Despite early optimism driven by the prophets of Enterprise 2.0, messaging-centric platforms such as Yammer and Jive soon faltered in their promise, while digital content platforms such as Box and Dropbox have continued to grow. So too have Office 365 and G-Suite, the leading cloud platforms for aggregating enterprise email, documents, and messaging. Some have even argued for anchoring collaboration in an enterprise application such as CRM, HCM or ERP.
But this year, the center of gravity has suddenly shifted. Not merely because of the success of messaging newcomer Slack, although that has helped focus attention on the new paradigm. Three separate developments are converging in Slack, and in other similar messaging platforms, including Microsoft Teams and the newly launched Atlassian Stride. One is the context-rich, highly connected form of messaging that Slack represents. Another is the ready availability of cloud APIs and a new generation of tools for easily connecting into them. The final component is the advent of conversational computing, enabled by a new generation of AI capabilities and tools.
These factors combine to move the focus up a level and make it possible to anchor collaboration directly in the flow of work, rather than having to use an adjacent proxy such as a set of documents, a project schedule or a core application. Suddenly collaboration can take place where it belongs, in the workflow.
In retrospect it seems absurd to have taken so long to come round to the idea that workflow should be the definitive framework for collaboration. It's such a 'doh' moment. But that just illustrates how much our thinking gets trapped in the ways we've always done things. And it needed those other enablers to fall into place — contextually rich messaging platforms, cloud APIs, and intelligent agents we can converse with.
So let's take a step back and examine each of these points in more detail, to really understand where we've come from and why this new direction now makes sense in a way that it didn't before.
We thought it was all about content
Long before the invention of computing, enterprises were using documents to record and share information — in those days, writing things down and passing pieces of paper around was the only way to co-ordinate and track what was going on in an organization. Documents contain the background information that gives you the context they fit into. They can be signed and addressed, so that you know who has authorized them and who they are for. All of these paper-based processes have been digitized by computing, but until recently it has not otherwise changed them very much.
This history means that it seems only natural to organize collaboration around systems defined to create, store and share documents. The workflow can key off the content. Messaging has always been great for quick exchanges of information or even simple social interaction. But when a team wants to co-ordinate various activities to produce a defined outcome, sooner or later people are going to want to record and share information more systematically than a simple messaging system allows. This is why enterprise adoption of Box and Dropbox, as well as Office 365 and G-Suite, has been so much stronger than messaging-based systems — but now that's about to change.
Messaging acquires rich content
Early digital messaging systems such as Internet Relay Chat (IRC) on the Web or text messaging via SMS on a mobile phone quickly proved popular because of the immediacy of the medium. But it was not until the advent of multi-function smartphones, starting with the iPhone, that a new much more powerful form of mobile messaging application started to develop. Their power came from the context that the device was able to assemble automatically:
It already knows who I am because I signed in with my own passcode (or better still, my fingerprint). Thanks to geolocation, it knows where I am (and what time it is), and if there are sensors in the environment around me, it can connect to them and gather that data too ... So long as there’s wifi or a data signal, I’m connected to the enterprise’s cloud computing systems, which can deliver the necessary real-time information from elsewhere. All of this happens without me having to fill in or find a document.
Systems like Slack bring all this rich context into a simple, easy-to-use messaging system that runs on any device, whether it's a mobile phone, a laptop computer, or even a car. The next step is to plug in applications — this is where it starts to get really interesting.
Applications go API-crazy
As applications started to move to the cloud and to mobile, they needed to find new, more adaptable ways to connect to other systems. Instead of the inflexible, custom-built integrations of earlier generations of computing, they began to provide predefined APIs that were easy to connect to and exchange information. As Ross Mason, founder of fast-growing integration vendor MuleSoft, explains, this wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been for the Web opening things up:
The Web has been an excellent playbook for the enterprise to understand how you create composable units out of complex systems, and then drive agility and innovation by packaging up those building blocks in ways that make it really easy for any type of developer-consumer to discover and use.
These API connections allow applications to feed alerts and notifications into a messaging platform, using its rich context — including secure identity and access management credentials — to determine who should see that information, or to send back responses and approvals for action. This means people can now interact with applications from within the messaging stream, without having to actually visit each separate application. Now comes the final step.
Conversational AI fills in the gaps
The emergence of powerful new artificial intelligence (AI) technologies adds three powerful capabilities that help automate how people collaborate together.
The first is the ability to recognize and understand natural language, whether spoken or typed as a message. People no longer need to find the precise commands the application expects, because the AI has learned to understand many different permutations. Instead, they can speak to computing resources in much the same way that they speak to human colleagues.
A second element is the ability to create intelligent agents, which are able to automatically identify and offer timely information and alerts, follow through automated workflow, or make suggestions and ask questions to help narrow down what needs to happen next. These agents automate away repetitive actions that people previously had to perform over and over again.
The third element is the ability to learn from what others have done in the past and make recommendations, often suggesting options that an individual might not have thought of unaided.
The combination of these three AI-powered capabilities brings workflow automation directly into the messaging platform, without needing to anchor workflow to a content store or some other application — instead, those resources can be invoked from the message stream by intelligent agents or API integrations. Without injecting these AI capabilities, messaging lacked the ability to drive purposeful collaboration, but it becomes the perfect vehicle once they are added to the mix.
At the beginning of the year, I argued that content platforms had to be the center of gravity for collaboration in the digital enterprise. But developments this year have changed the landscape and now the combined effect of AI and APIs make it possible — actually preferable — to anchor collaboration in messaging.
Messaging can now become the core of a collaborative canvas that brings together all of the resources needed to co-ordinate enterprise teamwork. At last, enterprises can plan their digital collaboration strategy with some certainty that all the ingredients they're likely to need can be managed within this single framework, centered on messaging.