How to pick the right collaboration tools

IT pros say collaboration is a high priority to their organization, so it's important to choose wisely

collaboration hands
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Does the prospect of choosing a collaboration suite seem unusually daunting? That’s because for many people, it is.

“I’ve covered this space for nearly 20 years, I know all the tools, and personally, I’m overwhelmed,” said Alan Lepofsky, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research.

The recent proliferation of collaboration software has put many technology decision-makers and users “in a tizzy,” he explained, as mobile apps, social media, the cloud and virtual teams and workplaces continue to change how and where we collaborate — and the software we use to make that happen.

Picking the right collaboration suite or stack isn’t just challenging — it’s critically important. Nearly seven out of 10 IT professionals say collaboration is a high priority or is essential to their organization, according to a recent Spiceworks survey commissioned by videoconferencing provider Lifesize.

Here’s what you need to know to pick a collaboration suite or tool set.

The collaboration landscape is no longer boring

For years, the collaboration software market was “a bit boring,” dominated by the likes of Lotus Notes (now IBM Notes), Lepofsky said. Early collaboration suites evolved from email, he explains, since email was the first communication software everyone within an organization used in common.

By the early 2000s, instant messaging and web conferencing tools started shaking things up. That pushed big collaboration players such as IBM and Microsoft (with Outlook/Exchange) to add similar tools, though the process took years and enterprises were slow to adopt them.

By the mid-2000s, blogs and wikis from startups such as Socialtext and PBWiki were offering ways for employees to share content instead of by email. Initially, enterprises used software from these startups, but the blog and wiki tools became common features in collaboration suites.

Taking a cue from Facebook and Twitter, startups such as Jive, Yammer and SocialCast began offering social networking-like collaboration tools for enterprises about six to eight years ago. Before long, IBM, Microsoft, Salesforce, Oracle, SAP and others followed suit in their collaboration suites.

From there, enterprise collaboration evolved, thanks to file-sharing startups, including Box and Dropbox; project management services such as Trello, Asana, Wrike and Workfront; and a new generation of collaboration apps and services, most notably Slack and HipChat, that incorporate messaging, video chat, file sharing and other tools.

The collaboration software landscape will continue to grow

Today, the enterprise collaboration market is “diverse, rapidly changing, and fragmented,” causing organizations to juggle multiple software platforms and tools for lead application, document collaboration, collaborative work management, enterprise collaboration, unified communications and team messaging, according to a Forrester study released late last year.

The collaboration landscape is poised to continue growing, too. The market will expand at a 13% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) from 2016 to 2024, exceeding $8.5 billion by 2024, according to Global Market Insights. A study from ReportLinker reached a similar conclusion, estimating the CAGR at 13.2%.

“We’re in a period of transition,” said Jim Lundy, CEO of Aragon Research. “We’re still dependent on email, and mobile messaging hasn’t really caught on yet” at enterprises. As a result, many companies rely multiple, task-specific collaboration tools, with “no one-size-fits-all solution” available.

Ninety-two percent of the IT professionals who responded to the Spiceworks/Lifesize survey have either deployed or are considering deploying multiple collaboration tools and use an average of 4.4 different tools or platforms across three different providers. Not surprisingly, dealing with multiple systems creates management, security, service quality and other challenges for IT professionals.

Collaboration suite vs. best of breed?

At a high level, the choice for enterprise IT decision-makers is between choosing a collaboration suite or building a collaboration stack from best-of-breed products.

Collaboration suites are well-suited to enterprises because they’re often simple to purchase, offer economies of scale and feature tight integration between a variety of features and tools, said Ryan Kennedy, principal architect for Kickdrum, which offers technology consulting and custom software and app development.

Among the best-known enterprise collaboration platform vendors are Microsoft (with Outlook/Exchange, Office 365, SharePoint and Skype for Business); IBM (Collaboration Solutions); Cisco (Spark and related collaboration software); and Google (with G Suite and other tools).

Best-of-breed collaboration tools that offer APIs and interoperability and that have a large ecosystem of third-party tools built around them are often ideal for small and mid-sized businesses, Kennedy said. Such tools, from Trello and Atlassian, offer more flexibility than traditional collaboration suites, giving teams an IFTTT-like experience.

