The collaboration space seems to be in constant flux.
Unified communications set the initial bar for having an integrated collaboration service. And since UC is telephony-centric, the emphasis was on real-time communications. That bar has since shifted, with the emergence of messaging platforms, such as Slack, HipChat, Bitrix24, Redbooth and many others.
Telephony-centric UC providers have followed suit with similar products, including Spark, Circuit, Zang and MiTeam. In addition, comparable offerings from Microsoft, Google and even Facebook have pushed these collaboration tools beyond trend status.
While no one knows how these developments will play out, they raise questions about basic, long-held assumptions on how people communicate. These new offerings are popular mainly because they are not telephony-centric, relying instead on messaging and other web-based channels.
Voice remains the best channel for personal communication. But, in today's world, telephony remains cumbersome for ad hoc needs, and messaging platforms are simply more efficient.
As preferences have shifted to near-real-time applications like messaging, are real-time communications no longer important? To understand this issue, let's examine two basic differences.
More than one way to collaborate
Some situations aren't so demanding or urgent. In these cases, near-real time is good enough. Messaging platforms work best in this scenario, either to support the entire task or in tandem with more comprehensive UC platforms.
Efficiency is paramount in fast-paced workplaces, and messaging is often the best mode of communication, since it's persistent and connected to the devices people use daily.
Desk phones can't compete with this level of efficiency, and other modes of voice aren't as seamless as messaging. As such, workers are willing to make a tradeoff where the immediacy and intimacy of voice loses some primacy to the efficiency of messaging.
To a large extent, this shift is generational. You have to consider the demographics of your workplace when determining how prevalent this messaging approach to collaboration is going to be.
Integrated versus stand-alone platforms
For IT, this standoff is the most important difference between messaging platforms and UC. By its nature, UC is built to be integrated with other things, such as the phone system, the desktop and business processes. With telephony working across all these environments, real time is always in the picture.
Conversely, messaging platforms are entirely web-based and largely beyond the reach of IT. This is a big part of messaging's appeal, as it can be used by anyone, often unbeknownst to IT.
We tend to think of these platforms just for messaging, but they actually support a far richer ecosystem of applications than UC. To be fair, most of these extra applications are not pertinent to collaboration, and their use is defined by users, not IT.
The web-based flexibility is another part of the appeal of messaging platforms, which also support voice communications, so users can have both real-time and near-real-time options. As such, Slack and other similar providers can provide both modes of collaboration, further complicating the landscape.
In other words, this isn't an either-or marketplace where real-time needs are served only by UC and near-real time is done via messaging platforms. Instead, IT needs to consider how much control it is willing to concede when planning around collaboration.
Workers can certainly collaborate in real time with Slack and other messaging services, but this solution will lack the deeper integration with your network and business applications. If your priorities dictate a laissez faire approach to collaboration, then you can have the best of both worlds by having separate messaging and UC systems.
However, if you need a more integrated collaboration model to support business-level objectives -- such as agility, productivity and cost control -- then you'll need a more hands-on approach to encourage workers to limit their use of messaging platforms to near-real time and keep real-time collaboration with UC.
Real-time collaboration is a business requirement.
Determine which collaboration features are essential.
Real-time communications enhance customer service.