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From Unified Communication to Unified Collaboration

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Image: Shotshop GmbH - Alamy Stock Photo
Unified communications (UC) strategies for the last several years have largely focused on the consolidation of real-time applications, including calling, meetings, and messaging, into an integrated user experience. More recently, many UC vendors have expanded their offerings to include support for webinars and events, as well as virtual whiteboards available within meetings. Consistent among these strategies has been a focus on real-time engagement, whether in the form of phone calls, meetings, or chat. With the recent announcements of Microsoft Loop and Slack Canvas, it is clear that unified communications platforms must evolve to enable unified collaboration processes.
Microsoft Loop, announced in the fall of 2021 at the company’s annual Ignite conference, allows collaboration around content (in the form of Microsoft Office documents and spreadsheets) within Microsoft Teams and other Microsoft 365 apps. Loop allows users to embed content into other apps, where it can be edited by those with appropriate permissions. Loop users can create contextual workspaces that include Microsoft 365 content and data.
Slack Canvas, detailed by my fellow No Jitter contributor Dave Michels, provided similar functionality, allowing Slack users to create contextual workspaces that include embedded and editable content, chat, and real-time huddles for quick ad-hoc meetings.
Beyond these two examples are the rapid rise of virtual whiteboard apps from vendors – there are also Bluescape, Miro, Mural, and about a dozen more. Many of these vendors are either embedding the ability to hold live meetings within a virtual whiteboard or have enabled integrations with platforms including Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Webex, where meeting participants can collaborate on a virtual whiteboard during a live meeting hosted within these services.
The goal of these efforts is to tear down the walls between real-time, non-real-time, and content/document collaboration. Thinking about it, it seems somewhat silly that we create files, including presentations and spreadsheets, share them in a meeting or team messaging channel, and then return to editing them in their own applications. This process is inefficient and requires near-constant task switching to get to the right application for any given task. And, it goes without saying people still email related documents to participants before a meeting.
Google and Microsoft have already solved some of these issues through the ability to co-edit and comment on documents within their respective platforms, and Salesforce has Quip (which Slack Canvas is built on) for document co-creation and editing. However, in most cases, those using team collaboration apps share links into a channel, and perhaps updates made to shared documents are posted into appropriate team channels. The ability to integrate and edit content within team spaces is the natural next step.
Some vendors are even going beyond simple integration of document collaboration into real-time applications. For example, Notion provides a team-centric app enabling the sharing of, and collaboration around documents. It also includes workflow management tools to enable tasking and tracking of content development steps. TeamflowHQ combines content, conversations, and meetings as well to reduce task switching and the constant need to find content outside of the chat and meeting experience.
For IT leaders responsible for unified communications, this new convergence of communications and content collaboration presents a challenge. Most companies we study in our research still have an organizational separation between teams responsible for real-time and non-realtime collaboration. Rarely the group responsible for operating calling and video and meeting apps and devices is closely coordinating with the team responsible for document collaboration, for example. Successfully making the leap from unified communications to unified collaboration will require overcoming these silos, adopting organizational strategies that enable convergence, and addressing compliance, governance, security, and management requirements.
Now is the time for organizations to establish a chief collaboration officer and give them the mandate to leverage emerging converged collaboration capabilities to remove friction, reduce task switching, and enable individuals to communicate and collaborate in real-time and asynchronously within a contextual workspace.