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External collaboration tools extend platforms to partners

Extending collaboration tools to outside users is a challenge. Learn the features productivity vendors have that make this possible.

Team collaboration tools provide an efficient way for internal groups to communicate with one another. Extending that collaboration beyond the organization gets a little more challenging. Collaboration software platforms, such as Microsoft Teams, Slack and Cisco Webex, are addressing this issue as are proprietary and open-standard, third-party offerings, such as Matrix, Mio and 8x8's Sameroom. The goal of these vendors is to provide a seamless collaboration experience to all users.

Internal vs. external collaboration

The built-in federation and guest access tools within collaboration platforms enable team members to easily communicate through group messaging, voice, video conferencing and file sharing. Internal collaboration occurs when all members of a team belong to the same organization, while external collaboration occurs when the team has members from two or more organizations. The most common type of external team is when a company brings in trusted vendors, partners or consultants to assist with a project that requires outside expertise to succeed. As a result, members from multiple organizations must be allowed to communicate as a unified group within the team collaboration tool.

Internal team collaboration is far more straightforward as all team members have similar access and licensing rights to the organization's chosen platform. External team collaboration, on the other hand, can be far more complex. The challenge is how these groups can communicate seamlessly across a single platform.

The team must first choose the platform it will use for collaboration. It's common to settle on the preferred team collaboration platform of the project's biggest internal stakeholder. Once the platform has been determined, the next step is to figure out how third-party users gain access to the host organization's team collaboration tools.

Guest access supports external collaboration

The most obvious choice would be to assign external team members accounts and licenses so they would look and act as if they all belong to the same company. While this approach is possible, it's not recommended as it comes with several inherent pitfalls. For example, organizations would need to assign corporate email addresses and enforce access controls to ensure external team members can reach only the resources they need in the context of the project. As you might guess, this can lead to an administrative and data security nightmare.

A better choice would be for the host organization to invite external members to specific team collaboration resources on an as-needed basis as third-party guests. By default, guest access creates the proper levels of separation when working with external parties. It does place a bit more burden on external parties to create and manage their own team collaboration platforms and user accounts, however.

Depending on the platform, external parties that don't have their own organizational deployment or licenses for the chosen team collaboration platform can typically create and use a stripped-down freemium guest account. A free account may or may not have all the features needed for collaboration, and the external partner may be required to purchase a license.

Cross-platform collaboration

More recently, collaboration vendors and third parties are creating ways to collaborate across different platforms, including cross-platform chat, voice and video communications. Keep in mind, however, that not every feature or collaboration capability can operate in a cross-platform setting. Thus, administrators must evaluate whether cross-platform collaboration is possible between two different vendor platforms and to what extent collaboration can be extended across those platforms. In most cases, enterprise IT departments still find it more advantageous to place everyone on the same collaboration platform and simply create and configure guest access or external federations.

Vendors address external collaboration challenges

To make external collaboration a bit easier, many team collaboration vendors are offering paying customers the ability to invite external users to temporarily use a fully functional guest account. Once the project or external collaboration need is finished, the licensed guest accounts can then be reclaimed. Slack, for example, refers to this feature as single-channel guest licenses.

The guest access method works well when companies need to add a few external members to a team. When working closely with a third-party company that requires dozens or hundreds of guest accounts, however, this capability can become unmanageable. Guest access simply does not scale well from a management perspective.

To solve the scalability issue, some team collaboration platforms allow two or more organizations to merge yet maintain separate access and data security. Some examples of this type of external federations are the following:

  • Microsoft Teams offers external access federation capabilities that essentially create a virtual bridge between organization domains. Administrators can then permit and deny various aspects of Microsoft Teams access, including how external team members use group project resources. More recently, Microsoft announced Teams Connect, which enables external partner channels to be easily established without the need for guest accounts.
  • Slack Connect allows two or more organizations to create external communications channels that look and feel like internal channel counterparts and includes the ability to chat and share files.
  • Cisco XMPP Federation for Webex uses the open Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol to communicate with others inside Webex that are also compatible with XMPP communications.

Organizations also have the option to integrate multiple team collaboration platforms to create a unified -- but external -- team space. For example, Microsoft and Cisco allow partial integrations between their two platforms. Keep in mind that integrating two vendor platforms can add complexity and unforeseen challenges.

Finally, third-party options are beginning to emerge that help facilitate intercompany communications. For example, Mio's Universal Channels enables administrators to invite external contacts to join an external collaboration channel across popular collaboration tools, including Slack, Microsoft Teams and Cisco Webex. Other third-party options include 8x8 Sameroom and tools built on the Matrix open standard. Element is a tool built on Matrix that bridges collaboration communication between the Element platform and proprietary collaboration options, such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, Signal and Telegram.

Evaluating and choosing the right external collaboration tools and methods

If possible, it may be best to choose a single host platform and use guest accounts or federate between organizations to overcome the challenge of external collaboration. Keeping collaboration on a single platform tends to alleviate many of the major setup headaches and issues with incompatibility when collaborating across multiple platforms. If a single collaboration platform is not an option, the next step is to research which collaboration tools offer the most features and capabilities, while keeping management overhead to a minimum. Thus, it may be necessary to reach out to business partners to figure out what collaboration tools they use and then evaluate external collaboration first-party and third-party bridging options.

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