Collaborative Platforms, the new hotness

Where did they start out and how do they work?

I wanted to get this out earlier in the week, but I’ve been busy finishing off projects from 2019, preparing 2020 and flying out on a trip. I’m in a technical conference next week and my plan is to report back on what I learned over the coming weeks. 

On to the subject of the day… I spend a lot of time researching and writing about Digital Transformation and its immediate impacts on business. I thought it would, however, be a nice change of pace to talk about some of the more social aspects of these new technologies and the way we work with them.

I thought I’d focus on collaboration, and particularly, how it is becoming the new standard interface for knowledge workers, first line workers and backend operations. Home users are also becoming more ad more enticed by their charmes and possibilities, to the point that their overlay supplants the importance of the traditional operating systems like Windows, Linux and macOS.

Enjoy the ramble.

Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

Collaboration and its use in the workforce

There are two big shifts in personal and business computing currently taking place. These changes are not just limited to computing but are now touching almost every aspect of our lives. Firstly, Digital Transformation is changing the way we interact with the everyday services we rely on, changing the way we even live and work. Secondly, Collaboration is fast-becoming the new norm for generations that follow on from Generation X.

Collaboration didn’t start in productivity focus groups, in fact, as humans we’ve been collaborating for thousands and thousands of years. Looking more recently, if we look at how music is produced these days, we find that many artists in today’s popular music are collaborating with other artists, and these are the type of artists that would be considered competitions or rivals in the early 70’s and 80’s. Just look at the list of singles on Apple Music, Spotify and YouTube and you’ll see that it is one artist featuring or “&” another. Maître Gims & Sting, Shawn Mendes & Camilla Cabello to name a couple.

Music was previously sold in Album form and was a bundled package of several products (songs). You purchased the album because it was both cheaper than buying the individual tracks and the product often had a added benefit of a poster or a lyrics sheet. Some took the concept to the extreme and produced highly curated artwork to incite the buyer with the promise of a collectors item. This incentive supported the solo artist or the group as it rewarded artists uniquely from sales numbers. The collapse of profits going directly to artists has forced groups to tour, sell merchandise and club memberships amongst other revenue streams.

Physical goods are no longer offered and hence the competition is not the same. Bands collaborate all the time where previously they would compete. Collaboration is feasible today compared to yesterday, because the unbundling of music as promoted by Apple in the early 2000s, developed new business models for artists that sell their personal brand, regardless of how it is consumed.

What this means in simple terms is that a new generation of the young working population that have inherently different ideals around competition and collaboration. This generation prefers to share its work as evidenced by their prolific use of social networks.

The foundations of collaborative software

Collaboration really began a long time ago, as I noted above, but collaboration in today’s guise is a modern take on old ways born out of the industrial revolution and the subsequent deployment of computers in virtually every organisation. As more and more processes were being digitised, the need to integrate processes so employees could efficiently work together on large projects required a shift in computing paradigms. Paradigms that have only just started to look feasible.

In the early computing days mainframe terminals started life out as single user interfaces to the processing capabilities of the machines. Eventually processor power and architecture design allowed multiple terminals to use the same central computer simultaneously. That’s not quite true however, as the original shared mainframes like the VAX, only gave the illusion of concurrent use. They, in fact, time shared the processor out to each terminal fast and efficiently, making it all but imperceptible to several users that they alone were using the computers back in the IT room. It took only a few lines of code to break that illusion, slowing the mainframe enough to show up its trickery. I had much fun in those days doing this at University.

At this stage, computers were essentially processing terminals with rudimentary applications to code, calculate, email and sometimes help in writing term papers. The next evolution came when personal computers (PCs) started to become ubiquitous in offices and small businesses. The democratisation of the PC enabled businesses to benefit from their efficiency, and enabled software houses to push the boundaries of what coud be accomplished on a computer. And it is here that the first attempts at collaboration software got started.

However, before we get into the weeds, It would be remise of me not to talk about collaboration in isolation of productivity. One of the main reasons for implementing collaboration is to increase and enable better productivity for business. They are inseparable in this context, even if they are two different things. Because we couldn’t quite get to the dream of realtime interactive collaboration in those days, much of the focus was on productivity, and it was out of this desire that the first wave of “Office” type applications and suites were developed.

The original productivity application was VisiCalc — it was a huge success, and gave rise to the moniker “killer application”, i.e., an application that is so useful, it literally sells the computer in order for the user to get a hold of the application. VisiCalc is what we call a Spreadsheet today. At its introduction, minds were blown. That it could automatically and instantly recalculate rows and columns and totals by adjusting one cell was pure science fiction until then. It helped businesses produce accurate financial information for better decision making.

