After several years of swift uptake by users, collaboration software has become an increasingly integral part of how work is both organized and carried out. As more businesses lean on tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams and others, IT leaders are looking to deploy a new breed of collaboration tools company-wide to boost productivity and connect disparate teams.
During 2017, team collaboration software matured as an enterprise option with the launch of Slack’s enterprise edition for large-scale deployments and Microsoft launched Teams to put group chat in the hands of many Office 365 subscribers. Numerous other vendors moved to capitalize on the opportunity carved out by Slack with their own group chat offerings – such as Atlassian’s Stride – even as Cisco and Facebook continued to build out their existing platforms.
“Collaboration is hot. It will stay hot,” said IDC research director Wayne Kurtzman. “Collaboration platforms embody the opportunity of digital disruption. They are people-powered, use new behavioral metrics and positively affect standard business KPIs. And that trend will continue.”
The stage is now set for a competitive market as more companies invest in software to connect their employees. “We are still early in terms of companies having enterprise-wide deployments, but you will see in 2018 that there will be a fair amount of momentum behind large-scale deployments,” said Irwin Lazar, vice president and service director at Nemertes Research.
Group chat as the central hub for office productivity
One of the major trends to emerge in the last year or so is that group chat is fast becoming the central hub of productivity.
That’s reflected in the strategy of various unified communications vendors, said Lazar. For example, Microsoft plans to phase out Skype for Business, with Teams gradually becoming its core communications tool. And RingCentral acquired Glip to make it its main client for communications.
“Where team collaboration apps used to be seen as an adjunct, now you are starting to see a lot of applications rolling into them,” said Lazar. “If I am working with my team, I am living in the team app. But if I want to share a document, I share it in the team app. If I want to open an app, I launch that – potentially even through the team app. So that becomes the digital workplace hub.”
Video conferencing is another aspect of communication that’s being rolled into team collaboration platforms, with screen sharing becoming more advanced, too, said Richard Edwards, service director and distinguished analyst at Freeform Dynamics.
“The most significant [change] looking into 2018 is the ability to switch between exchanging short messages and maybe a few file attachments to being able to go into a group conference call and maybe even escalate that and do a bit of screen sharing and bring in third parties much more easily than would be the case today,” said Edwards.
Despite an ever more competitive market, large-scale, integrated adoption of collaboration tools at the enterprise level remains to be done. Most companies are using these tools in silos across teams, with little strategic planning around who uses what. A group of developers might be using one tool, for instance, while the marketing department is using another.
That will likely change as team collaboration becomes more popular; IT admins will have to take a more thought-out approach to deployments.
“It is starting to change,” said Lazar. “The conversations I am having with IT leaders is that they are starting to try and think a little bit more proactively and they want to plan for rolling out these applications in the next year or two.”
Helping to drive these kinds of investment decisions: the realization by businesses that they are starting to reap the benefits of connecting teams and making it easier to share information and ideas.
“They see the value, they see that collaborating in the context of a team space is a whole lot easier than trying to use email,” said Lazar. “It is much more intuitive [and] aligns with the needs of mobile workers…. The context of being able to converse within a space reserved for a specific topic, versus having to have everything sitting in your inbox, is just a much better way of working.”
Slack’s challenge: attracting large corporates
In many ways, Slack is responsible for the growing interest in group chat, which is reflected in the company’s impressive growth. In September, the company announced that it has 6 million daily active users, up from 5 million in January, and $200 million in annual revenues. It has increased the number of people paying for its services, too. This summer, the company reached 50,000 paid team users, up from 38,000 in January, and 2 million paid individual users, up from 1.5 million at the start of the year.
Earlier this year, Slack began to actively target deployments at large business with the launch of its Enterprise Grid product. The enterprise edition includes advanced security controls and user and administrative functions for an unlimited number of workspaces. It is designed to support deployments at companies with tens of thousands of employees with separate but connected workspaces.
Convincing more users to adopt the service is the next major challenge.
