As collaboration tools multiply, here's how to avoid overload

New tools invite more internal innovation and knowledge-sharing -- and better connections with customers. But will too many choices make us less productive?

Collaboration is a way of life in The Vanguard Group's institutional investors unit. For one thing, it uses the agile software development method, which requires collaboration among self-organized cross-functional teams. Vanguard also employs the scrum product development methodology, where interaction over documentation is a founding principle.

So when Kathy Fuertes sees an application that people use in their personal lives that could make employees more collaborative and productive, she looks for ways to put it to use at Vanguard -- while keeping a sharp eye on the financial firm's strict regulatory and security requirements.

Fuertes, a principal and head of institutional systems at Vanguard, says she's always wondering, "How can we bring in more of those concepts that allow us to be more productive or have better collaboration inside the workplace -- whether that be the official external version or one where we develop a workplace version of it?"

That's the challenge many enterprises face when it comes to choosing collaboration tools. There are so many options, it's hard to keep track of them all: Email, IM, blogs, wikis, mobile apps, enterprise social networking and unified communication all promise to unite people and make them more productive.

Kathy Fuertes [2015]

Kathy Fuertes

The market for collaborative applications, including conferencing tools, email, enterprise social networks and team collaboration apps, is expected to reach $15.1 billion by 2018, with a compound annual growth rate of 9.5 percent, up from $11.4 billion today, according to IDC.

How can people use so many collaboration tools and truly be more productive without suffering from input overload? And how can companies keep all employees on the same tool?

"I don't think we're any more productive today" than we were a decade ago, says Alan Lepofsky, an analyst at Constellation Research in Toronto. "My day is more overwhelming now. And [it's] harder to get things done than it was 15 years ago when I . . . answered a few emails and then went on to do my job."

Today, "we [use] too many tools -- should I do this in email, chat, in one of these cool new tools like Glip, Facebook, Twitter? And on and on," he adds. "We need to use more of a unified messaging hub -- a single place to know what we shared, who we shared it with and when." The tools also need to be smarter, and capable of anticipating workers' needs, he says.

The creators of a plethora of new collaboration tools like Hall, Glip, Slack and HipChat are taking a stab at solving those dilemmas by integrating business functions, such as marketing automation, CRM and supply chain management, and then wrapping in collaboration tools similar to Skype, Lync and messaging. But so far, these tools have proven more successful at small companies.

"A lot of these things work with small groups, then when they want to roll it out to 20,000 employees, it almost always fails," says Jeffrey Mann, an analyst at Gartner. "The rest of them don't get it or don't see why they should spend their time on it. So how you get scale with adoption remains the biggest challenge."

Enterprise collaboration

Larger vendors are expanding their collaboration toolboxes to appeal to the enterprise. These new offerings can sift through massive amounts of data to find relevant information on people and projects.

For example, IBM's Verse, which became generally available in April, combines email, social media, calendars and file-sharing with analytics into one tool designed to overhaul email and aid productivity for organizations of all sizes.

Another offering, Microsoft's Delve for Office 365, which launched in stages beginning in September 2014, uses analytics to display information that is most relevant for each user.

"Both tools are in their adolescence, but they are the roadways for future visions," Lepofsky says.

Avanade, a Microsoft consulting company, rolled out Delve in late March to a small group of technologists and to its collaboration services unit. "We are in the very early stages of our deployment at this point, and we're being cautious, as this is very new technology," says Bob Bruns, Avanade's vice president of infrastructure services.

"It is more or less a pilot to determine the utilization and to ensure we are not seeing any unanticipated issues with content sharing," he says. The company planned to roll out Delve to its 20,000 employees worldwide at the end of April.

Bruns says the pilot group's feedback was mostly positive in the first weeks after the rollout, once users had become familiar with Delve's confidentiality protocols. For instance, according to Microsoft, when using Delve other people can't see your private activities, such as what documents you've read, what emails you've sent and received, or what Lync conversations you've been in. Other people can see that you've modified a document, but only if they have access to the same document.

Bob Bruns, vice president of infrastructure services, Avanade [2015]

Bob Bruns

"It's funny -- some people think it's very scary," Bruns says. "Half of them say, ‘Why does everybody need to see what I'm working on?' The other half say, ‘This is the best thing ever because I now have access to information that I didn't have before, and I can make connections with people who are in my industry, who are relevant, and who might help me with my job.'"

In fact, one of the first perks users discovered was the ability to find relevant project partners around the globe. "Things are popping up where you had no idea that a guy in Argentina was working on the same thing [that you're working on], and it allows you to collaborate with that person," Bruns says. "I think ultimately it will allow us to have faster results for our clients and it will also help with productivity because we're not re-creating the information that's already out there today."

DIY social networks

In the meantime, while enterprises are testing smarter collaboration tools, many large companies have deployed pieces of vendors' collaboration systems and are customizing them into their own enterprise social networks.

The market for enterprise social network applications is expected to surpass that of conferencing, email and team collaboration applications by 2018 with sales of $3.5 billion, up from $1.9 billion today, according to IDC.

BNY Mellon has used a homegrown enterprise social networking tool since April 2014. The multinational banking and financial services company says 55,000 employees worldwide now use the network, called MySource Social, to share ideas and expertise.