Not too long after that, another killer application category emerged, the Word Processor. Again, it was staggering that an application could help you write multiple pages of text and allow simple edits, and in somes cases provide pointers for better spelling and grammar. Previously one would have to re-write the text, or try to white-out and type over the top of mistakes to produce a final copy. Major mistakes required complete re-writes. The Word Processor eliminated this, and as a consequence, allowed the sharing of the document to multiple parties allowing them to either add content or edit and control content. So although these applications were primarily aimed at productivity, collaboration was a natural result and a natural evolution in use and hence a target for software developers to explore.

Bundled together, these applications came to be known as Office Applications. Email and Presentation software joined this group soon after they became institutional in business.

The early collaboration platforms

Once basic office-type applications were widely used, software giants of the time, like Corel and Lotus, noticed the potential to further develop collaboration and efforts were quickly directed to realise that vision. Lotus Development Corporation (subsequently purchased by IBM), most notably, developed and marketed what was ultimately the first real suite of collaboration tools with its release in December 1998 of version 1 of Lotus Notes. Lotus Notes comprised of collaborative tools to help workers use the existing office-type applications, providing services such as email, calendar and contact control and a rich client/server database engine that was programmable by experienced engineers. This provided substantial benefits to international corporations as they were able to now communicate and collaborate on projects the world over in a simple but efficient manner. The programmable database system also allowed corporations to build and deploy line of business application within their business units and many small and independent consultant businesses were created and fed handsomely on this new opportunity.

As Notes grew in popularity (changing its name to Domino by IBM in 1996) its core differentiating services became commoditised and simplified by software giants like Microsoft. Which is where we found the next wave in collaborative efforts, email. Email is derided today because of scams and spam, but in the 1990s email was the must-have collaborative tool. Now you could email ideas, documents, pictures, just about anything you could imagine all in the search of better productivity. For a while this worked great, as email is an asynchronous medium, meaning the other end doesn’t have to be logged on for you to be able to send a message to him or her.

As change management predicts, once a user gets used to the new thing expectations are reset and tolerances are lowered giving rise and desire for a new faster and better thing. And indeed it came, in what is possibly one of the most revolutionary tools in modern business that has been totally ignored by analysis of its impact; Instant Messaging or IM for short.

IM started life in the non-business world and was popularised by AOL with their AIM platform. Hours per day were spent by teenagers with unlimited dialup telephone lines chatting about their life over this new medium. Businesses were slow to adopt this new form of communication and it wasn’t until Microsoft implemented it for free in their wildly popular Exchange Server (an email system) that businesses started to see the benefits. You see, communication and collaboration are not one dimensional things, different mediums of communications are suited for different scenarios and different contexts. The one size fits all of email just doesn’t work for mature modern collaboration.

Collaboration today

Which brings me to the state of collaboration today. What we’re seeing today is specialised collaboration and productivity being developed that take us away from the general purpose collaborative apps we have now. There are myriad applications for collaboration, but the two most popular and most known are Slack and Microsoft Teams. If you want to know more about them, search for reviews online. Suffice to say that both claim several millions of Daily Active Users (DAUs).

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Image: Microsoft

These apps are immensely popular in business and are very advanced collaborative platforms in their own right. When implemented well, they take a central role in the day-to-day interactions for people on their computers, and Microsoft literally stated that its Team app is where work starts and ends. Both Slack and Teams provide messaging, calendar integration and the usual list of emoji support, upvoting, GIFs and the like. 

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That being said, they still only provide basic omni-communications channels of discussion. Integration is limited to applications in the same ecosystem or third party applications (always SaaS) that provide APIs. And whilst that list is growing, we aren’t quite yet in the situation where the circle has been completed to allow communications and collaboration universally.

It’s important to note that businesses, whilst getting on the SaaS train, are not quite there yet. Many of the organisations I work with use software that can only be described favourably as “legacy”. And while others are more advanced using online systems like Google’s G Suite and Microsoft’s Office 365, most of their backend operations software is either locally stored on Windows/Linux servers with no API access available or any way to bridge to the application from thees online services. Most worrying too, is the fact that often when you choose one ecosystem, the competing ecosystem does everything it can to lock you out of collaboration between these systems. Both short-sighted and customer penalising!

Why collaboration software works

In my role as a consultant I’m finding more and more business use cases for the wholesale implementation of collaborative software in operations. The new platforms, being open, allow for a simple and easy-to-use window towards getting work done efficiently. More over, getting that work done through collaboration.

Great collaboration, as several studies seem to suggest, leads to better outcomes. Is like diversity in your organisation, it automatically generates the environment that challenges the status quo, allowing better visibility from all angles, leading to better solutions.

Further explanation is required, I’ll get to this at a later date. Thanks for reading.

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