Conundrum of the collaboration tools

by Jason Piccinin & Aravinda Samarasinghe

Technology in the communications space has evolved and there are now so many more choices now than there were 10 years ago. Platforms have also become more affordable compared to the expensive systems of yesteryears. In addition, the need to mainintain on-premise infrastructure for collaboration tools has reduced or is non-existent in many companies. Workplaces are moving at a rapid pace in the modern day, bringing with it the need for the workforce to adapt to that pace quicker than ever.

In this adaptation one key area that is making headway progress is collaboration & communication. People need to communicate fast and reliably, and the expectation is that others respond at the same pace.

With work practices like Agile methodology being adopted, the modes of collaboration at many workplaces have changed along with them. Taking Agile work practices for example, these require workers to be able to communicate quickly and in realtime to make sure everyone is involved. For these purposes the tools and modes of collaboration need to be fast, agile, intuitive and responsive.

Lotus Notes, Microsoft SharePoint and Outlook are some of the tools that were heavily used and popular in the past. Though email remains a popular mode of communication in modern workplaces, the times now demand realtime, simultaneous modes of communication.

For these reasons, tools such as Slack & Confluence are the buzzword products at present.

Videoconferencing used to be a highly privileged mode of workplace communication. It was expensive and required companies to maintain expensive set of infrastructure components. With technologies like Skype & Hangouts it has evolved to become less expensive, highly available, easy to use, mobile and infrastructure-agnostic.

Consumer-grade tools such as Skype & Google Hangouts have evolved as enterprise tools. The number of tools has grown enormously and choices are overwhelming.

Any good tradesperson will tell you that you need to use the right tool for the right job. In the world of collaboration tools, there is an abundance of tools on offer, and it is easy to get distracted picking the right tools needed.

One can have multiple tools which essentially have the same capabilities. This can cause confusion, lead to miscommunication or worse, no-communication. Ultimately this creates a management nightmare.

Also, in the midst of a digital and a data driven age, it could lead an organization to missed opportunities resulting in reduced revenues. Hence some thought process is required to apply in choosing the right mix of collaboration tools. One model does not fit all.

Identify the needs v wants - Firstly it is imperative to know the needs of the organization. ‘Needs’ and ‘Wants’ are different. It is the duty of the organization to provide for the ‘needs’ of all teams. Once this is gathered the best approach will be to match those requirements with the current collaboration tools in place.

As the technology has advanced there is a good chance your current toolset may offer the functionality you require and is a fruitless exercise to introduce a new tool. If you do, then this is the first step towards introducing collaboration chaos to your organization. Attempts to entertain both needs and wants will contribute to collecting multiple tools or put off making a decision at all.

Avoid different tools for different teams - There are many teams within a department or a division which are differentiated by their function. Take an IT department as an example; there are developers & product teams, architects, infrastructure engineers, management, security, finance & accounting and DevOps teams. Teams may want to have their own tool for collaboration and they may prefer one over another. As an example, developers may prefer Slack as their communication channel and infrastructure may prefer Skype and Email. In this scenario three tools for two teams, this can quickly get escalated to add more tools. But both can do with one tool out of the three. Essentially the question to answer here and the point to start is by asking ‘WHY’. Identify why the three tools are needed for what purpose and pin down to one single tool for everyone.

Work towards the company goals & strategy - Company strategy plays a part in setting up systems, technology and processes. This goes the same for collaboration. It is perhaps a good start to looking at strategy to match the requirements of the tools. Ultimately the tools are the things that contribute to deliver the outcomes and achieving goals. This also helps avoiding personal agendas in introducing tools and systems of a vision far ahead that isn't embedded into the wider operations of the company.

Tools to increase efficiency - Tools are there to increase efficiency and therefore by saving time and money; increasing productivity ultimately. Given this, collaboration tools should be picked based on their contribution to increased efficiency. There is not much value picking a product simply because it is part of a suite of products and is not offering the right functionality for the organization. Even though it may seem valuable on surface, in the long term maintainance costs coupled with lost productivity will add up to higher costs. Having multiple channels of communication will also contribute to the loss of productivity. Having to check on multiple platforms a several times a day will add up minutes to hours & also will add up to unorganized, scattered information.

Costs - With multiple platforms, the costs involved in licensing, most likely a subscription system these days, and maintenance are quickly going to stack up. Hence it is wise to consider which tools provides the best value at present and combine that with the other points discussed here to evaluate financial aspects in the long run. As mentioned earlier, avoiding individual tools for individual teams and grasping a tool because it is part of a suite will obviously help reduce the bills and will be a good start in merging platforms.

Education and change process - People become comfortable with a certain set of applications and tools after using them for years. Habits are developed and processes become engrained. This is where you can make or break your organisation with a poorly executed change plan, particularly when a new application is introduced to replace an existing one and there's resistance.

Your organisational change process needs to be handled in a consultative and engaged manner rather than pushing and mandating. Firstly, an educational programme is required to provide information pertaining to the proposed change, why the change is happening and train a small group as to how to use the new tools then gather quick, conscious feedback. This feedback loop will form the second key point; facilitating your business impact assessment to take place. No matter how good of an idea it seems on paper or $‘000 in savings, until you are able to capture and assess real life, realtime user feedback, it is only theory that is being worked from.

Thirdly; participation. If people feel they are included in these scalable changes it is more likely that they are going to support them, making the transition easier for all parties. It should not be forced upon without following a systematic change process.

None of the concepts discussed above are foreign to any extent; understand your requirements, plan for a core set of platforms and tools, listen to user feedback and train, train train. These are core principles that should drive any change component. The oversight too many organisations make is to become emotionally connected to a desired state without justification or strategy is a recipe for disaster and a toolkit full of too many overlapping tools causing confusion for your internal customers.

Jason Piccinin is Technology Design & Development Manager at Service NSW.

Aravinda Samarasinghe  is Network Lead at Service NSW.