first-aid for the busywork in our lives?

Teamwork meeting at table with cloud thought bubble © alotofpeople -

Another week, another report from a digital collaboration vendor about how to spend less time on wasteful 'busywork' and become more efficient and productive. Last week it was Slack, this time it's Google. But an intriguing counterpoint comes from a blog post by former Greylock investor Kevin Kwok, who argues that Slack and other collaboration apps are little more than a sticking plaster, not the cure:

Slack is not air traffic control that coordinates everything. It’s 911 for when everything falls apart.

Every Slack message about a new document your feedback is wanted on or coordinating about what a design should look like is a failing of process or tools. Slack is exception handling. When there’s no other way to make sure someone sees an update, or knows context, Slack is the 911 that can be used.

I think there's a lot of truth in that statement, although I don't agree with the conclusion Kwok comes to — more on that in a moment. Where I do agree is that today's collaboration solutions are mostly finding success by solving failures in how organizations operate today. When it comes to teamwork in the digital era, most enterprises have 911 permanently on speed dial.

Chronic failings in enterprise collaboration

Many of the stats in Google's Make it work report, which claims to explore "the future of collaboration and productivity," bear out these chronic failings:

  • 58% of US workers feel "too swamped to think beyond their daily to-do lists" and say that 60% of their time is wasted on peripheral tasks — "attending fruitless meetings, managing high volumes of email, tracking down the latest versions of documents, switching between applications, and dealing with IT problems."
  • While 79% of business leaders emphasize the importance of "seamless, digital access to knowledge" to overall performance, "only 18% report that knowledge is shared extremely well across the entire company." Globally, a sobering 96% of workers say they "have trouble finding the most recent version of a file."
  • Business leaders recognize the value of more inclusive, flexible teamwork — 89% of executives say that to achieve business success, "new ideas must come from everyone across the organization, regardless of their role or seniority." But the workforce doesn't see that happening — 83% of global employees "say their C-suite leaders rarely collaborate or only do so on an ad hoc basis."

It's much better than what we had before

To be fair, the Google report as a whole takes a very positive line and proposes strategies and solutions to these failings. Unsurprisingly, G Suite comes out as a shining example of how collaboration and productivity can be improved. Uncannily similar to Slack's own findings last week, the Google report argues:

Cloud-based business solutions have the greatest impact on speed and productivity when they work together as an integrated suite and interoperate seamlessly with common third-party software. This allows you to complete entire workflows without toggling back and forth between apps or entering your credentials again and again (and again).

Despite Kwok's misgivings, the likes of Slack, G Suite, Microsoft Teams and many others continue to prosper because most enterprises have barely started down the path of enabling digital teamwork. That's hardly surprising, given that the ubiquitous connectivity, smart mobile devices and API-centric connectivity that enable these new ways of working have only been around for a few short years.

As a result, these collaboration platforms can deliver dramatic results simply because today's mess is so dire. They offer a huge step forward from drowning in back-and-forth emails, disjointed message trails, manually updated spreadsheets and multiple versions of the same document.

Doing work faster and better

But as Kwok points out in his essay, the goal isn't simply better collaboration. What people are actually trying to do is to get their work done faster and better. He argues that's best done in the apps they do their work in, not in some separate messaging overlay:

When things are running smoothly, work happens in the apps built to produce them. And collaboration happens within them. Going to Slack is increasingly a channel of last resort, for when there’s no established workflow of what to do. And as these functional apps evolve, there are fewer and fewer exceptions that need Slack. In fact, a sign of a maturing company is one that progressively removes the need to use Slack for more and more situations.

In his view, collaboration is moving inside of applications, whether that's Chatter and Quip in Salesforce, or the collaboration built into a modern cloud app like design tool Figma. He argues that as these in-app collaboration tools proliferate, the universe of exceptions — "else" — that requires an external platform like Slack will shrink. He then concludes by citing the example of Discord in the gaming world, which allows gamers to message and keep in touch with each other while they're playing any game or none.

My take

I think that final example is much closer to where we'll end up, and I would argue that Slack — or Teams, Dropbox, whoever — still has a chance of fulfilling that role. It's certainly true that collaboration must exist seamlessly in the flow of work, but most people's work inevitably spans more than one specific function — especially in these days of ever more granular functional apps. As Gartner analyst Larry Cannell pointed out in a Twitter thread responding to Kwok's article:

Therefore you need something like Discord that can operate both within each of those apps as well as around them — something that I would call a collaborative canvas. That ultimate framework for enterprise teamwork is still at a very early stage of maturity. It probably requires some degree of standardization that allows messaging and workflow to pass from one system to another, because no single vendor is ever going to fulfill every collaborative requirement across many different types of work.

It is also, as I've written previously, almost certainly going to live at a conversational layer, with functionality often accessed headlessly rather than firing up individual apps. It's also likely to include some kind of instrumentation of how people are interacting, as the likes of Asana are now exploring, along with AI-enabled feedback on how to improve performance. Interoperability there requires some kind of standardization on common work graph concepts, which is a discussion that has not even started.

In summary therefore I would say that we're still some way off the state-of-the-art in enterprise digital teamwork. And that's before you even start thinking about how people are going to adapt to using all these new tools. That's the missing element technologists often forget to take into account when they're projecting the future of work. As Barb Mosher Zinck concluded earlier this week in her look back at the evolution of Enterprise 2.0 and the digital workplace:

It’s not perfect, but the tools have advanced greatly. We need to focus on helping employees use those tools in the best way possible. And we aren’t done yet.

So, a long way to go on several fronts before we can eliminate all that busywork.

Image credit - Teamwork meeting at table with cloud thought bubble © alotofpeople -

Disclosure - Dropbox, Google, Salesforce and Slack have funded the author's travel to attend their events. Salesforce is a diginomica premier partner at time of writing.

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