How collaboration apps foster digital transformation

Popular collaboration tools are helping Accenture, Autodesk and others save money, increase efficiency, drive innovation and improve communication throughout their organizations.

mobile collaboration network

Throughout enterprises large and small, collaboration apps and services are breaking down silos, connecting colleagues in more effective ways and resulting in stronger employee engagement. These tools are enabling companies to transition to a purely digital world and transform business operations with relative ease.

The collaboration category is of increasingly keen interest today as enterprises seek out every competitive advantage and method to cut costs, improve communications and reduce points of friction throughout their organizations. There are many flavors of collaboration tools in the enterprise today, including group-chat apps, shared work areas, videoconferencing services, web meeting platforms, group task-management apps, and more.

While interest in this space grows, so too does the number of vendors that hope to become leading collaboration providers in the modern workforce, but there’s room for many to succeed. “Collaboration is many things to many people, and since needs can be very different, there’s no one leading product, no silver bullet to improve collaboration in every scenario,” says Adam Preset, senior director analyst of digital workplace engagement at Gartner.

Text-chat-based apps like Slack and Microsoft Teams are receiving much of the attention in the collaboration space, but they are also among the most rudimentary or limited tools on the market today. “The immediacy of chat-based apps is compelling because workers want to share information and make decisions faster,” Preset says. While instant messaging has been around for decades, consumer messaging services like SMS, iMessage and WhatsApp have made people more comfortable with using chat everywhere, including their place of work, according to Preset.

What makes collaboration apps such a critical component of the enterprise today? “The conversation element is the glue that holds together other collaborative elements, such as shared files, meetings, or tasks and processes,” Preset says. “We can’t overstate the importance of persistence, of always being able to go back to reread a message thread, of being able to spin up a quick meeting with the same teammates easily, and to have all our files for one team or one project in one place.”

To gain a deeper understanding of the collaboration space, Computerworld spoke with IT leaders at four organizations that have achieved varying degrees of digital transformation by embracing these tools. No two companies are the same, and neither are the experiences that businesses have with these tools.

Slack at Autodesk

Autodesk officially began using Slack in early 2015, but its employees were already using the chat-based collaboration app across more than 85 individual teams well before then. Slack is now used throughout the software maker’s organization for cross-team collaboration, but the highest level of usage is centered in the engineering team, which uses Slack for day-to-day communications, software development collaboration and production incident communications.

“Slack has transformed our organizational culture,” says Guy Martin, director of open-source strategy at Autodesk, which is based in San Rafael, Calif. “We specifically rolled Slack out with a ‘default to open’ mindset, where we limit private channel creation to specific criteria and encourage fully open and transparent communication across the organization. It didn’t happen overnight, but it has changed the way we communicate and the way we approach working together.”

Early on, one of Autodesk’s employees said he’d had more interaction with colleagues and teams in different parts of the organization in six months using Slack than he’d had in his previous six years at the company, according to Martin. Issues that used to require multiple emails, phone calls and in-person meetings are now being resolved more quickly and effectively via Slack, he says.

“We continue to see novel uses for Slack from different parts of the company,” Martin says. Autodesk has a ‘voice-of-customer’ channel in Slack that generates significant amounts of traffic by highlighting customer questions or issues. “It’s amazing to watch things posted there get responses in real time, with the appropriate resources being brought in from across the company to answer questions, provide support or fix issues. This is something that would have been much more difficult when our support team would have to go searching for the right person to solve problems.”

More than 10,000 Autodesk employees are on Slack, and the tool is managed by a team of 10 who mostly volunteer their time to keep the community ethos of the tool intact. “Slack has given us the ability to harness the collective brainpower and experience of all of our workforce,” Martin says. “The combination of our focus on transparency and community, coupled with Slack’s functionality, is what has allowed us to make the most out of the system.”

Trello at McCorvey Sheet Metal Works

McCorvey Sheet Metal Works, a Texas-based metal manufacturing company, has been using Trello since 2015. What began as a pilot with 10 employees now encompasses more than 400 users. The organization’s shift to Trello fostered a complete change in how its employees accomplish tasks, review plans and troubleshoot issues for metal detailers, fabricators and installers.

“We basically converted the shop from a paper system, completely analog, over to digital in the span of about three days,” says Chris Mondeau, technology coordinator at McCorvey. “Ever since then it’s been a digital workflow.”

Paper-based packets that used to be distributed to hundreds of employees have been eliminated, saving the company around $70,000 per year in paper costs alone, according to Mondeau. The widespread availability of Trello throughout the company’s warehouse facility has also cut down dramatically on foot traffic, saving the company and its employees about 3,000 staff hours a year, he said.

Employees no longer have to make the 20-minute trek to visit with supervisors when a question or other problem arises. “About 90% of our office staff is using Trello on a daily basis, and about 40% of the [workers] in the field are using it,” Mondeau says.

The company’s successful move to Trello has also built more trust in cloud collaboration and the digital world, enabling the company to test out other services more frequently with less resistance. “Trello has been part of the onboarding culture, so when a new staff member comes in, we can show them how the company works just by looking at a Trello board, and it’s very intuitive,” Mondeau says.

