Team collaboration apps face centralized vs. decentralized deployments

The adoption of team chat apps has risen sharply in the past year. But as these collaboration tools gain traction, what's the best deployment approach for enterprises?

For the past few years, team collaboration apps have been all the rage in unified communications. These mobile-centric collaboration tools offer persistent workspaces for colleagues to communicate quickly and contextually around certain topics via messaging, voice and video chat.

Despite their benefits, team collaboration apps also have their shortcomings. The market is teeming, for example, with sundry apps that could flummox potential buyers and create communication silos within enterprises. The apps also lack interoperability with each other and external collaboration capabilities with customers and partners. Mobile notifications, too, can bombard users as new messages roll in.

However, team collaboration apps -- such as Slack, Cisco Spark, Microsoft Teams and RingCentral Glip -- could replace instant-messaging services, according to Irwin Lazar, a unified communications (UC) analyst at Nemertes Research, a tech advisory firm based in Mokena, Ill. Many IM platforms, he said, lack mobile optimization, persistent contextual communications and integrations with other business applications.

Team collaboration apps can certainly be valuable communication tools -- if deployed effectively and in line with business goals. But, as an IT manager, how do you incorporate these apps into your overall collaboration strategy?

Collaboration questions have no easy answers

Team collaboration apps have seen rapid adoption in the past year. According to Nemertes, 33% of companies used team chat apps in 2016 -- a sharp increase from the 2% that used those apps in 2015. At the same time, companies increasingly warmed to the notion of supporting chat apps, with only 39% of firms saying they had no plans to use these services in 2016. Just one year earlier, 76% said they weren't interested in deploying chat apps. Largely, though, the apps are deployed within business units and not enterprise-wide.

These applications have gained gravitas in the enterprise space. Every UC vendor has a solution, and they're pushing it aggressively.
Irwin Lazaranalyst, Nemertes Research

"These applications have gained gravitas in the enterprise space," Lazar said in a recent webinar. "Every UC vendor has a solution, and they're pushing it aggressively. These are not viewed as niche applications."

When organizations deploy team collaboration apps, Lazar said he's seen two different approaches: centralized and decentralized.

In the centralized approach, organizations pick one app, make it their official team chat app and treat it like email and IM. This IT-centric approach is easier to govern and cheaper, since organizations are not launching several different applications.

The centralized strategy would work best in large, regulated businesses that have conservative IT approaches and need to archive messages. The centralized strategy also works well if organizations are already heavily invested in a particular UC vendor.  

In a decentralized approach, lines of business pick the apps they want, but IT still sets guidelines. For instance, the apps may need to integrate with a company's repository system and search management platform.

The decentralized approach could vex IT departments and limit cross-company collaboration. The decentralized strategy works best for distributed, smaller companies that want more flexibility and view IT as a resource that can provide competitive differentiators among apps.

"This is the yin and the yang of the discussion," Lazar said. "This is where companies are trying to figure things out. There's no right answer."

Determine what's best for you

The right answer, however, most likely depends on individual company needs and culture. If application developers, for instance, never need to speak with accountants, then a single messaging platform isn't necessary.

Smaller organizations, however, might just need one app. Larger companies, meanwhile, probably won't have success mandating that employees use a particular app. Some business units have probably used a certain app for years and are comfortable with its features.

Lazar suggested organizations develop a weighted scorecard to gauge different collaboration needs. Also, organizations should consider the business applications that employees use every day and the communication tools needed within them. If most employees use Salesforce regularly, for example, then determine the team chat apps that integrate best with that application.

While evaluating a centralized or decentralized approach, Lazar said companies need to consider who their strategic vendors are on the unified communications side, as well as the business applications side. As you determine the best collaboration strategy, most of all, be proactive.

"The key point is not to limit yourself," Lazar said. "There are lots of things for companies to think about. Figure out what's most important to you."

A Slack case study

Nemertes Research was sold on the GIFs. As a 10-person company with employees scattered around the country working from their homes, Nemertes looked to tweak its collaboration strategy. The technology research firm, based in Mokena, Ill., tested the messaging applications Slack and HipChat. Nemertes opted for Slack because of the ability to pull in animated GIFs from the Giphy repository.

Admittedly, this may sound silly, said Nemertes analyst Irwin Lazar, but the GIFs are a fun way for a distributed, virtual team to communicate.

"Something we frown on here is sending internal email," Lazar said. "Email is a horrible tool for group collaboration because you don't have that context of keeping all the messages within a specific team or project under a common thread."

But, like email, messages can inundate users. Nemertes now has nearly 100 Slack channels. Employees don't need to pay attention to every channel and message, so they determine what's important and optimize alerts so they're not overwhelmed.

"The biggest challenge is if you're out of the office for a week and come back; there are too many messages," Lazar said. "It's easier to come back and see a list of emails. It's very difficult to go through reams of messages and figure out which ones are important. So, a task management tool goes hand in hand with using these apps successfully."

To help user adoption, managers in particular need to use the messaging apps, Lazar said. Additionally, a messaging service like Slack can help consolidate collaboration workflows. Lazar said he now does all his internal communications in Slack, which has saved him from checking different applications repeatedly.

Nemertes also uses Gmail and Google Docs. And Google recently released Google Chat, a messaging service. So, looking ahead, should Nemertes consider using Google's new chat service?

"You're always looking at what's the next application coming along," Lazar said.

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