How collaboration in tech is changing and why developers should care
The business world is currently experiencing a revolutionary transformation. Propelled by changing demographics, the explosion of novel mobile devices and cloud-based applications, and the increasing availability of inexpensive Internet access, technology-driven businesses are seeking to capitalize on the evolving nature of today’s work. At the forefront of this evolution is the ongoing transformation of the meanings, functions, and capabilities of collaboration in both tech and the workplace more generally. Many contemporary businesses are trying to improve employee collaboration by adopting ever-greater numbers of standalone apps. Against this trend, this article will argue that the future of business collaboration is rooted in integrated social technologies and the abandonment of the “silo approach” to app design and usage. Software developers must embrace the integrated nature of workplace collaboration if they wish to create viral apps that the end users of tomorrow will love.
The Changing Nature of Work
The technology-centred labour market is presently undergoing one of the most monumental shifts of the last 100+ years.
The types of work being done; the kinds of employees performing such labour; workers’ expectations, routines, and practices; and the tools being used to complete tasks of all sorts are being revolutionized at a dizzyingly fast pace.
Cisco System’s 2013 Connected Workplace Whitepaper describes the “series of dramatic changes” that are presently “reshap[ing] how companies are organized, how they operate, and how they attract and retain talent”, citing three key developments in particular:
- Workforce Demographics: “The oldest of the baby boomer generation — those individuals born between 1946 and 1964 — reached retirement age in 2011. In North America alone 10,000 baby boomers will reach retirement age each day for the next two decades”;
- Changing Nature of Work: “Over the past 20 years companies have automated and outsourced much of their structured or process-oriented work. What work is left is unstructured, complex, and highly collaborative”; and
- Continued Technical Innovation: “An explosion of mobile devices, coupled with the widespread availability of ubiquitous Internet access and cloud-based applications, is changing where and how work is being performed”.
These five generations consist of “Traditionalists” (born pre-1946), “Baby Boomers” (born 1946–1964), “Gen Xers” (born 1965–1976), “Millennials” (born 1977–1997), and “Gen 2020ers/Gen Zers” (born post-1997).
Millennials are undeniably exerting the strongest influence on the changing nature of work right now.
They’re the latest generation to enter the workforce en masse; they’re also the largest generation in history as well as the largest in both the U.S. and Canadian labour markets as of 2015 (sources: 1, 2, 3).
Research suggests that in comparison to previous cohorts, Millennials:
- Expect and seek out greater flexibility and choice in the workplace, regularly demonstrating their willingness to continuously change jobs until they find something with which they’re fully satisfied (source);
- Expect instant access to information, immediate feedback from superiors, the ability to express their opinions honestly and openly with those with whom they work, and opportunities to engage in personal development and career advancement whilst working (sources: 1, 2, 3);
- Represent the first generation of “digital natives”: having grown up in the Age of the Internet, “[t]echnology has become completely unified into the everyday life of millennials” (sources: 1, 2);
- Are heavily involved in the tech sector, having founded some of the most successful startups of the 21st century (including Airbnb’s Brian Chesky, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Instagram’s Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom, and Lyft’s John Zimmer) (sources: 1, 2); and
- Are fundamentally committed to integrating the use of technology into virtually all aspects of their work, routinely indicating (e.g., in surveys) that the presence/absence of state-of-the-art technology at a place of work significantly influences their decision to take a job (sources: 1, 2).
As Millennials continue to exert more of a profound influence on the size and shape of the workforce, businesses must remain committed to adapting their values, philosophies, and operations to the unique needs, expectations, and skills of this generation.
Modern workers, and Millennials in particular, expect their employers to provide the (physical and digital) infrastructures through which employees can easily, instantly, and remotely collaborate with each other.
It is, thus, crucial for businesses in the software industry to understand, and evolve their operations and products in line with, the changing nature of workplace collaboration.
Let’s take a closer look at the evolving nature of collaboration today.
The State of Collaboration Today
As advancements in 21st century technology continue to shape and refine business in general and software development in particular, the nature and function of workplace collaboration are evolving in kind.
