Enterprise Collaboration: Still Wandering in the Desert

by Craig Roth, Gartner

Information workers may sit in a sea of fuzzy cubes, spread across windowless floors lit by fluorescent lights, but when it comes time to collaborate they are often wandering the desert looking for a home.

Every day in businesses across the world there are as many chances to collaborate as grains of sand, but too few workers know where to go online to engage with peers or partners.  Only 16% of workers make daily use of collaboration tools (according to a Gartner survey of over 3000 workers in 7 countries).  Some of the remaining 84% may truly not have a need to collaborate given their current roles (which is a subject for another debate), but certainly not all.

It’s easy to blame the vendors, but I think the truth is that buyers don’t yet know what they want.

Sure, at a high level they do: “we want to collaborate better”.  But the devil is in the details and the mechanism is up for grabs. Collaborative workspaces, enterprise social networks, unified communications, workstream collaboration, content collaboration, and employee communication platforms have all been introduced with fanfare over the past few decades and are all viable options with varying degrees of success and overlap.

My fellow analyst Mike Gotta talks about how we’ve moved from a focus on productivity and routine work to a focus on performance and nonroutine work.  Indeed, we’re moving to the far edge of nonroutine work, where it is very hard to pin down exactly what the tool will be used for and get a list of requirements.

Accordingly, this market is working on the Steve Jobs principle of “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” And so we keep showing them new types of tools and examples of how they are to be used.  We’ve been doing that for years and are still at 16%.

It is frustrating to any advocate of collaboration technology to see it going unused.  You can ask workers what they want, but the ghost of Steve Jobs appears again and reminds you “It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want”.

Yes, it is important to listen to potential customers and certainly to design with them in mind, but there is a burden on vendors – an unusually large one compared to other more task-specific software categories – to come up with the iPod of collaboration; that perfect design that just makes sense.

We keep getting closer and I am optimistic that one of the vendors out there – perhaps a wise “megavendor” or maybe a fiesty small one – will hit on the direction that finally leads modern workers out of the collaboration desert.

Craig Roth is a Research Vice President at Gartner focused on cloud office suites, collaboration tools, content management, and how they are being impacted by digital workplace and digital business trends.