More and more enterprises are using more and more collaboration tools to connect dispersed workforces and external partners. From project management tools to video conferencing, collaboration tools have transformed the way that we do business, driven by the constant call to make people and teams more productive and creative. But is the growing array of tools becoming so overwhelming that their value is waning, or perhaps even starting to reverse? And if so, what can be done about it?

Users In The Core

Collaboration tools take off if they make daily working life noticeably easier for a target user group – for example a CRM platform for sales, or a tasks management tool for product development. Shadow IT – despite certain negative connotations that surround it – actually presents users with the opportunity to seek out tools that meet their specific needs. Departmental teams can weigh up productivity benefits against the purchase price and the time investment of deployment, training and support. Of course, there may well be legal and IT checks to go through, but putting the fundamental value assessment in the hands of frontline users surely makes sense.

A further benefit of departmental product selection is the impact on subsequent rollout and adoption. There’s often enough direct operational management control and coordination – who are clearly bought into the departmental purchase decision – to get the team behind the deployment and engrain the tool into daily routines and workflows. Users start to ‘live’ in the selected tool and the resulting collaboration is all the more natural and effective. So, core departmental users sound in pretty good shape. But what about cross-functional staff and senior managers who are involved in projects and decision-making across multiple departments and their respective tools?

Users On The Peripheral

The situation can be quite different for senior managers and cross-functional staff. While departmental teams may well have a small number of carefully selected, value-added tools, these can add up at a company level, and really get out of hand when you factor in all the external parties with whom the enterprise also needs to collaborate.

Such staff end up on the periphery of many tools. They may embrace a couple, but it’s a very big ask – too big an ask – to expect that they’ll embrace all to the extent that a core departmental user might. They can find themselves needing to keep track of information, communications and tasks in so many different places. Relevant data can be overlooked leading to sub-optimal decision-making, and next steps can be missed leading to delayed projects and missed deadlines.

Furthermore, while well-used departmental tools build up invaluable data for those core teams, the result at a higher level can be a ‘silos’ effect. Certain silos may not be accessible by all relevant people, which can be expensive to rectify, and it’s a non-trivial exercise to aggregate these silos into valuable management information, not to mention keeping such an aggregation up to speed with the deployment of new tools.

Far from the rosy intra-department picture, the cross-functional picture can become quite counter-productive, which is diametrically opposed to the underlying intent of these tools. Suddenly, email can start to look less bad again…

So Where Do We Go From Here?

Multiple tools make fundamental sense. Users will always want to use the best capability for the job at hand, rather than accepting a one-size-fits-all compromise. Once a department has embraced a particular tool, it’s going to be very tough to prise them away from it. They chose it for a reason in the first place; users have invested time to learn how to use it; administrators have invested time and money in workflow customisation; and perhaps most of all, the data is just too painful to give up or massage into an alternative tool.

Instead, it boils down to finding a better option for those cross-functional and senior management users who are feeling the proliferation pain. We need tools that effectively aggregate relevant parts of multiple other tools. We need products that integrate well with one another and that can act as ‘horizontal glue’ across functional siloes, such channelised chat or live remote meetings capabilities. The ship has sailed when it comes to today’s world of myriad, readily-accessible collaboration tools. The focus now needs to shift to a new dimension of being best-in-class: how to play well together.