BNY Mellon built MySource Social using off-the-shelf enterprise social networking technologies, customizing the system to fit its needs, and now hosts it on a private cloud. The network is integrated with BNY Mellon's top communication and collaboration tools, such as email, calendar and instant messaging systems.

MySource Social is an intranet site where users can explore business partner groups featuring blogs and information from executives; formal special-interest groups, including one for women in technology; and ad hoc groups, such as those created for project teams.

It took employees a while to warm up to the idea of sharing their thoughts on a company forum, says Jennifer Wagner, managing director of digital workplace technologies at BNY Mellon. Early on, people were primarily using it to connect with special interest groups -- like the company's business book club and forums devoted to, say, working moms or healthy living.

Jennifer Wagner, managing director digital workplace technologies, BNY Mellon [2015]

Jennifer Wagner

"Digital photography was our No. 1 group for eight months," Wagner recalls. People in that group shared photos of BNY Mellon facilities around the globe -- in Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia. But that initiative served an important purpose.

As "the most geographically diverse group we had," she says, the digital photography collective helped employees understand how MySource Social could help them connect with one another. BNY Mellon didn't set any parameters around its content, and that allowed employees to get comfortable and start engaging in the network.

Persuading people to participate in business-related groups took longer. Employees "did lots of lurking and reading. We would see 5,000 views of the CEO's blog post in the first 24 hours, but only three comments," Wagner says. "Over time, we have certainly seen a transition." Participation numbers are rising, with more people making comments or rating content with a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.

More than 90 percent of BNY Mellon employees worldwide have accessed the site in some way, and 35 percent to 40 percent are hands-on participants. The most active group is now a forum for executive bloggers called Inside Source, where senior leaders post their thoughts on company news and events.

The enterprise social network is powerful because it enables employees to "relate to a global team," says Kevin Cassady, a managing partner who heads BNY Mellon's digital workplace technology group.

Kevin Cassady, managing partner digital workplace technologies, BNY Mellon [2015]

Kevin Cassady

"The relationships of these groups give us purposeful collaboration and align business with what we want to accomplish," Cassady says.

Perhaps equally important is the fact that the site helps spur creativity and innovation. "A lot of people unlock talent and ideas with a medium where people feel empowered to ask questions and contribute," Wagner says.

Collaborating with external customers

With internal collaboration tools proving their value, it's no surprise that companies want to extend collaboration tools externally to their customers and partners.

At Vanguard, the defined contributions record-keeping administration division works daily with companies that sponsor their employees' retirement plans. Vanguard employees help those customers with everything from consulting on how to make their plans more effective to handling delinquent loans for clients.

"We were one of the first to have a plan sponsor website. But now we're at the point where we want to do more than just share information," says Fuertes. "We want to put more information at the fingertips of the plan sponsors themselves -- data analytics and reporting on the effectiveness of their plans -- things that will help them be better at administering that retirement plan. We also want to give them the same tools that we're using."

In May, Vanguard rolled out a collaboration tool called My Plan Manager to all of its full-service record-keeping clients.

The tool gives client companies Web-based analytics and reporting capabilities that can help inform their decisions and provide them with better insights into their plans. For example, users have access to basic metrics such as rate of participation in their plan and savings rates. "We're helping them understand the behavior of their people participating and allowing them to benchmark that against peer groups of their same size and industry," says Fuertes. "They also have [access to] customized analytics and data visualization technologies so they can drill into the information to see things in a different way internally."

Sharing this information allows Vanguard to have meaningful conversations with customers. "It also takes us out of the day-to-day request mode and gives our people the opportunity to add more value," Fuertes adds. "We can help them look at that information together and collectively come up with insights."

Collaboration technology has had a big impact at US Capital Partners, changing the way the San Francisco-based private investment bank works with its investor base. New SEC regulations under 2012's JOBS Act (Jumpstart Our Business Startups) state that small businesses must have access to capital markets using technology, and that they must be able to directly approach investors without too many intermediaries. US Capital Partners saw these changes as an opportunity to improve its collaboration tools for small-business customers.

The company uses Citrix's ShareFile Virtual Data Room and RightSignature tools to help build a community with vendors, customers and investment partners. "If we have a transaction, we're all working on it in one place and can collaborate," says Charles Towle, managing partner. With the collaboration tool, "we can create a village where we still maintain our proprietary information in our own home, but we can exchange information with our vendors and partners openly but in a secured environment."

Charles Towle, managing partner, US Capital Partners [2015]

Charles Towle

In the past, closing a financial deal usually involved five or six people sitting around a conference room table with piles of documents to be reviewed and signed, preceded by a flurry of faxes and phone calls. "Today, that room is virtual. We can collaborate remotely, but in a secure way that meets regulatory requirements," Towle says. The collaboration tool reduces the amount of time it takes to close a deal from months to weeks.

In addition to meeting a regulatory requirement, Towle says, the collaboration tool also gives US Capital Partners a competitive advantage. "We're ahead of the curve," he says.

So will these new collaboration tools truly make us more productive? Lepofsky says the emerging connection between collaboration and data analytics may hold the key.

"I think we are poised [to succeed]," Lepofsky says. "This intersection of social and data, and figuring out what we should be working on and filtering out the things we shouldn't be doing, is finally going to actually make us better and more productive."

This story, "As collaboration tools multiply, here's how to avoid overload" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.