Looking Beyond the Features to Find Good Collaboration Tools

As we all know, technology is changing the way that many people work. The Internet and mobile technology allow organizations to employ people regardless of location. At the same time, new software is enabling new ways to collaborate and new styles of work; there’s now a proliferation of tools, from simple hosted filesharing apps to complex integrated enterprise social networking tools. The array of choices in this “work platform” space can be bewildering, especially as many of them are very similar.

A new report at GigaOM Pro (subscription required) covers this landscape of new tools, looking at a selection of the leading companies in various sectors, examining each offering’s strength and weaknesses. However, I was particularly interested to read what author Haydn Shaughnessy thought made for sustainable (as opposed to functional) differentiators in the various providers of collaborative tools; looking more deeply at the value each vendor brings, rather than just the number of features its tools now provide. As you can see in the table below, many of the tools have very similar feature sets.

There are several potential sustainable differentiators that could each make for a strong product, including:

  • Experience: Companies with more experience of the way tools are used in the workplace should have an edge over those that don’t. For example, companies with histories of working with user-driven communities, like Jive, will likely have an edge when implementing community features in its more recent apps. Of course, newer, inexperienced vendors could always acquire talent with the required experience, but in general, companies with long track records in a particular field will have more combined experience than those that don’t.
  • Driving new concepts in collaborative work: Certain vendors, like Socialtext, are known to drive innovative thinking around new work practices, such as the use of “streams” to provide visibility in knowledge work. Companies at the forefront of those kind of innovations are likely to add ore value to their products.
  • Ease of implementation: Some vendors offer tools, such as the “enterprise-lite,” consumer-like offerings from the likes of box.net and Yammer, that are easy to deploy and implement. They don’t require potential clients to go through a protracted enterprise decision-making process, and so are much less risky than complex, more expensive alternatives.
  • Deep system integration: Some vendors have made integration with existing enterprise tools, like SharePoint (s msft) a specialty. Certainly, if your business already has established enterprise tools in place, one of your priorities should be to look to vendors whose tools are designed to deeply mesh with those tools and improve upon them — not just superficially interface with them.
  • Work process innovation: If discovering better work process is a priority, then Shaughnessy argues that businesses should choose a tool that’s already used by employees (presumably as this means that the concentrating on how the tool woks will be less of a priority for users), or one with strong ideation features, like brainstorming and discussion tools. I agree with this to an extent: Complex tools that force users into certain ways of working are much less likely to be used to discover new work processes; if you allow users to pick their own tools, they’ll implement their own ways of getting things done. The flipside, of course, is losing some control and oversight of employees.
  • Stronger management oversight: While collaboration tools have the potential to make organizations flatter, we’ll still need some management oversight, and those managers will  need additional support if they’re working with remote teams. Certain vendors provide platforms with more advanced management tools that go beyond milestone setting or status updates.

Of course, certain companies would likely prioritize one or more of these differentiators depending on their needs, and when choosing software, there are many other factors to consider in addition to those listed above. But by looking deeper than the list of a product’s features, it’s possible to assess whether a company really brings an understanding of how its products could benefit the workplace and improve work processes,  and, ultimately, whether they will be successful.

Read a more in-depth analysis of these new work tools in the full report at GigaOM Pro (subscription required).

Photo courtesy Flickr user prettydreamer.workshop

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