The dynamics of modern labour — increasingly remote, automated, and outsourced; technology-centred; digital in orientation; highly interdependent and complex; and unstructured — are forcing businesses, especially those in tech, to place ever-greater emphasis on collaboration.
“Collaboration” can be defined as a “[c]ooperative arrangement in which two or more parties…work jointly towards [the achievement of] a common goal”.
Practically, collaboration typically entails “working together with co-workers or external stakeholders on documents, project plans, reports, or other types of content in order to create a revised or final version of that content or [to] enable project execution” (Dimensional Research/Alfresco).
Technology writer Becky Lawlor explains how the changing nature of work is both influencing, and being influenced by, the morphing character of workplace collaboration:
“[A]s the [modern] workplace evolves…so too does workplace collaboration. Businesses are rethinking how employees can collaborate [at a time] when more [employees] work remotely and teams are naturally more dispersed. In turn, they must develop the most effective methods and tools for workers to use in a more digital environment. …
[A]s [today’s workers] demand more flexibility and freedom to choose how, where and when work gets done…compan[ies] [must provide technological] resources that empower an efficient digital work environment … [and that] mirror the engaging and intuitive experiences [workers] enjoy on consumer devices during personal time”.
Shelly Kramer points out that not only does technology-led collaboration generate greater opportunities for innovation and creative problem solving but it also “serves up a competitive business advantage in terms of what highly productive teams are able to accomplish”.
Indeed, research shows that effective workplace collaboration leads to increased productivity, which encourages a whole host of positive outcomes, including:
- Streamlined operations;
- Reduced costs;
- Enhanced cohesiveness amongst teams;
- More engaged employees;
- Greater employee retention rates;
- Better customer experiences;
- Increased referrals; and
- A significantly better bottom line (sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).
Jaimee Newberry is, therefore, correct to insist that “[t]he collaboration of a company and its multidisciplinary units has never been more crucial than it is right now”.
Indeed, digital collaboration is indispensable to modern businesses, as are the talented developers who create the frameworks that make such collaboration possible.
Naturally, then, we’re led to ask: what is the current state of collaboration in the tech world in 2020?
The answer to this question is two-fold:
- Collaboration is being driven by the increasingly frequent and sophisticated use of advanced social technologies within the work environment (both physical and digital spaces); but
- The widespread reliance on the use of standalone apps, constituting the “silo approach” to workplace collaboration, means that many businesses are failing to realize the true potential associated with enhanced collaboration.
I’d like to flesh out both of these points before then discussing how reconceptualizing collaboration as a feature to be built right into software — which Weavy now makes possible — can significantly improve workplace collaboration and thereby encourage your target users to embrace your software.
As Christian Buckley succinctly puts it, “[s]ocial collaboration has become the underlying fabric of the modern digital workplace”.
This is unsurprising given that some industry experts, such as Dom Price, the head of R&D at Atlassian, estimate that approximately 90% of organizations are tackling issues so complex that team-based solutions are necessary (source).
Indeed, technological advancements in Internet-based social interactions have ushered in revolutionary changes to the ways in which modern employees work together and collaborate.
Having moved from the era of “systems of record” to the contemporary phase of “systems of engagement”, the new reality of tech-centred business is that:
“Social interactions and conversation have become the backbone of our corporate knowledge” (Christian Buckley).
For one, the democratization of production assets, particularly in the form of open source code that empowers designers and programmers to find, construct, and share solutions, has significantly impacted how today’s tech creatives work together.
However, it’s undoubtedly the arrival of cloud-based applications and platforms that represents the most defining feature of workplace collaboration in the 21st century (source).
These new technologies provide workers with previously unheard-of freedom to work anywhere, any time, and with anybody.
For purposes of clarity, let’s briefly define “cloud-based computing” by drawing on Investopedia’s entry:
“Cloud computing is a method for delivering information technology (IT) services in which resources are retrieved from the Internet through web-based tools and applications, as opposed to a direct connection to a server. Rather than keeping files on a proprietary hard drive or local storage device, cloud-based storage makes it possible to save them to a remote database … [thus eliminating the need for] a user to be in a specific place to gain access to [them]”.
