Analyst Report: How to Manage Consumer-Grade Collaborative Tools in the Workplace


Consumer-grade tools like Twitter, IM, Skype and Facebook have steadily crept into the enterprise over the past few years, and particularly those meant for collaboration. A recent IDC report, for example, states that 15 percent of workers reported using consumer social tools like Twitter and Skype — rather than corporate-sponsored social tools — for business purposes.

This shift is happening for a number of reasons: perceived gaps in the capabilities (in either functionality or ease of use) of existing corporate tools; employees incorporating their favorite social and collaborative tools into daily workflow; the low or absent cost of most consumer-grade tools and economic pressure to do more with less; and a narrowing of the differences between tools designed for the consumer and those built for enterprise.

The trend for collaborative-specific consumer-grade tools mirrors the similar infiltration of consumer mobile devices into the enterprise. The cause of such consumerization is that end-users are becoming more vocal about their frustrations with the limited choice of  tools available in the workplace, given the range of tools available elsewhere. From an employee point-of-view, that frustration is understandable. If you’ve found a tool — Google Wave or MSN Chat, for example — that would clearly help communication and collaboration on the job, chances are you’ll want to have it in the workplace at all times, whether or not your employer sanctions its use.

The Risks

But naturally, there are risks involved in adopting such devices for the enterprise. As mentioned above, the gap between consumer- and enterprise-grade tools is narrowing, but there remain some crucial barriers to overcome before consumer-grade collaboration tools can be fully embraced by the enterprise. These are issues that cannot be ignored or overlooked and include, notably:

  • Support. Consumer-grade tools often have little or nothing in the way of support. While little support is probably reasonable in low-cost or free services, it’s not helpful if your business has come to rely on a particular tool that suddenly ceases to function properly. Certain web app vendors have come to realize that providing support can be a way to entice business customers and also open up additional revenue streams. For example, Netvibes (a company that provides personalized real-time monitoring dashboards) recently announced a “VIP program” that provides support with a 24-hour turnaround guarantee to business and professional users.
  • Longevity. Even consumer tools from well backed large companies can be withdrawn quickly. Google Wave is a good example of a technology that was beginning to gain some traction as a business tool when Google abandoned it less than a year after it launched. Wave’s predecessor, Etherpad, suffered a similar fate. Additionally, consumer tools often change significantly without warning. Businesses relying on these tools could find required functionality suddenly dropped or modified, which could affect the ability to communicate with coworkers and therefore interrupt productivity.
  • Security. Consumer-grade tools often lack the security that corporations require. They are not rugged. These applications are often not designed and built with security in mind, which leaves them vulnerable to attack. Seemingly innocuous usage of consumer-grade tools in the enterprise can result in significant data breaches and damage. Such devices can also become a vector for malware attacks, as noted in this Gartner report. And as these web apps are usually hosted by the vendor, the customer loses a degree of control over their data.
  • Redundancy. If employees start using tools of their own choosing to carry out collaboration tasks, there’s a risk the business will end up with multiple redundant applications. For example, some employees may start managing projects and sharing files using Huddle, while others could be using Basecamp, providing similar functionality across two different tools and creating potential confusion in the workplace.

In addition, bringing additional consumer-grade applications into a firm’s toolbox will only exacerbate the patchwork quilt problem (companies using an large number of disparate tools to address their technology needs, which is hard to manage and can result in data silos.)

The Strategies

But it’s very difficult to stop consumer tools from creeping into the workplace. Many of them are free and only require a web browser to use. Dropbox, for example, along with other file-sharing and syncing services, is making its way into the enterprise as an easy-to-use, cheap way to transfer large files between users. In fact, some web app vendors (like Cisco, with its WebEx web conferencing tool) acknowledge this is a common way for their products to become established tools in a company. Offerings like WebEx and Skype are now being adopted by businesses not because the IT department instigated their use, but because a critical mass of employees started to use them. If one employee or team starts using a product, widespread use throughout the business is often inevitable.

Rather than try to block the use of unsanctioned, consumer-grade tools (a futile exercise that will just result in exasperated IT staff and unhappy employees) corporate IT departments should recognize and acknowledge the reasons these tools are being used in the first place, then ensure a strategy for properly using them is in place. An enterprise strategy for the adoption of consumer collaboration tools should include the following steps:

  • Educate your staff on the risks and problems of bringing additional, unapproved tools into their workflow. Employees need to realize the potential risks that adding additional tools to the mix can introduce (integration with existing tools and the patchwork quilt problem). Staff should also be discouraged from using personal accounts for company business. Education like this can be achieved through training, but employing it also requires a change in the corporate mindset. New tools should not be rejected out-of-hand or be thought of as taboo, otherwise employees will likely use them anyway. One approach could be a sandbox or trial process while the employees themselves consider the risks of each tool.
  • Understand why your staff wants to use a particular tool. Employees may want to use tools that they think will provide functionality that’s unavailable with existing corporate offerings. For example, business-supplied tools for transferring large files may be cumbersome or inaccessible to those outside of the company, which is why employees are turning to Dropbox and similar products. In some cases, existing corporate tools like Sharepoint may be able to provide the required functionality (with perhaps some required staff training), or there may be a solid business case for purchasing additional tools. The bottom line is that employers should communicate with their employees to understand why they want to use consumer tools, and not simply discard suggestions.
  • Mitigate risk. Acknowledge that certain consumer-grade tools will bring significant benefits to the users and the business. In that case, it’s worth examining the tools to assess whether the business needs to invest in additional measures (like custom security controls, integrations with existing tools or staff training) to minimize potential risks and problems.

The gap between corporate-grade and consumer-grade tools will continue to narrow. Gartner’s Nick Jones says he expects that there will essentially be no difference between enterprise and consumer mobile tools within five years. Enterprise tools will take more cues from successful consumer products, while consumer tools will get more robust and offer business-friendly features (like support) as the vendors realize that corporate customers are good customers to have. As that gap closes, the issues outlined above will likely become less of a concern. The innovation of consumer collaboration tools should mean that workflows will become easier — leading to happier employees and more efficient businesses.

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