Collaboration in 2015 : between email and new interfaces

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Email is dead, long live email. If many announcements were made in 2014 regarding to collaboration solutions, I guess few people had predicted that the rock star of the year would be the good old email we’ve been trying to eradicate for the last 8 years. The funny thing is that everyone even finds this normal, as if email appeared to be the most accomplished form of…enterprise social network. The beginning of this new year is the right moment to have a look at the collaboration solution industry and the current trends.

Enterprise social networks between slowing and maturity

To start, let’s have a look at the designated inheritant of the email king, inherant who’ve been struggling to ascend the throne for years. Are enterprise social networks out of fashion ? Not at all but :

we have a problem with social collaboration. A problem that’s not about technology but as long as we don’t manage to handle the human and organizational side of digital transformation, enterprise social networks go to businesses like a screen door on a submarine.

– despite appearances, many businesses don’t feel any urgency and/or don’t have leaders capable of leading such a transformation.

– most products have become mature over time. This means the end of flashy product announcements as we’ve moved to a phase of incremental improvement, what gives the false impression that the matter is running out of steam. Anyway, I think that 95% businesses are incapable of making the most of more than 20% of the capabilities of existing products so this is not a valid argument.

– except in some niches, activity specific social software did not make it to the workplace. The required integration have not been done what isolates social networks from the real work of employees.

– we did not manage to move the center of gravity of the workplace from the email to the social network. Obviously because of the above points.

Enterprise social networks are not dead but we’ve reached the limit of what businesses can do with it as things stand.

Email is back, but not your grandfather’s !

This is the context in which some announcements came and woke the collaboration community up.

First Google, with  Inbox.

Then  Microsoft with Office Graph and Office Dwelve.

And IBM with IBM Verse I’ve already deeply talked about here.

I’m not going to elaborate that much on the differences between the three products. Simply put, let’s say that Inbox is rather a tool helping to better manage one’s inbox, IBM Verse an integrated, smart and fully integrated collaboration environment and that Microsoft stands somewhere in the middle.

However, some common denominators can be found that – in my opinion – will shape the collaborations solutions market for the next years.

1°) Fix information management before collaboration

Collaboration means managing people and information. In the age of extended networks and considering the growing amount of received/accessible information, people’s first problem is to retake control control over their flows, prioritize, be able to find their way in the information mess.

The matter is not new but things are getting worse each and every day and we have to admit that enterprise social networks did not help to fix the issue. They even caused more confusion.

2°) Come back to the center of gravity of the work environment

The center of gravity of the work environment has remained the email client. That’s where anyone can find the basics of work : address book, calendar and…emails that are still the simplest way to exchange with anybody (everybody has an email, inside and outside the company). As a matter of fact, numbers show that the number of corporate emails is continuously growing, even if its use is far from being optimal. If social networks provide functionalities that makes them superior to email, employees start with their basics that are the agenda and the address book. No matter you provide employees with lots of new functionalities : as long as you’re not covering the basics they won’t follow you.

However, it does not make social networks irrelevant. A mistake has often been make in the war against email : businesses tackled email as a signal and email as a client at the same time. Even if email was perceptible as a signal, employees did not want to leave a client they knew well and became comfortable with over time. Moreover most vendors started to offer extensions allowing to use enterprise social network solutions from the email client, what helped to put the network back in some people’s  environment as they were open to new forms of collaboration but were not likely to leave an environment they knew, mastered and in which they could find their basics.

Whatever the way people collaborate they expect to be able to do it where they are, where they want to, where their comfort zone is. In the email client in the first place and even in the body of an email with things like IBM’s embedded experience.

That’s the realization of a trend I identified two years ago : we’re moving from social networks as applications to social collaboration platforms. With APIs, Open standards, it’s easy to roll out social functionalities anywhere, in any application, without requiring end users to use a specific application to use them.

That’s not the email winning against social networks but, paradoxically, a victory of social networks that are making their way in the email, on the enemy’s ground. And that’s the following point.

3°) Unify the the work environment

I mentioned clients and signal in the previous point. In the field of collaboration we’ve always tied a form of collaboration to a kind of signal (email, microblog, forum, blog etc) and the the signal to a client. Each way of working meant using a given tool, and people had to switch tools as often as they switched collaboration modes. That’s a techo-centric vision that has little understanding of user’s needs and expectations regarding to experience.

While some think in terms of containers, users think in terms of work. No matter they receive something in their instant messaging, via a blog, a microblog or an email…that’s only incoming signals and as more and more kind of signals were usable in the workplace, it came with more and recipients users were split between.

