The case for (and against) maintaining multiple collaboration tools

Choosing whether to force users onto a single collaboration platform or support multiple apps is a tricky decision for enterprise IT.

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An age-old debate in IT — whether to opt for “best-of-breed” software or settle on a universal platform — is surfacing in the world of collaboration technology.

IT professionals are predominantly inclined to favor consolidating around a single app or suite over supporting multiple tools because it’s easier to deploy, manage and ensure a secure work environment, says Raúl Castañón-Martínez, senior analyst at 451 Research. But there’s a strong case to be made for letting workers use the best tool for the job — and that may mean something different for a marketing team than for a group of developers.

“We have seen a noticeable shift in the last few years in terms of ownership, meaning employees are feeling more empowered and are more vocal and proactive regarding the tools they use for work,” Castañón-Martínez says. That dynamic leads some organizations to support multiple apps for the same purpose, such as allowing both Slack and Microsoft Teams for group chat. This creates overlap and extra challenges for IT.

There are genuine and consistently proven benefits for enterprises to adopt an all-in-one approach, but rigidity isn’t always the best strategy for today’s workforce. Balancing the wants of users with company-wide considerations around security, productivity, and the omnipresent need to capture and generate value from internal data requires an open mind with a touch of empathy.

Benefits of flexibility

Collaboration tools are “the coordination and the interfacing of humans, processes and data,” says Los Angeles CIO Ted Ross. His IT shop, which primarily uses G Suite, supports 41 city departments comprising about 40,000 employees.

Supporting multiple tools or platforms allows people to use the optimal tool for each job, he says. He compares it to having a well-equipped toolbox: While you can probably use an incorrectly sized screwdriver to accomplish the task at hand, using a screwdriver that’s perfectly sized will be more effective and efficient and will reduce the chances of stripping the screw.

When the IT team can offer up a wider menu of choices and allow users to experiment and determine what works best for their needs, it can create a sense of contentment that wouldn’t otherwise be surfaced, he says. “It really comes down to the nature of how [the tools] are being used and what we need to integrate.”

Costs of being too flexible

While IT has to pay attention to different teams’ and departments’ requests to ensure that their requirements are being addressed, every additional application means one more thing for IT to deploy, maintain and secure — “and there is a limit to that,” says Castañón-Martínez.

“Best of breed or allowing different departments to choose their own solution provides freedom of choice, but at a cost,” says Tim Crawford, CIO and strategic advisor at research and advisory firm AVOA. “The cost can come in the form of integration challenges, security complexities, inefficiency and lack of collaboration between groups and products,” he says.

Los Angeles CIO Ross has his own list of cons related to maintaining multiple platforms, including per-license costs, hosting costs, and costs associated with maintenance and technical support. In some businesses, he says, having the optimal tool for each job outweighs all other benefits, but “in many other organizations, cost is as important as optimization.”

A multiplatform approach can also lead to problems when employees transfer to another department or team, whereas sticking with one primary platform removes a learning curve that might otherwise have to be overcome, he says. Platform knowledge (or lack thereof) extends to IT support as well. “If you’re supporting three different platforms, your IT team may be familiar with one and less familiar with the other two. And so when someone asks a question, they actually can’t provide the answer or they’re really unsure or unfamiliar with the environment,” Ross says.

IT faces other problems around integrating multiple tools, because pairing different, unequal tools can cause the enterprise to lose valuable history and data, a particular problem when items are subject to regulations such as the California Public Records Act, for example. And as organizations become more data driven, any lack of insight into data will hinder them overall, Ross says. “While the tool may be more preferred for a smaller group of people, the enterprise ends up paying a price.”

Finding the right balance

The days of IT professionals forcing every user to use the same thing are over, but it’s not possible for IT to support every employee’s tool of choice, says Greg Meyers, CIO at Syngenta, a global producer of agrichemicals and seeds. “It’s important to hold distinct what individual people use to be productive versus how teams choose to collaborate,” he says.

“In my experience, there is a network effect to collaboration tools,” Meyers adds. If every department is using a different app for the same purpose, that value proposition is completely destroyed, he says.

Meyers’ goal at Syngenta is to provide the best tool that meets the needs for most groups while leaving some flexibility for other groups to bring their own preferences into use. But choosing their own tools also means those employees are on their own with respect to maintenance, assuming everyone at the organization adheres to IT security policies about what level of sensitive information is allowed to be stored and where.

“This policy allows for room for people to have flexibility but also creates some power of scale in everyone standardizing on the same thing,” Meyers says.  

