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Towards a unified theory of enterprise collaboration

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright February 16, 2017
Understanding the center of gravity for enterprise collaboration and its evolution to become a crucial pillar of digital transformation

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Ever since the turn of the century, collaboration has been the missing pillar of enterprise software in the digital era. While there are clear leaders in each of the other main fields of business automation — finance, customers, people and spend — the collaboration market is all over the map, scattered across dozens of contenders and hundreds of also-rans.

This confused picture in enterprise collaboration reflects the huge transformation taking place in the past decade or so. Digital infrastructure, mobile tech and a new generation of applications have made it possible for us to connect and interact with each other and with our work wherever we are, whether that's just down the road or on the other side of the world. This has transformed not only how we work together, but also the nature of work and of the organizations we work for:

The traditional enterprise is ... structured around sequential processes designed to pass static documents internally from one functional department to another, carrying with them the information they need. Frictionless enterprise is structured around dynamic processes that connect digitally networked content, resources and participants, often criss-crossing organizational boundaries.

This new frictionless enterprise structure is supported and enhanced by digital collaboration that cuts across the old, artificial boundaries of documents, communication channels and functional silos. In a world of constant convergence and pervasive context, collaboration has become the glue that holds the digital enterprise together.

But collaboration on this scale is unfamiliar — it's far beyond what was possible or conceivable using previous generations of technology. So we've all been learning, trying out different tools and techniques to understand what works best, from Jive and Office 365 to Dropbox, Slack and the rest. Meanwhile, the tools themselves have been adapting in response to our trial and error, evolving the best fit for what we're starting to discover we can achieve with this powerful new technology.

Where's it all leading? New clarity has emerged in a cluster of product announcements in the first few weeks of 2017. One of the difficulties for vendors in the collaboration space has been that their products all started out as one or two niche features, whether in messaging or conferencing, file sync and share, document creation, or project management. The trick has been to extend out from those initial features to create a platform that's able to break down the boundaries — of documents, tools and applications — to enable truly frictionless communication and task completion.

As the leading platforms take shape, the big question left unresolved is, where does the center of gravity lie for collaboration in the digital enterprise? There are four possibilities.

  • Messaging — The rise of mobile notifications and intelligent agents has simplified collaboration to the point where many tasks can be completed just by viewing and responding to a message stream. But while the efficiency and immediacy of messaging is good for tasks that have to get done now, what about those that persist over time?
  • Content — Enterprise processes typically revolve around one or more items of content, whether that's a single transaction record such as a purchase order or a collection of documents that a sales team might use to close a deal, or a product team would work on while developing a new offering. The challenge with keying off content has been how to reliably make it available to multiple team members spread across many different locations.
  • Applications — Switching from one application to another to get things done causes unnecessary friction. Many people already spend much of their working day in one or two applications, so why not make collaboration part of that same environment rather than a separate activity?
  • Teams — Some forward-thinking enterprises are exploring flatter organizational structures where work gets done in autonomous, cross-functional teams that co-ordinate with other teams to meet agreed goals. Here, the members of each team agree how they'll collaborate and while the enterprise may recommend specific tools, the ultimate decision rests with the team.

Of course it's wrong to imply that these four options are mutually exclusive. Any successful collaboration platform will satisfy all four to a greater or lesser extent, accommodating messaging, content, applications and team autonomy alike.

In part two, I'll be reviewing the latest announcements from a cross-section of contenders, including Slack, Microsoft, Box, Google, Dropbox, Salesforce, Atlassian and several more. I'll evaluate how how they match up to the emerging demands of collaboration in the digital enterprise, give my verdict on who's furthest ahead, and draw some conclusions as to what that means for the future of enterprise collaboration.

See also:

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