The Collaboration Gap


Perfect collaboration.  Microsoft should do it; they claim they do.  But the March 2014 issue of PCWorld magazine got it right: Neither Microsoft nor anybody else is quite there yet.  Not Google Drive, nor Dropbox.  Not Jive, nor Zoho.

Inc. magazine described the three components of collaboration as scheduling and communication, project management, and corporate social media.  Companies of all stripes are converging toward real collaboration by attempting to seamlessly linking all three components the way we yearn for.   From file-sharing companies like Box and Dropbox, to platforms like Jive and MangoApps, to ERP giants like Salesforce and SAP, everyone wants to be the first platform to promise and deliver the perfect collaboration experience.  These companies are part of an exciting momentum, one that we should be grateful to be witnessing.  I personally can’t wait for the Great Unifying Collaboration Platform(s) that will make us, like some commercials promise, smiley and truly happy to have the coworkers we have, wherever they may be! But we’re not there yet.  Don’t believe the hype.  We are still living in a pre-seamless-collaboration world. 

Recently, I was tasked with finding this Holy Grail collaboration solution for a client.  The organization is a medium-size business with 50-100 employees and an additional 40 external team members, and is responsible for delivering two sizable reports each month, one in Excel and one in Word; each monthly report is really a mini-project requiring collaboration in Word and Excel, file sharing, scheduling, project management and lots of communication.  We tested collaboration software platforms and providers, read through their websites and testimonials, watched the landscape of advertisements on YouTube, and spoke with users.  Once or twice we thought we had it all figured out.  Nobody’s pulled it all together though, nor lined up all the flexibility and diversity that makes up the collaboration we think should be possible in 2015.  Instead we are presently stuck between 1990s technology anchors in this area, namely Microsoft, and the full open cloud of entirely new interfaces, applications and usefulness. 

My client’s needs seemed to be incredibly pedestrian and generic. How can a dozen people, inside and outside the organization, edit a single, sizable Microsoft Office file like Word or Excel that’s due in under a week and includes offline access and synchronization?  Not unlike other organizations, my client couldn’t yet consider moving off of Microsoft Office to Google Docs and Gmail or Apple’s iWork.   Nor were they willing yet to go all in and shackle themselves to an entirely online SaaS platform like Jive or Zoho.  For my client and others, daily collaboration today still means too many emails in Outlook, too many attachments, too many places for files and information; it means duplicate entries, too many revisions of a file, too many meetings, too much delay, too much scrambling, too many file format types or conversions, too many passwords, too many platforms and operating systems, too much time to find an archived file, and certainly too much angst. Some software doesn’t work, some was bought out by a Silicon Valley tech giant, some will have its tech support dropped, some is too expensive, some isn’t user friendly, and there’s too much reliance on that unhappy fellow in IT. 

The word collaboration is a buzzword though, a ubiquitous line in advertisements, from multi-million- dollar projects at IBM to an iTunes plug-in for $0.99.  On your phone.  On your iPad.  In your cubicle.  Offline.  Online.  PowerPoint.  Google Docs.  Text.  Chat.  Video.  Auto alerts.  Dashboards.  Simultaneous editing.  Co-authoring.  Open source.  All on the same page all the time.  Collaboration commercials always show a slender VP exec in an airport, a relaxed guy in a home office, and a hipster leaned back in a cubicle.  They’ve all just seamlessly pulled together a huge presentation to a CEO, and at the end of the commercial, they win the proposal.  Good job, team, great job, software company! 

At the expensive end of collaboration solutions are IBM, SAP, Salesforce, but these are too expensive for a small- to medium-size enterprise. At the consumer end, there’s Google, Evernote.  In the middle, SaaS platforms like Huddle, Jive, Zimbra, Atlassian.  Wrike, Trello and Basecamp for project management.  And I’m sorry to report, Microsoft with its 365 solution isn’t there yet; 365 failed our User Acceptance Testing in less than 20 minutes, with both edit access and synchronization problems. To paraphrase one website, ‘It isn’t you, it isn’t us, but it is Microsoft.’  Raise your hand if you love working with SharePoint and Word’s online editor on Microsoft 365. No one?

With Google, Box, Dropbox and some add-ons and plug-ins, the actual user experience never matched what we wanted.  Our cloud-based edit controls didn’t work, or file-version conflicts arose, or I couldn’t sync a local folder with the online service and lost a test version of a file; one company had a great simultaneous editor for Microsoft Word for an unlimited number of people, but it was a sham.      

Image via Shutterstock

So what’s the best?  Well, we couldn’t find a solution that passed UAT.  After testing, we were left with settling on several modular pieces of the collaboration puzzle.  We used one tool for corporate social media, mainly as a discussion board.  We chose Box over Dropbox or Googlefor file sharing.  For project management, we found SmartSheets was a basic and easy online service with a handy phone app too.  Lastly, we wrapped them all in an SSiD (Single Sign-on ID) tool to make the user experience feel seamless.  The overall cost was less than budgeted and, since the modules’ rollout isn’t a disruptive user experience, implementation will be phased and not expected to take more than 90 days overall. 

The client can now sit back and watch the race for the Great Unifying Collaboration Platform continue to unfold.  We’re caught in an interesting moment in technology—one that lifts the frustrations of our daily work life off of us.  I suggested to my client that they revisit the scene in 18 months, specifically with Google, Dropbox and Jive, and that maybe then Microsoft will have gotten its act together on 365. Until then, a cobbled-together solution is a nice place to be in 2015; we get to watch collaboration come together and feel like all our present frustrations will melt away soon . . . but not soon enough.  

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