Guest Column | May 1, 2019

Are Collaborative Communities Divided By The Technology They Use?

By Ross Sedgewick, Unify

Business conflict

The current lack of standardization presents new integration opportunities.

We have all seen how communications technology has enabled “anywhere working,” remote working, and virtual teams. This revolution of flexible work-life styles must be recognized as one of the great advances for knowledge workers around the globe.

However, the need for standardization of communications technology is apparent across what today is a loose collection of incompatible collaboration platforms that harken back to the early days of the telephone system, which existed for decades before it became truly interoperable and universally connected. Once that happened — the value and utility of the national and global telephone network grew massively.

Email, meanwhile, is still alive and well — partly because of its universality. Just about anyone, anywhere, can be reached by email in a standardized way. Imagine not being able to send an email to another company across town because they operated a different brand of computing platform. In the early days of email, there were as many as 15 different email protocols in play. Differing standards were owned by various vendors, and those vendors’ solutions typically didn’t talk to each other.

It literally took decades for truly universal standardization and interoperability to become the norm, but now billions of emails are seamlessly exchanged every day.

The Evolution Of Team Collaboration Tools

Fast forward to one of today’s fastest-growing categories — “team collaboration” solutions. Given its relative newness, this category also has been dubbed workstream messaging, team messaging, workstream collaboration, or collaboration software. 

Regardless of the naming convention you adopt, most of these solutions have several capabilities in common, including the following:

  • They enable group conversations, messaging, content, and file sharing.
  • They allow for easy-to-use audio, video, and web (screen sharing) conferencing.
  • They are accessible from the “cloud” and on any network or device (PC or mobile).

The predicted growth and impact of this new category has been well documented. For example, Mary Meeker and Kleiner Perkins’ 2018 Internet Trends Report features this solution category as one of the key technologies to watch — generating greater productivity and collaboration, organizing teams and information, all while providing context and history for the organization.

There are dozens of vendors that have filled the market with similar solutions, most if not all with their own technology protocols, user credentials, and sharply defined network boundaries.

In fact, some vendors have created proprietary collaboration solutions that only work with internally

created technologies and standards. But, unless one vendor takes over the entire marketplace and everyone uses the same brand of solution, each of those collaborative communities become isolated islands of communications and content sharing.

There is no doubt that modern tools make it easier for employees and teams to meet, converse, share, and collaborate. But like the early email systems that came before, today’s collaboration tools have been developed using different protocols and standards that don’t naturally talk to each other. Sure, there can be guest access to a given solution, but if you are outside the organization and/or using a different brand of tool — you are isolated. So, you cannot easily communicate, share, or collaborate the way you may want to.

Today’s team and social collaboration tools for the enterprise are in a similar state of evolution defined by isolation and tribal segmentation. This occurs at exactly the time when the digital workplace is relying more than ever on its ability to connect remote workers. Ultimately, an existing barrier to interoperability and universality will mean email continues to have the upper hand in terms of utility when businesses need to communicate across boundaries of the organization or to users of various communication platforms. 

Uncovering The Opportunity For VARs, Integrators And Service Providers

Within the challenges noted above lies opportunity for integration services to bring both content sharing and collaborative communities together. Here are three specific opportunities to consider:

  • Extensible team collaboration solutions designed and built on open industry standards like WebRTC (and accompanying published API’s) allow faster and easier customization, extensions, and integrations across various applications and data sources, including joining up with other collaboration solutions.
  • Look for collaboration platforms that provide pre-built integration plug-ins that connect various content, file storage, and team collaboration solutions in order to break down those artificial barriers between collaborative communities and the content to be shared.
  • Some collaboration vendors provide specific opportunities for IT service providers to “franchise” or host the solution within their own data center and potentially under their own branding. Again, this opens opportunities for not only uniquely customized solutions but also integrations that join up the enterprise’s partners, suppliers, and clients into a more seamless community.

Conclusion

Can the use of team and social collaboration tools in the enterprise eclipse email and become ubiquitous? Perhaps, on the assumption that a standards-based approach provides true interoperability. This would mean that — just like placing a phone call or sending an email to anyone in the world — you could simply click using any device to start a text conversation, share content and files, bring up an audio, video or web conference, or even assemble an ad-hoc team. No need to worry what brand of technology is being used at the other end or whether the person is inside or outside your organization.

Removing barriers and breaking down silos has the capacity to deliver a more productive, rewarding workplace experience that addresses a growing population of remote workers, freelancers and the partners they interact with. At the same time, this will generate better business outcomes.

But, in the meantime, this fragmentation creates an opportunity for you to build bridges and connect collaborative communities that are divided by the technologies that they use.

About The AuthorRoss Sedgewick, Unify

Ross Sedgewick joined Unify in 2002 and has fulfilled several expert marketing roles in technologies for the digital workplace, team collaboration/customer contact solutions, and virtual team engagement. He currently handles content creation, messaging and insight development relating to the digital workplace. Ross is passionate about humanizing the intersection of people and technology, and understanding how users engage and interact. Prior to joining Unify, Ross has held marketing, product, channel and sales leadership positions at IBM Corporation, Delano Technologies, and Siemens Enterprise Communications.