The rich history of digital collaboration in the last 30 years has been a long and winding one. Fortunately, it’s also been a highly rewarding story that has led to literally historic advances in workforce productivity and efficiency for most organizations. Along the way, many of these advances have led to and made possible entirely new and powerful types of work scenarios.
However, I find that many organizations still treat digital collaboration as 1) a largely tactical activity that doesn’t require much deliberate enablement, structure, or process 2) mostly separate from digital engagement in general and 3) a needed capability to be solved primarily through deployment of technology, rather than from the point of view of enabling activities between people. These three tendencies alone lead to much of the shortfalls I’ve seen when new collaboration efforts sometimes underperform.
The three new categories of digital collaboration
As collaboration has evolving during the rise of the social and mobile era, I’ve found that the last decade in particular has lead to some of the most significant and increasingly disruptive refinements in the practice:
- Social Business (internal). This is the high concept rethinking of how we work together to be more community-centric, open, and participative. It consists of a varied set of practices — depending on whose model you are following — that typically consists of business processes redesigned around new social tools such as enterprise social networks, content/document management platforms, online communities, or even enterprise microblogging services. Needless to say for those of us who have been involved, a tremendous amount of energy and thought across the collaboration industry has gone into how organizations can achieve numerous benefits if they can reorganize the way teams and even entire companies can better work together using the potent model of social media. Techniques typically include Working Out Loud, the redesign of business processes to be more participative, and all the other activities involved in large-scale social business transformation.
Organizations have seen results across the spectrum with their social business efforts, though there have been common pitfalls, especially when the notion of ‘Facebook for the Enterprise’ has been the goal, instead of solving urgent business problems (like trying to resolve poor collaboration between specific internal groups, or making certain key processes more transparent and efficient) The general consensus however is that there is a 25% enterprise-wide benefit in terms of productivity. Lately, the drum beat on social business has taken a bit more of a back seat to full-spectrum focus on digital business transformation in many organizations. Social business has continued to evolve however, and we’ve just now reached the end of the beginning in my opinion.
- Unified Communications. Rarely considered at the same time or in conjunction with social business initiatives, unified communications has been making steady inroads into the corporate world, despite some fairly rocky evolution over the years. The unified communications industry has attempted to sort out and make consistent the various digital communications channels within the enterprise, but has often missed major developments in the industry. The most inexplicable oversight was that unified communications vendors missed the social media revolution almost entirely, though that has now been partially addressed in some of the leading platforms now, though it took years to resolve. This meant unified communications was sometimes anything but. The issue continues to persist as new and emerging enterprise collaboration channels such as mobile apps, the explosion in enterprise file sync and sharing such as Dropbox, and even legacy content/document solutions are often still left out in the cold by unified communications solutions. Despite these additions — and I think the continuing rapid rise of new collaboration channels will remain the top problem for the approach — unified communications has become increasingly capable of delivering a core set of well integrated solutions for chat, voice, video, and presence, and now finally e-mail, social, and mobile.
Notably, unified communications has taken nearly the opposite approach of social business. Instead of a fundamental rethinking of work in digital/social terms, it’s a much more workman like approach to providing handy new digital communication toolkits to the worker that can be used for collaboration. In the final analysis, however, the unified communications approach has been slow to deal with the important strategic issues that social business aims to address: The unfortunate “evaporation” of digital knowledge in older tools, poor visibility and participation (not enough eyeballs) in legacy collaboration methods, and the still pervasive inability to find knowledge or people in most organizations, to name just a few. Despite all this, the market for unified communications, particularly in the cloud, is now poised for a major wave of growth.
- Collaboration suites, next-gen intranets, and lightweight collaboration apps. Recently, a number of new collaboration approaches or digital methods have emerged, some full collaborative toolkits, others just filling in still-unaddressed or just emerging point needs within organizations, or both, a strategy Google is increasingly following with their cloud offerings. These are not as comprehensive or one-stop-shop solutions for collaboration or re-imagining how workers interact with each other and produce value, but organizations are broadly considering them in general as white spaces emerge, often without considering their collaborative workplace strategy as a whole.
Given these three rough buckets of new collaborative focus within the enterprise, most of which happen in isolation from one another in the average organization, it’s been interesting to see how they’ve operated either as genuine silos or as so-called ‘frenemies’, working together a little but competing for each others user bases. But, gratifyingly in my view, some organizations are increasingly no longer so accepting of these fragmented efforts, and are proactively trying to do something about it.
The emergence of unified collaboration
I’ve been spending most of 2014 looking at what large organizations have been doing to evolve their collaborative environments and I’ve noticed several distinct trends:
- A strong drive for meaningful integration between collaborative silos. I’ve noticed there has been a sharp drop in tolerance for collaborative processes to be stuck in one place, platform, or audience, and not searchable or visible elsewhere. For example, I’m seeing that organizations are now seeking to connect intranets, enterprise social networks, and content/document management systems in much more meaningful ways. As Alan Lepofsky has observed recently, mail and social networks are starting to merge as well. Unified comms is also getting embedded everywhere and within many applications. I now believe we will witness considerable investment in the next couple of years in creating bridges between collaborative silos and meaningful presence for collaborative tools in business applications in general.
- Development of a true enterprise-wide view of digital collaboration strategy. Organizations are increasingly getting their act together and making sense of their collaborative efforts well above the level of the technologies themselves, putting together more purpose-driven plans that eliminate confusion, fragmentation, and inconsistency with collaboration technology while updating worker skills and shifting company culture to take better advantage of the possibilities. This includes, as Stowe Boyd has noted, the measurement and quantification of the collaborative environment in real-time, which I’ve found has been vital in producing feedback to guide a collaboration strategy in flight towards impactful results.
- An advanced notion of unified collaboration. As a direct results of the first true trends, I’m seeing the organic emergence of an important concept I’ll call unified collaboration. This is the strategic knitting together of plans, the full portfolio of collaborative technologies, and business objectives enterprise-wide into more cohesive whole. It stands out from mere unified communication by being much more overarching, contextual to the business, scenario-centric, and goal-oriented. It also reflects the understanding that there is more to collaboration than just the next big thing (aka social business), and that collaboration in all its many forms must be better and more comprehensively supported, reconciled, and enabled.
I think these trends — along with important ones like enterprise-wide knowledge streams — herald great things in the enterprise when it comes to collaboration and represents a sort of maturity proof point. I’ve begun collecting industry examples of these trends and will share them soon. Please send me your stories and case examples if you’d like me to add them.
Finally, I’ll be talking about this topic and others later this month at my afternoon keynote at the Enterprise 2.0 SUMMIT 2014 in London. It would be great to meet you there.
(Cross-posted @ On Web Strategy | Dion Hinchcliffe)