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Summary:

Many collaboration tools have very similar feature sets. But to find a really good app, you need to look beyond the basic features of a particular tool and delve more deeply into the value, experience and knowledge that its vendor brings to the table.

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As we all know, technology is changing the way that many people work. The Internet and mobile technology allow organizations to employ people regardless of location. At the same time, new software is enabling new ways to collaborate and new styles of work; there’s now a proliferation of tools, from simple hosted filesharing apps to complex integrated enterprise social networking tools. The array of choices in this “work platform” space can be bewildering, especially as many of them are very similar.

A new report at GigaOM Pro (subscription required) covers this landscape of new tools, looking at a selection of the leading companies in various sectors, examining each offering’s strength and weaknesses. However, I was particularly interested to read what author Haydn Shaughnessy thought made for sustainable (as opposed to functional) differentiators in the various providers of collaborative tools; looking more deeply at the value each vendor brings, rather than just the number of features its tools now provide. As you can see in the table below, many of the tools have very similar feature sets.

There are several potential sustainable differentiators that could each make for a strong product, including:

  • Experience: Companies with more experience of the way tools are used in the workplace should have an edge over those that don’t. For example, companies with histories of working with user-driven communities, like Jive, will likely have an edge when implementing community features in its more recent apps. Of course, newer, inexperienced vendors could always acquire talent with the required experience, but in general, companies with long track records in a particular field will have more combined experience than those that don’t.
  • Driving new concepts in collaborative work: Certain vendors, like Socialtext, are known to drive innovative thinking around new work practices, such as the use of “streams” to provide visibility in knowledge work. Companies at the forefront of those kind of innovations are likely to add ore value to their products.
  • Ease of implementation: Some vendors offer tools, such as the “enterprise-lite,” consumer-like offerings from the likes of box.net and Yammer, that are easy to deploy and implement. They don’t require potential clients to go through a protracted enterprise decision-making process, and so are much less risky than complex, more expensive alternatives.
  • Deep system integration: Some vendors have made integration with existing enterprise tools, like SharePoint a specialty. Certainly, if your business already has established enterprise tools in place, one of your priorities should be to look to vendors whose tools are designed to deeply mesh with those tools and improve upon them — not just superficially interface with them.
  • Work process innovation: If discovering better work process is a priority, then Shaughnessy argues that businesses should choose a tool that’s already used by employees (presumably as this means that the concentrating on how the tool woks will be less of a priority for users), or one with strong ideation features, like brainstorming and discussion tools. I agree with this to an extent: Complex tools that force users into certain ways of working are much less likely to be used to discover new work processes; if you allow users to pick their own tools, they’ll implement their own ways of getting things done. The flipside, of course, is losing some control and oversight of employees.
  • Stronger management oversight: While collaboration tools have the potential to make organizations flatter, we’ll still need some management oversight, and those managers will  need additional support if they’re working with remote teams. Certain vendors provide platforms with more advanced management tools that go beyond milestone setting or status updates.

Of course, certain companies would likely prioritize one or more of these differentiators depending on their needs, and when choosing software, there are many other factors to consider in addition to those listed above. But by looking deeper than the list of a product’s features, it’s possible to assess whether a company really brings an understanding of how its products could benefit the workplace and improve work processes,  and, ultimately, whether they will be successful.

Read a more in-depth analysis of these new work tools in the full report at GigaOM Pro (subscription required).

Photo courtesy Flickr user prettydreamer.workshop

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  1. Useful information, thanks. I’d also like to add TeamLab http://teamlab.com – a platform with a rich collaboration functionality.
    TeamLab recent review by techi.com – http://bit.ly/dTTfjh

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    1. Interesting to look beyond just the features in the review. I think Ease of Implementation and Work Process Innovation would be the most important aspects, at least for collaboration tools. I use Odysen of course but it’s probably a better fit for smaller or non-enterprise type uses.

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  2. I am missing LumoFlow on this list. What I have heard they are receiving a lot of traction in this space.

    JJ

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    1. Please at least read the article; it’s not a list of tools. Try explaining how the tool you are promoting meets any of the criteria listed?

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  3. That’s an interesting choice of characteristics in the chart above. They are very focused on the collaboration, content creation and technical structure. It’s worth adding a category like “work/project management”. Collaboration without some means of shepherding the deliverables forward is just another bucket of content to wade through.

    As an example, many of the categories above can be woven together behind a familiar spreadsheet-like interface. http://twitpic.com/12hkw2 It’s one of the many novel approaches to consolidating the diversity outlined in this article.
    -Brent Frei

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    1. You’re looking at features again :) Though I think that incorporating task management features into collaboration could probably come under “Driving new concepts in collaborative work” and “Work process innovation”

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  4. All around great review on collaboration tools. Some of those application have great potential in the future and it will be great to watch as they grow. Thank you for this

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  5. Hi,

    Great article! I’d like to add that not the tools define the success, but more the processes and the people behind the processes who are willing or not willing to collaborate are key to success. Furtheemore I’d like to suggest a look at http://www.agreedo.com which applies a simple interface leaving enough room for company specific processes to take place

    Best regards,

    Hannes

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  6. Simon, thanks for the post. I am the solution marketing manager for collaboration products at Novell, and I hope you don’t mind a comment. I’d agree that the company characteristics you mentioned are critical, in addition to specific product features.

    I’d also ask you to consider Novell as a leader in the collaboration space. We have been in the business of collaboration since GroupWise email came out in 1988, and have 12+ years of experience from SiteScape, so we have the experience you mentioned, in addition to many of the other sustainable differentiators you list.

    As far as innovation goes, please check out our new product, Novell Vibe Cloud, which builds real-time communications into enterprise-class collaboration. You can get your free account at https://vibe.novell.com.

    Best,
    Russ

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Russ. I haven’t tried Vibe Cloud, but I’ll try to take it for a spin (or get one of the WWD team to).

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  7. Interesting list of collaboration tools. In terms of more specific tools for collaboration, particularly, document collaboration, I would suggest Agilewords. It’s a web-based alternative to MS Word change tracking and email attachments.

    Tabitha

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