Why are SMEs vexed by collaboration apps?

We looked at the data. SME owners and executives want collaboration. They encourage it and like what it can do for their organisations, but they want more from their collaboration apps.

We partnered with ORC International to survey over 200 SME owners and executives about the state of collaboration at their enterprises. These enterprises come from all over the US and across all industries. And large numbers of them share similar opinions about how collaboration is working for them.

We found that the Collaboration Paradox is real. The Collaboration Paradox holds that as people have access to more collaboration apps, how people operate becomes more fragmented. Everyone has work product and communications in multiple collaboration apps – email, file share and sync, online productivity, instant messaging, etc. – and people who work together may not be using all the same apps (spoiler: the survey revealed this to be true).

So as the number of collaboration apps grows, the number of silos splintering our content and conversations grows as well. The result is that these apps aren't making us nearly as productive as we'd hoped. This is the Collaboration Paradox.

Looking at the numbers from our survey, 100 per cent of respondents said their enterprises use collaboration tools. With 73 per cent of them saying they actively encourage their employees to use collaboration apps, it's unsurprising that half of them reported using at least six different types of collaboration applications within their organisations. So collaboration apps are widely used by SMEs, but what is the impact of all these disparate apps?

SMEs are happy, but they want more

We broke down cloud-based collaboration tools into eight categories: email, video/audio conferencing, instant messaging, productivity (e.g. Google Docs), project management, file sync-and-share, portals, and social business platforms.

By every measure, the vast majority of respondents felt that using them improved productivity and communication among employees, partners, and vendors. The unprecedented mobility and flexibility of today's cloud-based apps clearly represents a quantum leap in collaboration potential from the days of being tied to a desktop, landline, and LAN. But new solutions bring new challenges.

Collab app silos inflame inefficiency

Because at least six different collaborations apps are being used, the information is siloed — scattered in multiple places. The resulting fragmentation has aggravated the same inefficiencies these apps sought to solve. Respondents (60 per cent) reported wasting time trying to find the right file among all the shared files posted in their file sync-and-share folders.

Over half of respondents said they spent a lot of time hunting through emails and attachments solely for the information or content they needed at that moment. Kept apart, none of these collaboration apps provide people with a holistic picture of the current state of their team's work.

Common collab apps have limited utility

The study also revealed that while individual apps fulfill a specific collaborative function well, they're limited in their utility. For example, 88 per cent believe that instant messaging is only useful for getting answers to quick questions — it's not an app for managing projects, creating content, spec'ing products, or decision-making. At the same time, nearly two-thirds of the SMEs surveyed said they want to see email used less because it's difficult to locate and crystalise where and what decisions are reached in these threads.

Regarding file sharing, nearly two-thirds found it difficult to identify which file version was the right one to use at a given point. The file sync-and-share apps hold all the versions and make them easily accessible, but they can't tell people which file is most relevant.

The steep price of context-switching

The most widely used type of collaboration apps keep content apart from conversation. This forces workers to constantly reorient themselves as they switch from content to conversation, back and forth, over and over again, every day, if not every hour. A snippet of a conversation in email, a version of a file in the cloud, another conversation in IM, still another version of a file in a project management app, and wait — don't forget the text message someone sent you — all are a part of the entire picture. But unless the information is easily, no — seamlessly matched with the conversation that surrounds it— there is no meaning. The context is missing.

Context has become our modern-day, elusive Holy Grail. And the result is employees doomed to playing Sherlock — forever. Without context, decision-making doesn't happen. Projects grind to a halt. Spec'ing a product is done over and over and over again. Because with every switch from content to conversation and back again, an employee must re-adjust their focus to account for the new information and the conversation around it. We call this context-switching, and its steep price will kill business growth if it isn't resolved.

Get ready for unified collaboration

The world of work has dramatically changed. Teams are distributed and virtual. Work is often conducted on-the-go from our mobile devices. The first phase of cloud-based collaboration tools is coming to an end. And US SMEs have made the leap — taking advantage of the cloud to enable an agile and mobile workforce. But they're ready now for the next phase. They're clearly ready for the solution — a unified tool that solves the problems caused by today's siloed collaboration apps.

The same isn't quite true in the UK, not just yet anyway. According to a survey done by Ipsos MORI in the UK and Europe, 83 per cent of employees are now contactable by their employer outside of regular working hours and 54 per cent of employees are working outside of those standard working hours. This underlines how people in the UK are coming to expect the freedom and flexibility to blend their work and home lives. People are visiting non-work related websites at work (37 per cent) and doing online banking (34 per cent). As for managers' attitudes, 63 per cent say "it's OK if it doesn't interfere with the employees' workload."

This growing need to collaborate regardless of time, place, application, and device, is omnipresent. What will it take to make it the seamless reality we all need?

The future is a unified platform that removes friction from work

Where the output of people's work is connected to the conversations they're having about their work – including the growing portion of output that isn't stored in traditional file formats. So there's no longer any need to switch among apps. The quest to uncover the context to make smart decisions is over.

Only with an app that brings content and conversation together, provides a holistic picture, and lets meaning shine through, can we resolve the Collaboration Paradox.

Scott Schreiman, founder and chief executive officer of Samepage

Image source: Shutterstock/DRogatnev