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What are the challenges of using multiple team collaboration apps?

Companies are already using a variety of collaboration platforms, but managing them is hard. What should companies know when juggling multiple team collaboration apps?

Most enterprises use more than one collaboration platform, but not necessarily by design. IT would much rather the organization standardize around one platform where only one vendor would need to be managed, and everyone uses the same set of applications along with having a consistent user experience (UX). This has long been the case with most business software tools, which are generally paid for, provided and controlled by IT.

Why you need multiple team collaboration apps

But the situation is different with team collaboration applications. These offerings are all cloud-based, often with free pared-down versions. They don't require IT's involvement to deploy, and being user-centric, most workers can easily access them and collaborate on their own terms. Arguably, this wouldn't be happening if IT could offer a superior set of apps everyone could use equally well, but clearly that's not the case. In some enterprises, IT has a poor track record in terms of innovation and tech-savvy workers simply bypass them, knowing they can get better results on their own.

This isn't an ideal scenario, and it's compounded by the fact that the team collaboration space is crowded with a wide range of offerings. Some are messaging-centric team collaboration platforms, while others are built around legacy applications like telephony and email -- unified communications platforms. Each has distinct value drivers, and while they can be highly complementary, they also have a lot of overlap. Many of these platforms are sticky by nature, and once users get comfortable with them, it's hard to move them off -- especially if IT is trying to have everyone use a singular platform.

Things get even more complicated when collaborating with external parties because they may be using a different platform. All of these variables add up to a messy scenario that resembles a Tower of Babel, and it's difficult to undo. If not actively managed, employees risk becoming less productive, as they end up spending more time navigating across collaboration apps than actually working productively in teams. To better understand how to manage this, two sets of challenges need to be considered: those facing IT and those facing end users.

Clearly, supporting multiple platforms places more demands on IT, especially when end users do their own thing and start using consumer-grade offerings.

IT challenges

Clearly, supporting multiple platforms places more demands on IT, especially when end users do their own thing and start using consumer-grade offerings. These may not integrate well with other platforms, will be short on features and could pose new security risks. While multiple team collaboration platforms can be convenient for end users, they can be problematic for IT and this activity should be discouraged as much as possible.

A year into the pandemic, both IT and remote users have made their collaboration platform choices. By now, some remote workers may have cycled through a few team collaboration platforms before settling on one they really like. Of course, this is the downside of user-centric technology -- especially when it's free. In the rush to get up and going with remote work, users may have made hasty choices. And every time something changes, it's more work for IT.

Regardless of which collaboration platform is used, supporting multiple platforms requires IT to manage more services to ensure they all work together. Basic things like passwords, usage policies, administrative control and industry compliance will fall to IT, so more resources could be needed. Licensing costs need to be considered, since there are no economies of scale when supporting multiple platforms. That could make the investment in collaboration more costly than it needs to be.

End-user collaboration platform challenges

How employees interact with multiple team collaboration apps presents a different set of challenges, since each platform will have a distinct UX. Some workers will collaborate best with video conferencing, while others will prefer mobile settings. Advanced users may seek customization to make their UX more personal. It's not likely all these needs can be addressed with one platform, so collaboration could become a messy process where a lot of effort is needed to bridge these silos. That's a key challenge since it undermines the core benefit of these platforms, which is to make employees more productive.

A related issue arises around trying to have a consistent user experience, which also contributes to productivity. Basic features like chat, calendar integration or managing meetings will differ across platforms, as will things like mobile support or the ability to support browser-based applications. If telephony is a key channel for collaboration, be aware that not all platforms have native PSTN support.

Having a consistent UX is central to the UC value proposition, so the more platforms and applications being used, the harder it is to have seamless collaboration across the board. IT decision-makers need to be mindful of how a mixed environment like this will need to be managed, whether it's with tutorials or training sessions to help end users work across multiple platforms.

This is especially true with so many employees working remotely during the pandemic. When working in isolation, they can't readily compare notes with office colleagues or walk over to someone's workspace to test out collaboration apps in the moment. To some extent, they can do this virtually -- but it's not as engaging.

Building a strategy to support and secure multiple team collaboration apps

The starting point for a strategy would be to recognize and accept that the use of multiple apps will be the norm for collaboration. For better or worse, "collaboration" will remain a moving target and a fixed, standardized definition of teamwork will be elusive. Related to that, it's likely that remote work is here to stay, meaning that most collaboration will continue to be virtual.

Given that, for employees to stay productive while working remotely -- not to mention while using their own devices, broadband connections and office equipment -- they will likely want to use the apps of their choice rather than those mandated by IT. To help them do this effectively, IT needs to provide more resources and best practices so their choices for collaboration apps will be as compatible as possible with those used by other workers.

One example would be providing platform updates to ensure workers are using the latest version. Another would be hosting learning sessions or demos for specific apps so users will stay current on the features and best practices to collaborate securely. IT could also provide prepackaged connectors or templates -- possibly provided by vendors -- so workers can seamlessly integrate their apps and workflows with team members using other platforms.

IT can use the examples above to manage the new collaboration reality and help keep a distributed workforce productive. The bigger picture, however, is about having a strategy focused on addressing IT and end-user challenges collectively, with the common goal being to drive productivity while using multiple apps and platforms for collaboration.

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