“IT wants to provide a more flexible environment, but security and control are still the top priorities for IT decision makers,” Castañón-Martínez chimes in.

AVOA’s Crawford agrees. Fundamental services like email, calendar and file sharing need to be centralized, because there are far too many complexities, risks and inefficiencies that arise from splitting these functions across multiple platforms, he says. It can be helpful for an enterprise to move to a specialized platform for collaboration that integrates with those fundamental services, but it’s important for IT and employees to settle on the right, smallest number of tools, he adds. “The network effect, cost and complexity play central roles that must be balanced with the reasons to use a variety of solutions.”

Standardizing on a single product isn’t necessary, but IT can’t simply allow an “anything goes” approach throughout the organization, he says. “There is a balance that enterprises need to seek out and tradeoffs to be made. Keep in mind that these are core, fundamental functions that lead to employee productivity. Streamline the process and experience. Don’t over-complicate it.”

Los Angeles largely adheres to this approach. City employees use G Suite for email, calendar, file sharing, chat, and video communications, but some of the city’s departments are also heavily invested in ServiceNow, a cloud-based workflow management tool, for day-to-day workflows and some internal operations. “While there may be overlap between some of those systems, we try to keep ServiceNow dedicated to incidents, to change management, to product management, [and] service catalog,” Ross says.

“We’ve tried to define and clearly state, ‘This system is used for X, that system is used for Y,’ but the reality is there is overlap,” he says. “As an incident is recorded, we’ll have chat features in ServiceNow, both with the user as well as between each other,” and that’s redundant with features city employees also have access to in G Suite. “There are times where those [points of overlap] occur, but we try to provide, where possible, very clear delineation,” Ross says.

“Once you have your platform, you stick with it until you have a compelling reason to select another platform,” Ross says. “The reality is, everybody has things they like about their current platform and things they don’t.” Software is imperfect and individual expectations are very high, he adds.

“Let’s be honest, when we think about top-tier organizations and top performance, we’re talking about organizations that integrate and collaborate across their own silos,” Ross says. “Reinforcing siloed behavior is not going to be good for the enterprise, whether you’re in government or in the private sector.”

While it’s important for departments to clearly vocalize what they need to accomplish their goals, IT ultimately needs to make decisions about what platforms are available for use as it weighs considerations that are paramount to the enterprise at large, Ross explains. “We don’t want to shortchange our users,” but “we will implement a platform that performs most of what we can perceive as the identified requirement,” he says. “Sometimes you may have to sacrifice a little bit on functionality but gain something bigger for the larger organization.”

Techniques to overcome challenges

Los Angeles has developed internal policies and procedures to meet these challenges, Ross says. Constantly gauging customer demand is an important practice, he argues. “Because if you don't, they're going to start working against you and working around you.” These tools are very personal to the people that use them, and it’s important for IT to recognize that they are making serious decisions about tools that are an integral part of their users’ lives.

Ross and his team also periodically revisit policies, training and areas of weakness to determine if they are missing some key features or processes.

Castañón-Martínez agrees that IT has to balance the needs and wants of teams with those of the organization. Enterprises and employees also have to grapple with the fact that the number of applications in their toolbox isn’t likely to diminish in the near term. “Tasks are becoming more complicated, and employees increasingly rely on more applications to do their work,” he says. “Switching between apps is one of the main causes of friction at work, and a drain on productivity.”

Fortunately, most of the big collaboration platforms are making strides to integrate with other apps and services, so workers can accomplish tasks for a variety of tools without leaving their main collaboration app. IT decision makers and users agree that the usefulness and impact these tools can have on employee productivity increases with such integrations, Castañón-Martínez says.

Embedding chat, voice and video communications within business applications can also help streamline workflows, Castañón-Martínez adds. Moreover, “conversational AI is emerging as the interaction plane for the digital employee experience, enabling more seamless consumption of information and involvement in business processes across the application estate,” he says. It can also provide a single point of access for employees.

Ross stresses the importance of educating users about whichever collaboration tools are adopted and training them to use the tools effectively. “Mistakenly we look to software to make us better... There's more to it. You have to adopt it, you have to use it, you have to be trained and capable in it,” Ross says. “Reinforcing training to optimize what people can accomplish makes it more infectious and more sticky.”

As Ross notes, gaining access to a Porsche 911 won’t make him a fast driver, and a professional racecar driver will probably put up better lap times in a Honda Civic simply because she has more refined skills. “Making people effective with their tools, I think, is as important” as that driver’s training in empowering them to do their jobs better and more efficiently, he says.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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