Examples of popular cloud-hosted apps and platforms include Amazon Web Services, Basecamp, Box, DropBox, Evernote, GitHub, Gmail, Google Cloud Platform, Microsoft Office 365, Skype, Slack, and Trello (sources: 1, 2, 3, 4).
- Cloud-Based tools are now more integrated into business operations than at any other time in the past; and
- Employees now rely more often on social methods of communication (e.g., mobile-based messaging) than on traditional methods of interaction (e.g., telephone calls) in their work.
The report reveals that “45 percent [of respondents] say social technologies are very or extremely integrated into day-to-day work at their companies, up from one-third who said so one year before”.
Importantly, the increasing use of such freedom-enhancing technologies, with their capacity for real-time communication and cooperation, seems to be changing the nature of work for the better, making it more collaborative, streamlined, and efficient:
“Where message-based platforms are in use, respondents are likelier than others to say their use of social tools has enabled employees to communicate more often and to self-organize with team members. They even say these technologies have changed the very nature of their work to become more project based, rather than team or function based”.
The report’s data also show that the increasing use and relevance of social tools is occurring across a wide range of business operations and functions.
These include public relations (PR), recruiting and hiring, customer relationship management, procurement, supply-chain management, and after-sales services.
According to executives, the benefits of enhanced integration of cloud-based apps and platforms include:
- Improved communication (and reduced communication costs);
- Enhanced collaboration (both internally and externally); and
- Greater capacity for self-organization amongst employees.
On the one hand, cloud-based technologies have thoroughly transformed modern work for the better, making it easier and less frustrating for employees to collaborate on projects, share ideas and problems, receive real-time updates on developments, and operate with enhanced autonomy and freedom.
On the other hand, however, many businesses — especially those working in software development — have not yet fully capitalized on the potential opportunities that cloud-based technologies create.
Let me now explain why this is the case.
The Dominance, and Downside, of Standalone Apps
Whilst the arrival of open APIs and collaboration platforms like Google Cloud Platform and Microsoft Azure suggest that dynamics are starting to change, it nevertheless remains true that social collaboration in 2017 is still primarily dominated by the “silo approach” to app design and usage.
In a basic business context, the “silo approach” refers to a situation in which different departments of a given company work largely independently of each other.
Functioning as self-sustaining “stacks” or “silos”, these departments perform their own, limited functions and engage in little, if any, meaningful communication or collaboration with others.
The “silo mentality”, which underlies this approach to business, refers to:
“A mind-set present in some companies when certain departments or sectors do not wish to share information with others in the same company. This type of mentality will reduce the efficiency of the overall operation, reduce morale, and may contribute to the demise of a productive company culture”.
It might seem a little strange to suggest that collaboration in the modern workplace is characterized by the “silo approach” and the “silo mentality”.
The point is not that tools like Box, DropBox, Slack, Skype, etc. haven’t dramatically improved the ways in which businesses in the tech industry, and software companies in particular, operate — they certainly have.
Rather, the problem is that apps continue to be designed and used in a largely standalone fashion, thus preventing genuinely seamless integration between different programs and platforms.
Consequently, the true potentials of seamless collaboration — enhanced efficiency and productivity, greater employee satisfaction and retention rates, stronger workplace cultures, increased sales, etc. — remain to be exploited.
Businesses in 2017 are still largely committed to the practice of combining numerous standalone apps — such as Slack for messaging, Skype for video calls, QuickBooks for taxes, DropBox for file storage, etc. — in an effort to artificially build up a collection of programs and platforms that will somehow allow ideal collaboration to emerge.
This is a pressing problem in need of a solution.
As Steve Olenski succinctly puts it, “[t]he problem with many collaboration tools on the market today is that they…[only] offer stand-alone functionality, creating the need to open several applications at one time”.
This results in what Dan Storbaek terms “broken work processes and apps”:
“Many of the apps we use today are limited by structure and technology. They have been developed to work individually and in silos. The result is broken work processes and a productivity potential waiting to be realized.
A software development team might be using one system for tracking bugs, another to invoice clients and a third to track time. … The next step [in collaboration] will be to connect broken work processes and apps … [such that] the collaboration market will effectively become an ecosystem in its own right”.
