The momentum in business collaboration has shifted from enterprise social networks to relatively simple desktop and mobile messaging apps. By mimicking the way consumers bypass email to communicate quickly and conveniently with their closest contacts, business messaging tools have started to displace email and encourage smoother workflow.
This is interesting to me as someone who covered the rise of enterprise social networks Jive, Yammer, and Chatter as a reporter for the tech press. I also wrote about best practices for the use of those and similar platforms in Social Collaboration for Dummies (Wiley, 2013). This year I have been consulting with collaboration technology players, getting an inside view of how the market is changing. Most recently, I have been working with RingCentral, which in June acquired Glip, a team messaging and productivity tool. The plan is for Glip to retain its independent appeal but also gain from the combination with RingCentral’s cloud voice and video services.
Slack is the more widely celebrated example, based on impressive adoption and venture investment, but it is not alone. A few months ago, Constellation Research analyst Alan Lepofsky called out the emergence of a new collaboration user interface, noting the similarities among Slack, Glip, Unify’s Circuit, and Cisco Spark, each of which is designed to support fast-paced text chat with collaborators or teams of collaborators. On the desktop, the new apps have turned instant messaging from a little pop-up box in the corner of your screen to a full-screen experience that gives more context about our collaborators and shared documents. On mobile, the new messaging tools act as a more powerful alternative to SMS text messages or consumer chat apps.
Analysts in the unified communications industry have dubbed this the workstream and see it as a natural complement to Internet voice, video, and conferencing products and services. Thus, the interest from Cisco, Unify, RingCentral and others.
Jive is also a player in this space with Jive Chime, a streamlined messaging app that operates independently of its enterprise social network — making it easier for Jive to win customers one team or workgroup at a time rather than always gunning for an enterprise-wide sale. A few weeks ago, I wrote about another member of this family of apps, the Jive Circle employee directory.
How Messaging Is Different
The rise of messaging apps is victory for simplicity over sophistication. More than any specific breakthrough feature, these tools are distinguished by a fluid, fast-paced user experience emphasizing quick, concise messages, and ongoing team conversations.
Messaging clients also feel a bit more like a personal workspace, as opposed to a community workspace you’ve been invited into. They are social applications, but with an emphasis on messaging over networking.
That’s in contrast to the last generation of enterprise social networks, which tended to look like Facebook (Yammer), or some mashup of Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, and Wikipedia, with enterprise features software grafted on (Jive or IBM Connections). Jive Software went public in 2011, and its stock peaked in 2012, at about the time Facebook was getting ready to IPO. Also in 2012, Microsoft bought Yammer.
There is more depth and breadth to the enterprise social networking platforms than I’m giving them credit for in this brief sketch, but in 2015 they are being upstaged by relatively minimalist workstreams. Whether this will prove to be a fad, a breakthrough, or an incremental step in the evolution of collaboration technology has yet to be determined. Yet workstreams are more often discussed as an alternative to email than an alternative to social intranet software.
Workstreams offer a formula for replacing email – maybe not all of it, but in many cases close to 100% of the messages employees exchange with their coworkers and closest collaborators. I hadn’t thought that was possible, except by executive fiat. One of my favorite Chatter case studies was about a sales manager at OpenTable who forbid his team from emailing progress reports to him because he wanted them posted to a shared workspace instead where team members could learn from each other’s experiences. Most corporate community managers working with social collaboration tools would consider shaving a few percentage points off the volume of internal email a victory.
What the workstream innovators have demonstrated is that, given a sufficiently convenient alternative, entire teams of employees will abandon email gladly and voluntarily – no arm twisting required. The hurdle that must be cleared is making workstream communications easier than email, rather than harder.
Software developers crossed that chasm first, welcoming workstreams as a graphical reincarnation of Internet Relay Chat, a simple text-based mode of collaboration that has long been popular with open source programmers. Next, workstream messaging expanded to allied professions like graphic designers working as part of web software teams. Because the majority of their most important communication was with other members of the team, they could send the majority of their work messages to the stream.
When you commit to workstream communications, email becomes the lowest-common-denominator channel you use to communicate with outsiders. It’s also important as a mechanism for inviting people into the workstream environment. But if most of the important messages you need to pay attention to throughout the day are coming to you through the workstream, then you can dial way back on the number of times per day you check email. The balance may be different depending on the nature of your work –someone in public relations or sales whose communications are primarily external will have to pay more attention to email.
Email retains the virtue of being universal, supported by a set of Internet standards that make it possible for any email user to reach any other email user regardless of the software they use. That is both an advantage and a disadvantage, with the disadvantages including spam and, more broadly, information overload. We can try to impose order on it with filters, folders, and tags – and software like Gmail or IBM Verse can help – but email is still messy. Common challenges include trying to retrace the thread of a conversation (particularly if you weren’t originally on the CC list) or finding the latest version of a file attachment.
With a user interface independent of email, the developers of workstream software can address those problems head on. Instead of remembering who needs to be CC’ed on a project update, we can establish a persistent team chat for the project and share our update there, adding team members as necessary. New team members can more easily browse or search the workstream to catch up on what they missed.
Figuring Out the Essentials
One of the things I admired about Glip, even before I started working with them, was how smoothly they integrated activities like sharing a file or assigning a task. When you attach a file to a message, it is recorded in the context of the message, but you can also review all the most recent files shared regardless of what message they were attached to. No more sifting through old emails trying to find the right file attachment. Another thing most teams need to do better is keep track of who is doing what and whether deadlines are being met. Glip makes adding a task through the workstream just as easy as sharing a file. The task gets logged as a message everyone can see, but you can also view a list of tasks separately, sorted by deadline. You can see which ones are assigned to you and whether any are past due.
Slack supports this kind of lightweight project management through integration, notably with notably Asana. One of the biggest design decisions all workstream competitors must weigh is what else to include, in addition to the base messaging capability.
From the beginning, the developers of Glip judged that its workstream would be better with a core set of built-in productivity apps: Tasks, Files, Notes, Calendar, and Video Chat. They know some users may see an advantage in using Asana instead of Glip Tasks or Google Docs instead of Glip Notes. But popular though those tools are in certain circles, for most businesses email is still the default collaboration tool to beat.
To take task management as an example, assigning tasks through email is at least as dysfunctional as sharing files or collaborating on documents that way. I know I have spent way too much time trying to track down emails where I was either given an assignment or gave one to someone else, trying to remind myself of the details and the deadline. Glip lets you structure tasks and updates on the progress of those tasks more neatly.
Add unified communications to the workstream, and you get all the essential modes of communication and collaboration in one place – the ability to make a call, start a video chat, or share your screen through the same user interface you use to text chat with your team. Cisco, Unify, and other unified communications players are developing multimedia workstream products with this vision in mind. RingCentral bought Glip intending to introduce users of its cloud voice and video services to workstream collaboration, while also strengthening Glip’s realtime communications features. In the near future, Glip users who also sign up for RingCentral Office will find it as easy to start a conference call or a web meeting as to send a text message.
I labeled the rise of the workstream a victory of simplicity over sophistication. Yet as workstreams become more popular and attract larger customers, their developers will be pressured to add features and enterprise qualities like better security and audit trails for important collaborations. The challenge will be meet those demands without compromising the simple virtues that made workstreams attractive in the first place.
This article was written by David F. Carr from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.