Collaborative conversation in the post-email enterprise

Email is no longer an effective means of collaboration and some companies have even banned it - but what is the alternative?

Email is no longer an effective means of collaboration and some companies have even banned it - but what is the alternative?

In the relatively short time of the couple of decades email has been widely used, it has migrated from a useful, simple universal communication tool to a burden.

So much so, that one of the main reasons for having a smartphone is to cope with email overload.

Work email has flooded well beyond working-hour boundaries. A survey conducted by iPass in May 2012 showed just over half of the employees polled sent their first work emails of the day before arriving at work; and almost three-quarters sent their last work emails after leaving for home – including the 9% who said they send their last email at around the time they put their children to bed, and the 28% who send it at their own bedtimes.

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There can be little doubt that email has spilt over, beyond its original purposes and, in so doing, it has lost some of its effectiveness. So is there an alternative? Certainly IT services company Atos thought so – or at least CEO Thierry Breton did, when he launched his "zero email initiative" to ban email from internal communications and move to other, more social communications tools. Whether this reaction is right for everyone is a matter of contention, but most organisations and individuals recognise that something has to change and, over two years on, Atos claims to have successfully freed up work hours for employees.

Part of the problem is that email is so universally (but often badly) applicable to meet many needs. It is used as an information repository, a way of passing the buck, a means of demonstrating “presentee-ism” – or at least pretending to be working. It is powerful, flexible and near-universal, with email tools present on any desktop computer or mobile device. However, it is deceptively easy to make mistakes, such as accidentally sending the wrong reply to the wrong person or sending messages to everybody, whether they want them or not.

Collaborating on common goals

And here lies the problem - email is too generic a form of communication and, while it can quite easily support enterprise collaboration, its universal nature means it can quickly spiral out of control and alignment with business processes, until pretty much everyone thinks it has a purpose all of its own: That is the idea, “I must do my email now” – rather than "I must work towards my goals now".

What might an alternative look like?

Well, there are plenty of ways of communicating or getting a message from one person to one or more others, but it is the closer bonds of sharing with a purpose where communication shifts towards collaboration. If communication can be defined as "raising the level of mutual awareness", collaboration adds “to work together towards a goal” to the definition.

There are different aspects of  "work together", or collaboration which can be grouped around five further "C" words; responsive communication, co-ordination (or, as once termed, workflow), shared content, consultation and the rather American-ised co-workers, that is, teams – virtual or otherwise.

Automating any one of these aspects could be described as improving collaboration.

Unified Communications

Finding technology to enable responsive communications is all too easy – there are so many, each exploiting different modes of communication, such as peer-to-peer, synchronous and so on. The real challenge has been to unify them.

Many individuals are already using their favourite consumer products to share and communicate with others

But unified communications tools and platforms were slow to take off, at least until the arrival of Microsoft’s Lync. The problem was too much early emphasis on telephony and saving costs with internet protocol, rather than enabling more effective communications.

The real value of unified communications lies in understanding more about the context of the communications and the presence of the individual. While this was well exploited in instant messaging platforms, the transition to more widely unified communications proved difficult as, to work effectively, features like presence need to be universally adopted.

Microsoft’s push, from its strength on the desktop as Office Communicator shifted to Lync, saw this happen far faster than the alternatives pushing from a telephony angle, partly since many individual users had already bought into the instant messaging model. The balance of power in integrating telephony has shifted away from the phone to the computer, which some suppliers have recognised. For example, companies such as Snom have integrated their telephony products with Lync.

The next steps in this sector will involve the continuous progress towards multiple end-points – fixed, but especially mobile – with the co-ordination and telephone-exchange services continuing to move into a cloud-based service. For small and mid-sized organisations, this may well be a public cloud service, although most large enterprises still shy away and look to private cloud models for their communications.

But it is the integration of mobile that continues to drive unified communications. The established unified communications suppliers have typically taken the route of adding mobile support as an extension to their core capabilities, but some have taken it a stage further, such as ShoreTel with its Dock for an iPad. This type of novel approach builds on the importance and attachment that users have for their tablets, (whether personally owned or supplied by the enterprise), and tethers it, to apply a light touch of enterprise control. There is merit to this approach, but it requires careful handling, as user device preferences can be very fickle and readily change.

Social collaboration

Beyond integrating existing modes of communication, collaboration depends on sharing, typically project timelines, workflows and content with a defined group of co-workers – the team. Different collaboration tools emphasise one or other of these aspects, and bringing them all together and keeping users engaged has been something of a struggle.

Whether focused around document repositories or project timelines, collaboration tools too often rely on email as the alert mechanism for changes, updates and so on. This clearly only adds to the propensity for email overload and negates some of the benefits of collaborating using a shared repository.

No-one has yet managed to successfully bring all aspects together, but tools where social media models have been adopted and adapted for the enterprise are making headway. This includes industry stalwarts such as IBM, Tibco and Microsoft; internet first-movers such as; and now Google, as well as smaller fast-risers such as Jive, Huddle, Podio and AtTask.

The adoption of social tools in the enterprise may still be at a relatively early stage, but consolidation is well underway and looks set to continue. Microsoft’s acquisition of Yammer two years ago is already looking like a good deal, even though, at the time, many were unsure.

Consent for adoption and productivity

The key for all is to continue to improve the user experience and encourage adoption. Some social tools for the enterprise will more readily pick up users through a viral approach, rather than the classic corporate rollout with associated training. Sometimes a boost comes from a less expected direction. For example, CloudApps uses gamification to help enterprises not only increase adoption, but also to motivate the right behaviour among employees, so that information gathered by enterprise collaboration tools, such as Salesforce, is more accurate and complete.

Social models for communication are very popular and work well because of shared or common interests. They can perhaps be boosted by some shared competitive spirit. When collaboration and project management tools have historically fallen down is when they have been the preserve of the project manager or have required specialist commitment, training and buy-in to get the best from them. Social enterprise tools work on the basis of getting widespread user adoption.

Improving collaboration, just like boosting productivity, only happens with individual consent, no matter how good the tools are. But tools that fit better with the working styles of the individuals, as well as the needs of the organisation, will certainly help.

But, ultimately, the competition for email and the social and unified enterprise communications tools may not come from a direct enterprise tools competitor, but from the consumer sector. So many individuals are already using their favourite consumer products to share and communicate with friends that applying organisational management might have to move into the area of federation rather than alternative.

Rob Bamforth is an analyst at Quocirca

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