Rather than forcing workers to adapt to what Lee Ho calls “disruption-driven workplace[s]”, we should be creating technologies that not only eliminate unnecessary interruptions but also, and especially, remove the efficiency-killing friction that exists between standalone products:
“Though [existing social] channels are effective, they could be [made] more effective if they were [to be] embedded within one easily-accessible application. In this scenario, never again would an employee have to leave the application he or she is working within to accept a calendar invite, to respond to an email, to ping a coworker or to initiate or join an audio, video or Web conference session”.
This is exactly what we here at Weavy are currently building.
We’re developing a powerful and versatile framework that “sits on top of” any existing web-/cloud-based application and instantly adds real-time communication and collaboration features.
This all takes place without forcing users to launch (and learn) one or more new programs.
It’s what today’s tech workers want from software developers and it’s what you, therefore, should be incorporating into your software packages.
- 73% of respondents agreed that their organizations would be more successful if employees were able to work in more flexible and collaborative ways; and
- 56% selected a collaboration-related measure (e.g., better communication between teams) as the key factor that would have the greatest impact on their organizations’ overall profitability levels.
A 2015 report by Dimensional Research and Alfresco asked 750+ North American and British knowledge workers from a wide range of industries, company sizes, departments, roles, and age groups for their opinions on contemporary collaboration trends and technology developments.
The study discovered that:
- 59% of respondents (including 71% of Millennials) experienced difficulties or challenges using their current workplace collaboration tools; and
- 21% cited the lack of consistency in tools used and exclusion of key stakeholders, 18% referenced the inability to easily measure worker contribution, 17% referred to outdated documents, and 16% pinpointed difficulty assessing when a task has been completed as the primary reasons for dissatisfaction with workplace collaboration.
These statistics demonstrate that the demands and collaboration-based expectations of the modern worker are:
- Continuously changing to reflect our increasingly technology-saturated world; and
- Thoroughly grounded in the desire to freely and easily use the specific technologies that best fit one’s personal workflow and style and increase one’s flexibility and efficiency (sources: 1, 2).
Forcing workers to use software tools, even today’s most popular and beloved apps, that do not have collaboration built into them as a feature is the opposite of what tech businesses and software developers should be doing.
Using half a dozen or more standalone apps in an attempt to facilitate effective communication between and cooperation amongst different people introduces unnecessary friction into the entire collaboration process.
It also discourages the kind of open communication and instantaneous back-and-forth sharing of feedback that today’s workers increasingly demand.
Geoff Thomas puts it perfectly when he states:
“In the workplace of the future [employees] want to work smarter, not longer”.
The Future is Fully Integrated Social Technologies
Fully integrated social technologies, which allow businesses to engage in embedded collaboration, represent the solution to the “silo approach” currently preventing the next evolutionary transformation in workplace collaboration.
Many workers today, especially those of the Millennial generation, are becoming ever-more hesitant to using formal project management software.
Rather, they expect to be able to use their personal devices and preferred pieces of software at work without experiencing drops in performance (such as unnecessary increases in friction).
As Geoff Thomas says, “[t]hey want a single platform to run both their work and personal lives”.
We are, thus, moving in the direction of enhanced and seamless integration and away from the practice of cobbling together six to ten apps in the hopes of piecing together effective collaboration.
“Combining content and communication into a single, seamless experience — word processing, spreadsheets, chat, checklists, live editing and much more. Everything will happen in one place, vastly reducing the need for teams to send long email threads with clunky attachments, or waste time in endless meetings”
…or, dare I say, simultaneously use half a dozen apps in order to accomplish what should be simple workplace tasks.
We at Weavy strongly believe that:
- because end users are hungry for applications that make it possible to collaborate from within the software they’re already using,
- we must abandon haphazard attempts to incorporate standalone apps into already cluttered groups of programs and platforms, and
- collaboration should be treated as a feature embedded directly within software itself.
If you’re building the next QuickBooks then why should your users be forced to add a chat program, a video calling app, additional file sharing software, and various other apps just so that they can communicate and work alongside each other?
Shouldn’t they be able to perform any and all cooperation-based activities directly from within QuickBooks itself?
This is the future that we envision at Weavy and we invite you to join us on our journey!