“Right now the one thing that is holding Slack back in the enterprise is what has gotten them popular to this point, and that is being sold on a team-by-team basis,” said Gartner research director Larry Cannell. “When you sell to a larger enterprise, you have to sell it on an enterprise basis. And their Grid product is trying to do that. This is an incredibly important product for them to stay and grow within the enterprise.”
Slack has other concerns, too, including a host of rivals playing catch up and launching their own team tools that in many ways mimic Slack’s interface. This includes Atlassian Stride, Zoho Cliq and, of course, Microsoft Teams. Teams hit general availability in March this year and has the strongest credentials for becoming a “Slack-killer.” Though there are weaknesses in the platform in comparison with Slack, such as an arguably more complex interface, Microsoft holds a distinct advantage with its Office 365 integration.
Microsoft Teams gains momentum
“The market dynamic that we have seen in the last year is that Microsoft has the momentum, for the simple reason that you look at the percentage of companies that are using Office 365 and it is very high,” said Lazar.
“Because Teams is free within an E1 or E5 license, it is really hard for somebody like a Slack to say, 'Hey, you have to pay us for the Enterprise Grid product.’”
Enterprise customers are making two calculations. One involves cost, said Lazar. The other involves Microsoft’s decision to integrate Teams tightly into Office 365, “to the point where I can go into a team space and look at a document that my team is working on and edit it right within that team space.”
It is also possible to co-edit documents. “So you could be editing a document together while we are chatting, or if we need to speak live we click a link and now we have a voice channel open between us,” he said.
“Those are the kind of things that Slack and Spark and really all the other competitive products out there can't do, because they don't have that tight integration with Microsoft Office environments. So for companies that are doing a lot of collaboration around Office docs, it is hard to beat Teams.”
Even so, Slack is likely to continue to be the team collaboration tool of choice for many, especially in companies that aren't tied tightly to Microsoft, or are looking at Slack's ability to integrate with Oracle, SAP, Salesforce and other CRM applications to provide a core workspace, said Lazar.
Gartner’s Cannell agreed that Microsoft be a major player in the market in the coming year: “The collaboration market is looking over their shoulders at Office 365 and are trying to figure out what its weak points are and where they can compete against it and where are the gaps that they could fill in.”
Google and Facebook make their own moves
Google announced its own Slack competitor this year, as it split its Hangouts platform into two products: Meet, a dedicated video conferencing tool, and Chat, which supports group conversations and links into G Suite files.
“If Google follows through on their plans with Hangouts Chat and integrates that with their team drives, it could have a solid team collaboration offering,” said Cannell. “Right now, I think Google is somewhat behind the market when it comes to team collaboration.”
While Google has a strong productivity and file-sharing portfolio as part of G Suite, a tool like Google Docs is currently more focused on making personal documents available to colleagues, rather than supporting more advanced collaboration.
“Whereas if you look at Slack, Slack creates a team space where we are having a team conversation, and Microsoft Teams also creates a team conversation, but also a team file-sharing and a team repository space,” said Cannell. “So I think Google has some catching up to do in the team collaboration space.”
Facebook, which takes a slightly different approach to collaboration with its Workplace enterprise social network, also continues to evolve. A year after its official launch, Workplace is now used by 30,000 companies. That list includes retail giant Walmart, a major customer win announced in September, and Virgin Atlantic.
The airline rolled out Workplace at about the same time in a bid to improve information-sharing between front-line staff and senior execs. It currently serves mainly as an intranet for internal communications, though the company plans to integrate other apps and processes eventually.
Since the launch, Workplace has seen better-than-expected adoption, according to Virgin Atlantic CIO and senior vice president for technology Don Langford. Virgin Atlantic now has 7,000 people on Workplace, an adoption rate of about 70%.
With so many choices and features rolling out or evolving, companies looking for a single collaboration platform may have to make some tough decisions.
“A lot of [collaboration] companies are already focusing on features that will help differentiate them from the others,” said Kurtzman. “Who has the best set of features may change from month to month, so you may need to pick the company that has the vision that best aligns with your enterprise's evolving needs.”