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There are too many workplace collaboration tools (and they’re killing our productivity)

Jon Cifuentes
I don't think I'm going to meet the deadline

The very tools meant to simplify our lives are taking over at the workplace. The technologies that tie us together and use to get work done have never been more important in their scale and impact. But there’s also never been so darn many of them. Skype or Gchat? Box or Dropbox? Email or Chatter? PC Load letter?

In a 2012 CEB survey of 5,000 workers at 22 global companies, fewer than 44% said they knew where to find the information they need for their day-to-day work. There’s already a global pandemic on employee engagement, where happy, engaged employees nest at a whopping 13% (while more than double that figure are disengaged to the point of spreading negativity to others). How can we hold workers accountable if this is the environment they have to work in?

On average, we’re using close to 30 apps per month on our personal smartphones alone, and we’ve brought that behavior straight into the enterprise. We’re throwing tools at tasks instead of rethinking how or why we communicate the way we do across so many channels. The ‘consumer’ enterprise has evolved to an ‘appified’ one.

Here’s a key item we tend to forget: Form follows function. Behavior precedes tool. This ideal framework is precisely why a one year old chat app (Slack) is worth a billion bucks. Slack didn’t try and displace one behavior (email and workplace communication) for an entirely new one. Rather, it made existing behaviors more efficient than the norm, such as cutting down the whopping 30% of the workday we spend reading and receiving emails.

After all, work is really only three things when you think about it: People, communication, and attachments. It does not have to be more complicated than that. The best tools don’t reprogram workers’ work beyond those three simple functions. They allow for flexibility in interface, don’t pigeonhole you into a pre-determined workflow and require absolutely zero training. Today, we’re handcuffing ourselves with too many options.

The current state of enterprise collaboration is fragmenting the three most crucial parts of getting work done into endless data and workflow silos, increasing complexity and reducing the need for a worker to be accountable and engaged. It’s not rare for a large company to employ a suite such as Yammer, Chatter, Box, Sharepoint, Lync, and Outlook as just a slice of their employee profile, communication, document creation, storage, sharing and collaboration environment. No wonder we can’t find what we need at work.

If a mandate comes through from the CEO telling everyone to use Yammer to share ideas and wins, then it will probably happen. From our experience, this is an extremely rare use case. Most of the time, any new wrinkle in an employee’s daily workflow with a goal of collaboration brings countless hours of playbooks, training, and constant reinforcement. As we learned in a previous report on Enterprise Social Networks, these efforts often lack strategy and are really hard to quantify in impact. The highest touted success metric in those efforts (even today) is getting employees to simply use the tool, which is the enterprise analytics equivalent of an honor student bumper sticker.

Employees today are tasked more than ever with cross-functional roles. Social and digital tools create new opportunities to engage with customers in real time, which would explain employees connecting with each other in the same fashion. And while there are indeed plenty of use cases for successful content sharing and collaboration workflows, until we build an employee engagement and collaboration cloud that unifies:

  1. Workers (the thousands of digital facets that make up their workplace identity)
  2. Communication (email, telephone, video, and chat) and
  3. Attachments (primarily documents, images, video) with( and this is the key) an underpinning of analytics that can rationalize, account for, and eventually predict our behaviors as workers - we won’t pull ourselves out of this feature mess.