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As communications vendors and their executives might say: Email is a scourge on the modern workforce. People simply get too much of it, which makes it hard to manage for the user and the company's IT staff. Also, email is largely non-contextual and can be hard to follow and search.
But, ultimately, email is perhaps not the best vehicle for true collaboration, which demands a platform for persistent, real-time and asynchronous discussion; a way to locate people by their relevance to the topic at hand; and a robust content-management system.
Not surprisingly, those same communications vendors are now flooding the market with a wave of so-called social collaboration tools that aim to help employees connect with one another on an ongoing, often project-focused basis.
Recent products like Cisco's Spark, Unify's Circuit and Interactive Intelligence's PureCloud are designed to dominate a new market arguably created by startups such as Glip and Slack. But they were all really preceded by earlier enterprise applications, such as Jive and NewsGator, which tried to deliver virtual team spaces by offering messaging, file sharing and search capabilities in a single, persistent location. Many of these early messaging pioneers were acquired by the same players who are now trying to jump-start the enterprise-social market.
The goal of the new collaboration apps is simple: a centralized, virtual "room" where employees can go to share information; access and work on documents; conference via voice or video; engage in persistent, contextual discussions; and locate colleagues with the expertise they need when they need it. In theory, these apps are meant to replace email as the go-to communications tool for most employees.
Social tools simply serving an additional function
While social collaboration tools can be more effective for employees to collaborate across geographic and physical boundaries, none offer the type of federation that would allow a truly open platform for communication outside the organization. Many collaboration apps allow users to "invite" customers and business partners to a workspace, but they are typically limited to basic conferencing capabilities. It's like getting an invite to a WebEx call -- it's a one-time, real-time experience.
Furthermore, there is no way to integrate any given platform with any other. In this regard, social collaboration is more like instant messaging than email -- people on Slack cannot work with people on Circuit since the user interfaces are entirely different. And those users can't even exchange messages or documents within their respective collaboration environments. At best, they must continue to rely on email, which will then be "imported" into their preferred social collaboration site.
That's a problem for the new technology, at least with regard to replacing email. Some business teams focus their efforts only within the organization, but most do not. Product development requires input from suppliers and designers. Marketing needs to vet material with outside public relations firms. The human resources department works with recruiters and universities. By requiring that any outside communications continue to be conducted via email, social tools are simply serving an additional function -- they cannot eliminate the one tool they require to work for all end users.
Collaboration is critical to business success -- and it's getting harder to do as more employees work remotely, whether from home or on the road. But it's not limited to employees inside any given organization.
Until vendors figure out a way for people to share information and expertise with people outside the company, social collaboration won't so much replace email as, perhaps, reposition it within a broader, more robust application.
About the author:
Melanie Turek is vice president of research at Frost & Sullivan. For more information on enterprise communications, see Frost & Sullivan's digital transformation site.
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