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The Time is Now for Enterprises to Rethink Collaboration


Image: Prostock-studio -
One of the most interesting things I’d seen in the unified communications and collaboration (UCC) space over the last 10 years has been an expansion of “collaboration” that emphasizes what you’re collaborating on rather than how you’re communicating. Enterprise after enterprise told me this was where it thought their efforts were heading, and it seemed to promise a more application-centric vision of UCC.
Well, maybe not. According to Bloomberg, “from boardrooms to baby rooms, Zoom has owned 2020.” While I only read the quote, I’ve heard something like this from the same enterprises who told me they were looking more at what we might call “topic-centric” collaboration in the past. What changed their views? Opportunism was a big factor. With the virus hitting last spring, companies didn’t have time to do anything complicated, so they muddled through by going back to basic collaborative tools, usually web-based. The office brought people together physically, so if people can’t go there any longer, get them together virtually, and everything will then work.
Few people think Zoom or other video tools for collaboration are perfect, but they’re better than nothing. The question now is whether the imperfect will become so entrenched that all thoughts of a topic-centric collaborative model will fall away. Few workers had extensive experience with web/video collaboration before the pandemic, and now a large number do. This growing worker segment might validate that old, original, video-does-it-all model by learning how to use Zoom.
What separates something like Zoom from older Webex type white-board-and-audio is the video-centricity. It’s a well-managed, presence-driven, approach but I don’t think that’s what gives its earned appeal. What Zoom did was offer us a touch of the social when we were all feeling isolated. On almost all of my Zoom conferences, some don’t activate video. But there are always more who do. For new WFH-warriors sitting alone (and maybe a little afraid) at kitchen tables or in their basements, it brings a touch of community.
As a consultant in an age where people don’t want to pay for my air travel and lodging, I’ve gotten accustomed to remote video-driven collaboration. I’ve also found that people feel less impacted by the sense of social isolation created by the pandemic because they’ve been isolated before. People like me(those other video-collaboration warriors) get familiar with the model to the point where there’s little to be gained by being there in person, other than that fuzzy socialized feeling. And while it takes a bit longer, people apparently get comfortable with virtual socialization too.
Right now, Zoom and its kin (Microsoft Meet, Google Meet) have socialized a big chunk of the population to virtual meetings. To the point where almost three-quarters of all enterprises I’ve talked with say that they will never shift away from Zoom-centric WFH entirely, even if COVID-19 gets conquered. So, is all of UCC going to collapse into a web meeting? That depends on whether a virtual enterprise needs more than a visual community to manage collective activity.
Enter Slack, and in particular the Salesforce/Slack acquisition. Slack is a slight hybrid between a web collaboration system and a Basecamp interaction and collaboration management framework. In a sense, it surrenders the notion of collaborating around a specific unit of work, something like augmenting a catalog system with collaborative tools, in favor of just organizing collaboration beyond simple communications, video, or otherwise.
I think Salesforce liked Slack because its approach to collaboration is easier to integrate with an application. That’s if we define integrate as more than just putting a call button on a screen. Slack is as much project management as video, but in the long-term, collaborating on or around something is a project management problem.
We can discuss this with Zoom, but remote-based projects mean a better model, which Slack provides, and Salesforce wants to integrate. Things like customer relationship management aren’t tasks that need coordinating among a home-bound workforce, but they’re also enduring business functions. It’s about these functions and what Salesforce will do to make them Slack-enabled that will frame collaboration in 2021 and potentially decide its future. Could it be that by integrating video with online project management and then to real applications, we could approach that goal of “topic-centric” collaboration?
Yes, because what WFH teaches us is that people are more agile than software. Given them a workable toolkit, and they’ll build stuff with it. They may optimize it over time, as we observe with the evolution of Basecamp-like basics to Slack, but they’ll adapt as much as or more than they’ll expect their tools to adapt.
That’s the lesson of 2020. But it’s one that keeps on giving as long as we keep on learning. In 2020, we coped, but I think that Slack and Salesforce might deliver something more. Collaborative projects are projects first, and a virtual project model is where we needed to start.
As we learn them, virtual projects are more inclusive, flexible, immune to disruptions, and productive. They could make virtual work better than the office, which is critical if companies mean it when they say they plan to keep WFH in place. Could Zoom and Slack give us virtual companies, where the goal is no longer to create a replica of a workplace but to create a workplace we could never have had in the real world? Interesting question, and one I think we’ll answer in 2021. Happy New Year.