The rise of the mobile worker, the appetite for flatter and more flexible organisational structures, and an upcoming generation of millennials favouring participation in online communities and social platforms are key factors which have contributed to the recent proliferation of collaborative tools that aim to bring together people and content at work.

Leveraging Cloud technologies, these tools promise to provide businesses with capabilities that enable and encourage peer interactions, helping people communicate and collaborate more effectively in a multitude of corporate environments and settings.

Freedom of choice, ‘Shadow IT’ and tool fragmentation

What’s important to note about this new generation of Cloud-based collaborative tools is that they are both cheap and easy to implement, and thus their deployment is not necessarily restricted to the IS/IT department. The consumerisation of IT has generated a huge number of ‘alternative’ solutions that employees can easily bring to work in order to get their jobs done in the way they think is best for them. And that’s what normally happens nowadays when the standard tools provided by the business are not considered “good enough”: an uncontrolled proliferation of unofficial, 3rd party collaborative tools in the workplace, often called ‘Shadow IT’.

‘Shadow IT’ shouldn’t necessarily be as bad as it sounds, since it’s only natural for people to choose the tools that help them become more productive and efficient at work. While that’s true, uncontrolled tool usage in the workplace not only compromises information security, but also generates tool fragmentation, the phenomenon whereby people end up using different tools to collaborate, often unaware of the overall set of tools deployed in the business by others to serve the exact same purpose.

Tool fragmentation in the workplace is very common nowadays and I think the reason for that is the fact that the concept of collaboration itself is contextual. People interact and exchange different bits of information in a multitude of virtual and physical environments, several times a day, for a number of different reasons every time. Each of these interactions naturally serves a different purpose and can therefore be served better by a particular kind or tool/functionality.

There is no “one solution fits all” tool, and that’s precisely why there is currently such a wide range of technologies facilitating communication and collaboration in the workplace. As shown in the diagram below, those include enterprise social networks, online file sync and share tools, unified comms tools (enabling IM, chat, call, video conference and screen sharing), online productivity and document collaboration tools, project management tools, and business process specific tools to name a few. And let’s not forget email, which is still a crucial part of our daily workflow, with all its benefits and flaws.

It’s a pretty large gamut, and of course there are currently product vendors in the market offering solutions that cover more than one area of collaborative functionality via different tools that integrate with each other, thus allowing the user to seamlessly move from one tool/app to the next while performing different tasks. The most notable example of this kind is Microsoft Office 365, which attempts to unite most of these areas under a single interface that aims to become the productivity “destination” where people will go to work. It’s also worth noting some vendors’ attempts to redefine email as we know it and make it more ‘collaborative’, with IBM Mail Next and Zimbra being the best examples of that movement.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place?

The implications of tool fragmentation in the workplace are severe not only for the business but also for the end-user. When people end up using different tools they find themselves struggling to communicate and collaborate in an efficient manner. The lack of data interoperability often existing between tools from different vendors creates further communication and collaboration silos across the business, and is often the reason why people default to email – still considered by many as the only ‘universal’ collaboration tool. And that of course hampers both productivity and innovation, which is ironically the exact opposite of what this type of technology was created to do in the first place.

Affected by the negative impacts occurring from this workplace digital transformation, CIOs and their teams often find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand they are expected to increase efficiency and improve cost effectiveness, and on the other they are tasked with addressing both business and user needs, without however compromising any information security, data privacy, or legal compliances stated by their organisation.

So what is IS/IT supposed to do when faced up with tool fragmentation as the side effect of their organisation’s efforts to grapple with moving to the Cloud and taking advantage of these new types of collaborative technologies?

What you can actually do about it

We hear a lot these days about technology decisions and control shifting to the business, but I believe that IS/IT is still influential and very much in control of everything happening in an organisation from an information technology perspective. And that to me is a good thing because I think that IS/IT is actually the most appropriate function for leading workplace transformation from a digital point of view.

What has changed is in my opinion the fact that for digital workplace transformation to work nowadays, IS/IT needs to be more proactive and partner with the business units to enable them to function more efficiently, while embracing ‘Shadow IT’ as an opportunity for providing users with the tools they need to work better.

Working closely with the business units and taking into account the end-user perspective will allow IS/IT to effectively map the current collaboration technology landscape and use that to define the different business and user requirements. In light of those insights IS/IT can then assess different types of tools – and potential combinations of tools – in order to provide a simple solution, good enough to gravitate most people towards it, essentially stopping them from ‘looking left or right’. And in order to avoid compromising security, any discussions regarding security gaps should better happen at an early stage instead of later in the overall process.

Finally, it is important to note that no matter which tools are selected as the most appropriate, those should be standardised across the business units to benefit from increased reach and effectiveness. Generating high levels of adoption is also crucial for the success of the overall initiative, and that’s definitely an aspect that other business units must support with the provision of proper employee education and training, accompanied by the right set of governance rules and policies that will promote and reward certain collaborative behaviours.

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