Interactions between employees at a job site and back at the office have also shifted to Trello and improved workflow between project managers, sheet metal fabricators and detailers in real time. “Typically we never even had the [workers] in the shop or the field really talk to the office [staff] on a regular basis, let alone within a 30-minute window. Now it’s normal communication,” he says.

Mondeau says the company tested other tools before Trello but found them to be too complex and cumbersome. “It was the simplicity with the availability to become flexible that worked.”

Google Hangouts Chat and Meet at Hunterdon Healthcare

Hunterdon Healthcare, a hospital in New Jersey that provides care for more than 330,000 inpatient, outpatient and emergency room visits per year, has been using Google Hangouts since 2015. More than 2,800 employees were fully converted to G Suite about three years ago, and once Hangouts was introduced to the organization, it “took off like wildfire,” says Daniel Morreale, senior vice president and CIO at Hunterdon Healthcare.

In 2017, Google split Hangouts into two separate products — Hangouts Meet for videoconferencing and Hangouts Chat for text-based conversations. Hunterdon Healthcare has been using both tools effectively since Google made the change. Hangouts Chat is the company’s go-to tool for ongoing discussions between staffers in multiple locations and Hangouts Meet for critical meetings and other events that require one-to-one or one-to-many interactions.

“We use it to replace a series of meetings that happen generally at the department level,” Morreale says. “Having Hangouts has eliminated the need to actually be there in person, so that has helped with organizing meetings” and enabled the company to move several groups of employees offsite so they can work from home.

Hangouts has delivered many advantages for the organization, including improved collaboration, schedule availability and time spent with patients or other primary objectives at the hospital, according to Morreale. Morning safety huddle meetings that used to run for about 35 minutes have been cut down to 20 minutes, and remote IT staff are using Hangouts as a second-level tech support system around the service desk, he says.

“We’ve been able to democratize certain decisions around technology and clinical support, which is a real significant advantage for us,” Morreale says. “We’re helping people move away from paper, organize their days digitally and give them the capacity to analyze — they can look back and reflect — and make better decisions as we move forward.”

The initial reaction to G Suite was resistance, but Morreale says he overcame that with ongoing training paired with specific tips that address each department’s unique challenges. “If you look at healthcare, one of the most critical aspects that we have in providing quality and safe patient care is the ability to transition information across different shifts or from person to person, and these tools have really made that a whole lot easier,” he says. “The critical takeaway, at least for my organization, is to let the products grow organically. Teach people the benefits that are specific to their jobs and their tasks, and let them extrapolate how they can use it in different circumstances.”

Microsoft Teams at Accenture

Accenture was one of the first organizations to use Microsoft Teams when it was introduced in March 2017, and the company has been steadily moving its workforce from Skype for Business over to the new app ever since. “Collaboration has always been an absolutely massively important thing for Accenture. Having collaboration tools that enable people to meet, share documents, chat and do a number of things have always been a critical aspect for us,” says Jason Warnke, global social enterprise lead at Accenture.

As is the case with most enterprises, Accenture offers many tools to its employees, which can create a sense of “whiplash” for employees who are trying to traverse multiple apps to get their jobs done, according to Warnke. A single, integrated workspace like Microsoft Teams “solves all kinds of problems” for Accenture, he says. Today, Teams is being run as a complement or alternative to Skype for Business, but the company plans to make a full transition next fall.

“In a short period of time, we have 145,000 monthly active users on Teams — and that is really with no adoption plan at all,” Warnke says. “We haven’t really formally launched it... That growth is completely viral, which is nuts.” Accenture, which provides business and technology services, currently has more than 450,000 employees.

“We rely on Microsoft for productivity tools, and Teams is the cockpit that brings it all together,” Warnke says. “That concept of persistent chat just takes things to an entirely new level, and people have fallen in love with it. That’s led to a decline in email.”

Accenture’s employees currently log 367 million audio minutes per month on Skype for Business, and while the adoption of Microsoft Teams is less robust, the amount of audio minutes on Teams is “not even in the same galaxy,” Warnke says. “There’s a lot less calls happening. I think there’s something here about eliminating the need to escalate to a meeting and a call. To me this would be a magical outcome of something like Teams eliminating the necessity to jump on a 30-minute or 60-minute call to get something done when you can just as easily do that by chatting and sharing a document.”

The mobile experience of Microsoft Teams is also a big leap forward for Accenture’s workforce because the same integrations, access to documents and conversation histories are all readily available on the go. (The Teams app is available for both iOS and Android.) “It’s cutting down on the necessity for people to waste time finding a place to pull out their laptop and get those things going to answer a quick question,” he says.

The chat-based app has also leveled access between departments and employees who operate in different capacities, Warnke adds. “Teams has this great way of lessening the boundaries between organization structures and levels, so you’ve got the ability in a channel... where everyone now feels in stride in a conversation.”

Setting limits

Using these and other platforms, creating shared workspaces where people can work together from anywhere is easier than ever. But it’s also important to recognize the potential downfalls of an always-on collaborative environment, says Preset.

“Before we go too wild, we need guidelines in any workplace to maintain a balance and make it OK to switch off and tune out when the day is done,” he says. “The work we can do is potentially infinite, but human energy is not.”

Read this next: 10 tips for preventing Slack burnout

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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