IFTTT, which stands for ‘If This Then That,’ is a software service that links together two disparate tools in order to trigger an automated interaction between them. For example, Trello integrates particularly well with Google Drive documents, Kennedy explains, so updates made in Trello can automatically update a Google Doc.

Among newer collaboration tools, Slack appears to be “taking over the world,” said Kennedy, because it’s well-suited to the on-demand, dispersed, virtual teams that have become the norm; because it frequently adds new features; and because it’s mobile-first at its core.

“Too often, mobile is an afterthought for last-generation, desktop-centric collaboration tools,” he said. “Mobile-native tools like Slack will take over in the near future.”

Slack has also recently expanded into the enterprise space with Grid. Meanwhile, Amazon Chime could become a significant player in the collaboration market and disrupt more established companies such as Microsoft, Lundy predicted. And perhaps not surprisingly, Amazon has been reportedly considering acquiring Slack.

Salesforce is another important player, because it can easily integrate countless third-party apps, notes Lundy. “As long as you have the permission to use the third-party app, you can start using it within minutes, without any coding required,” he said.

And don’t overlook Workplace by Facebook, said Lepofsky. Because the software is from Facebook, many users already know how to use it. Plus, it’s “completely enterprise-grade,” integrating with Microsoft Active Directory, Salesforce and other enterprise tools.   

Best practices for picking collaboration software

As with any technology acquisition, the choice of collaboration software should follow a disciplined process:

Focus on the problem, not the technology

It’s easy to get seduced by technology — but it’s much more important to keep in mind the problems you’re trying to solve, Lepofsky said. “Think about why you’re looking at new collaboration software. Is it to help the sales team sell? Increase the effectiveness of your marketing campaigns?”

Answering those kinds of questions first will help you “figure out what you need,” he said. “If someone says to me they should be using Slack, my response is, why should you be using it?”

Avoid jumping on the latest ‘buzzy’ tool

Getting distracted by a hot new collaboration tool with buzz is a common mistake enterprises make, said Jerry Evangelista, IT solutions architect at Sungard Availability Services. “Just because a collaboration suite is a great solution for a startup doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for a midsized or large organization. It’s the IT organization’s responsibility to understand the company’s needs and pick a solution that best meets those needs.”

Go with tools users love

Often, a user sets up a trial for a cloud-based collaboration tool, such as Slack, because it’s easy to do, said Kennedy. That user may fall in love with the software and encourage the rest of his or her team to use it. Whenever possible, let team members use the tools they love, because their enthusiasm will likely make them more productive.

Investigate the security features

As with any new software, be clear about a collaboration tool’s security features, options and admin controls, said Lundy. For example, does the group chat tool offer end-to-end encryption? Also, it’s important that collaboration tools offer multifactor authentication -- and more important that IT mandate its use. A surprising number of enterprises, including government agencies, don’t bother.

It’s critical that your collaboration software offer an easy way to provision and deprovision users, Kennedy said. “You need to be able to onboard new employees quickly and to turn off access immediately when an employee leaves.”

Integration with tools such as Active Directory can help.

Be clear on the total cost of ownership (TCO)

Take a holistic look at the software’s TCO for your organization, said Bobby Beckmann, CTO of Lifesize. What the infrastructure is needed to support a new suite or set of tools? Does your network have the necessary bandwidth? What will IT and end-user troubleshooting likely cost? What will deployment cost, and will user training be required?

Knowing the TCO is critical but atypical, Beckmann said. In the Spiceworks/Lifesize survey of IT decision-makers, 56% said they didn’t know how much they were spending on subscriptions and licenses for conferencing and collaboration solutions. “And this [is] only one part of TCO,” he said.

Ensure interoperability and compatibility

Make sure the suite or tool set will play nice with other software systems deployed throughout your ecosystem, Beckmann said. “Trying to piecemeal multiple solutions that inevitably don’t interoperate fully” is a typical mistake, he said. And be sure the software is compatible with all devices that employees use, especially mobile ones.

Make a checklist of features

Ask users which features would help them be more productive, Kennedy said. Consider software tools that offer useful features others might not, such as time tracking, which can help you determine the actual cost of labor, contract workers and productivity.

And make sure the collaboration suite has a robust shared-calendar feature. “Being able to put project due dates, deadlines, vacation schedules and development milestones all in one place seems like an obvious feature, but a lot of suites don’t do a great job of it,” Kennedy said.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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