If we take the example of IBM Verse, employees are still using a wide range of tools allowing many forms of collaboration from a single screen. They can reroute messages from a channel to another, share the email they received as a blog post etc.

That has a lot to do with my first point : by bringing everything in a single environment its easier to use smart systems to sort and prioritize all the flows.

So email is back. But not the email we’ve been used to before.

Search and analytics at the heart of intelligent collaboration environment

That leads me to wonder about the hidden side of collaboration environments. Collaboration has long been about “what people do together” and, because of information overload, it’s becoming “what machines to for people so they can do things together”.

Behind these three solutions we can find a common denominator : the massive use of analysis and prediction tools to help people to focus on what matters now.

Vendors are finally addressing one of the biggest reproaches I used to make to enterprise collaboration initiatives : businesses used to multiply tools, focus on use cases and always overlooked search related issues while it was becoming more and more important as the volume of information was growing and was stored in as many silos as there are tools.

In this context the lack of unified search engines lead to the worse use case of enterprise social networks : using colleagues as search engines. On the other hand, years ago and even before vendors understand how critical it was, some businesses made the search engine a part of their social collaboration initiatives and that allowed them to achieve great results. As a matter of fact, beyond search as such, indexing all content whatever the application hosting them allowed something else : the use of recommendation mechanisms.

Today and as we can see it’s become a no-brainer. Effective collaboration won’t happen without intelligent mechanisms to sort, prioritize and push relevant information based on the user’s context.

If in 2015 you’re not planning to move to Office Dwelve or IBM Verse but rather deploy a “standalone” enterprise social network, don’t forget to make unified search a part of your initiative.

Whatever, these intelligent agents will play a key role in collaboration. Either as intermediaries, human relationship facilitators, starting a move from “human to human” to “human to machine to human”, or by replacing humans as I explained here.

I’ve been saying again and again that many businesses think they have a collaboration and sharing problem while they actually have a search problem for years but it seems that new generation collaboration platforms will finally fix it.

Objects will become the new collaboration interface

Once we’ve mentioned intelligent agents as a new collaboration interface, we can’t overlook a more long term trend : connected objects. As a matter of fact if we consider that collaboration means turning information into action, connected object must be a part of any enterprise collaboration platform.

As Frederic Charles said, connected objects don’t change the basics. They only make it easier to gather more information, faster than if had to enter them manually. This is going to change some things in the collaboration landscape :

– make it easier to have more information about other people to better locate the right person at the right time and understand his/her context. There is no collaboration without knowing others.

– allow a more informed and contextual collaboration

– move collaboration interface to new devices and screens (glasses, watches…)

Collaboration moves from craft to industrial age

We explored many things in the field of collaboration these last 10 years, mainly on the social side. But it has remained a side activity, mostly adopted by believers or advanced people, often in organizations with the right mindset and cultures. Nothing will be thrown away but the step step is to move it in a more rationalized context to make things possible for as many people as possible. That’s a move from the craft age to the industrial age.

Image Credit : Enterprise social Software by leedsn via Shutterstock

  • Dion Hinchcliffe

    Bertrand, overall I tend to agree that we’ve reached a (someone lower) limit of what’s possible with ESNs in most organization. However, I would suggest that the monoculture of top platforms is part of the issue. Lack of enlightened leaders is a significant challenge too.

    But it’s really not as bad as all that. In my work, I do see that many organizations are just getting work done with #socbiz tools of all kinds and not going out of their way to tout it.

  • SamNisaka

    Excellent analysis. Surprisingly, small vendors (like Bitrix24 for example) in my opinion are moving toward ‘Unified Workplace’ than IBM, Microsoft and others, even though they have more resources and experience in the field. Any idea why that is?

  • Alvaro Busetti

    very interesting post (i.e. point of view)… I would add “people already use e-mail as a collaboration tool, so why not change e-mail clients into collaboration clients ? (as a matter of fact is what those players are trying to do…)”

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  • Amos Ahola

    Excellent analysis from Bertrand! The core problem of most enterprise collaboration is that it’s not meant for work – you wouldn’t use Facebook to do and manage your daily work, so you can’t use Yammer or Slack for that either. For your daily work, you need a fast tool that gives you an overview on what you need to do next and where you need to be, and keeps track on what you have already done and what not. Outlook is a damn fine tool in these aspects.

    Your daily work is where 95% of your daily communication and collaboration takes place, and all that is inaccessible by others in your .pst file.

    Having proper contextuality allows a common structure for that 95% so that it won’t overwhelm everyone, and we can finally move that 95% outside email protocol.

    Incidentally, this was our goal with Collaboration Objects (http://www.collaborationobjects.com/), and I think we succeeded pretty well.