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When It Takes Two to Tango


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Work from home (WFH) spurred a revolution in collaboration, for sure. All revolutions come to an end, though, and for the collaborative vendors in general (and Microsoft and Zoom in particular) it’s time to face the collision between returning from work and Wall Street’s never-ending demand for profit growth. How do you make more money with less collaboration? There’s a song, not surprisingly, that says that it “Takes Two to Tango”, and while that may not seem relevant to information technology, it turns out that “two” is all it takes to collaborate, in many cases. Perhaps making pairwise collaboration a revenue source may be the only way out for the vendors involved. 

As an industry, we haven’t focused on two-party or “pairwise” collaboration because it’s hard to sell. Consider that according to U.S. Census Bureau data, over half the employees in the U.S. (as well as other countries) work for companies with more than 500 employees. These companies typically have the: 

  • largest number of meetings 
  • largest meetings, according to what companies tell me, averaging almost 20 workers per meeting. 
  • greatest number of regular meetings.  

This combination made WFH a challenge for the big companies and created a market opportunity. 

But – and it’s a big “but” – the majority of U.S. companies employ five or fewer people and hold no “meetings” at all. Those same users tell me that over two-thirds of all collaboration involves only two people. Even among companies with over 500 employees (representing half the total workforce in the U.S. and most other countries) just over 60% of collaborations are pairwise.  

Given the emphasis on two-party interactions, you’d think that every vendor and service provider would be jumping on this type of collaboration, but obviously that’s not true. Instead, they’re focused on “meetings” even though what companies call a “meeting” comprises only about one in five person-hours of collaborative interaction. 


Video Is Not Essential to Pairwise Collaboration 

Studies have long shown that you don’t really need video in a two-party collaboration, as proven by our long dependence on pure audio communications in telephone systems. Moreover, university studies on “computer supported cooperative work” have demonstrated that there was no gain in productivity when video was used in pairwise collaboration. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean that pairwise collaborators themselves don’t like or even prefer video. I’ve had regular Teams calls over the last year where for some reason I couldn’t see the other party, but I missed having that video. It’s not that we needed it; I had no difficulty working with audio only – which lends additional credence, in my mind, to those productivity studies. I was just more comfortable with video, and that’s particularly true when I’ve never met the other party. Most users I’ve chatted with tell me that they prefer video on all “calls.” However, and it’s an important “however,” they’re rarely willing to pay for the video link. Even users who like video admit that it’s not enough to form the centerpiece of a collaborative tool in a pairwise relationship.  


Using Pairwise Collaboration to Drive Revenue Growth 

What, then, could vendors use to raise revenue by supporting pairwise collaboration? Users say that collaborations that need more than voice involves sharing a document or application screen. Companies with document-centric collaboration seem to prefer Teams. I’ve seen my own collaborations shifting gradually toward Teams because enterprises I collaborate with use Microsoft 365 for document development and see Teams as a natural extension to their workflow. But while I have Teams to support those enterprise collaborations, I don’t use it except when an enterprise sets up a Teams meeting with me. I use collaborative editing instead. 

Every credible document suite these days supports collaborative editing – e.g., Google Docs, Apple’s iWork suite, as well as several open-source office suites, including Apache Office and LibreOffice. All these suites offer collaborative document editing that could be easily augmented with a voice or video/voice channel to support pairwise collaboration. They can also be used with a Teams or Zoom “free” plan where screen sharing is essential. 

The future of collaboration depends on the way we resolve the “meeting” and “pairwise” features and issues. On the one hand, we have the large-company user faction, representing a bit over half of all workers, and committed to “virtual meeting tools” like Teams and Zoom. On the other, we have the pairwise-collaboration user faction, which represents more than half of all collaborations, even in those large companies, and supported by what’s effectively an ad hoc collection of tools.  

The first faction is easy to identify and target with sales efforts; look for tall buildings with company names on them. The second faction is individually almost invisible, but profoundly important collectively, making it necessarily addressable only through marketing. And, there’s a big risk that the only way to address it is via a free plan, which means it can’t drive vendor revenue at all. 


Questions to Answer 

Collaboration advances because somebody opens a new market for it. WFH has run its course in promoting virtual meetings; I think that means that any “new market” for collaboration must focus on pairwise collaboration. Is there no feature set that makes that form of collaboration more effective? How could something like collaborative editing be integrated with a virtual meeting, and would the result be useful? It’s hard to answer these questions because we’ve totally ignored the entire topic of pairwise collaboration up to now. 

Any collaborative vendor or service provider must face those questions. We may have built one collaborative framework from the meeting side, but now we also must consider what collaboration would look like from the document side.  

Could we enhance Teams or Zoom to serve the pairwise model, or could we use the pairwise model to build a new collaborative service that could rival or even displace Teams and Zoom? I bet those virtual meeting players are wondering about that, and I bet we’ll see some interesting new collaborative options evolve out of pairwise collaboration, as early as this fall.