More and more companies are using social collaboration platforms to collaborate at work. But what are the benefits and drawbacks of the new services from Microsoft, IBM and Facebook?
In his book Industrial and Organizational Psychology: An Applied Approach, occupational psychologist Michael Aamodt of Radford University sketches out the different factors that influence daily work today. One important point comes up over and over: "People who have to use outmoded work tools and methods at the office are less productive."
Companies around the world have recognized the potential of modern office tools. "By 2016, 50 percent of all major companies will have a Facebook-like network," said Gartner Analyst Nikos Drakos two years ago. An audacious prediction at the time, but one that is likely to come true given where things stand today. Drakos' postscript, "30 percent of these networks will be just as indispensable as e-mail and phones today," is even bolder.
Unless we completely reinvent our traditional communication methods. Market-leading manufacturers and a few smaller providers are taking the middle path, processing e-mail differently, and replacing the telephone with social tools. And Facebook itself is aiming to get into the business environment.
Microsoft is restructuring both its locally installed productivity tools and the cloud-supported Office 365. Most of the new features involve simplifying collaboration and automating routine tasks. In the upcoming Outlook 2016 and in the apps for Android, iOS and Windows Phone, users get a quicker overview of current discussions and ongoing projects, and can work on them at any time. Outlook's clutter algorithm will sort between important and unimportant e-mails for the user. In Excel and the other Office applications, files can be released for team work and users can follow the changes made by their colleagues in real time.
Microsoft has launched Delve as a new member of the Office suite. This tool is meant to become a dashboard for every employee, which is in part kept up manually, but also learns independently from the user's behavior. The Delve algorithm – exclusive to Office 365 – presents users with activities, appointments, profiles and documents from colleagues who could help with their current projects.
While Delve resides in the cloud, Word and the rest will also operate locally in the future. The new, much-praised features of the on-premise products however, are mainly already implemented in Office 365 or will soon be delivered. Microsoft wants this strategy to make it appealing to customers to take out a cloud subscription.
IBM's collaboration concept is based on the application Verse. With this tool, Big Blue wants nothing less than to do away with e-mail processing. "The average user spends four hours a day with their inbox," says IBM's Senior Vice President Bob Picciano of this loss of productivity. Verse should help to carry this "daily organizational burden."
On the surface, e-mails, appointment coordinates, address book content, messaging and social feeds flow together. Verse identifies what is important for the user by reading the software hierarchy information from the organization, recognizing groups in e-mail distributors and logging the response behavior of the user. Working with Verse is based less on traditional e-mail than on messaging in general. How a user addresses a contact or a group is determined by the type of message to be sent. The different communication channels – such as chat, filesharing, instant messaging and video – are directly connected to Verse.
IBM has chosen an unusual approach to marketing Verse: the software operates under a freemium model, meaning it costs nothing for now. Anyone can access this web tool and try out the features with their own content. This practice has so far been more familiar among startups, and rarer in the larger business environment. But it may be Verse will find new users this way, such as in companies who frustrate their employees by sticking to outmoded software. All the solution's features and benefits only come into play when it is connected to the corporate network and used by teams, such as with hierarchy data and distributor information.
Sensitive data is also exchanged during internal company collaboration, which leads many IT directors to prohibit their users from working with online platforms. Smaller providers do enter the field here, such as Appway from Zurich for the Swiss market. Its Workspace Collaboration product includes tools for document exchange, real-time collaboration and secure communication in chats and discussion forums. Appway plans to encrypt its web solution with various powerful algorithms.
Austrian company Fabasoft also offers data storage for cloud collaboration in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, where documents can be exchanged, content stored and projects coordinated in a virtual team room. A network drive or authorized file can be integrated into the normal work environment for simple access. This provider wants to ensure adequate security, including Active Directory connection and in-house Single Sign On, as well as digital content auditing and version control. In this way customers and partners can also be granted access to the team room.
For many, Facebook's business offer is just the opposite of high-security collaboration.
Facebook at Work exists as an online service and smartphone app, but is currently available only to a limited trial group in the USA. Given the speed at which the social network brings new services to market, the global deployment is likely not far off. Together with subsidiary WhatsApp, Facebook is able to put together an attractive collaboration package. But are these platforms fit for the business environment?
IDC Analyst Jan van Vonno has tried out Facebook at Work and published a research note advising CIOs to take a closer look at the service. "Facebook at Work and WhatsApp could become serious competitors in Enterprise Social Software," says Vonno. On the plus side are clearly its high usability and wide prevalence, while potential flaws include not just security aspects, but resistance from the employees themselves, who would need to either add a professional Facebook identity or accept that their personal information might also be shared within the company. The possible consequences of the Safe Harbor ruling for Facebook's offer are also not yet apparent.
Separating personal and business data is not just an issue with Facebook. Microsoft Office and IBM Verse users also must decide how to deal with this question, along with their administrators. There is almost no scenario in which these two worlds can be strictly separated. Given the great liberty in today's work world to take advantage of home offices and open workspaces, these boundaries are likely to be further blurred when it comes to collaboration in particular – which ultimately relies on interactions among people.