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Email is dead? The trouble with collaboration tech

Galen Gruman | July 8, 2016
There's a constant stream of new products promising to change your world. Here's why only a very few stand a chance

Email is dead? The trouble with collaboration tech

Collaboration is one of those emotional technologies that always has a new "it" product that nonetheless gets little adoption. Think of the endless parade of "email done differently" and "email is dead" products that have burst on the scene then quickly faded over the last few years. Or the gazillion messaging tools and steady of stream "collaboration should be based on discussions tied to X" products. 

At best, these are just fads, and most go nowhere after the obligatory blogger celebratory post. But some do take root and address real user pains -- Slack is an example. And some initially poor takes do mature into useful products that address real user pains -- Google Apps and more recently Microsoft Office 365 are examples.

Collaboration is an innately human activity, and thus a very personal one. That's why there's always a new solution on offer, to appeal to specific individuals' idiosyncrasies. But collaboration is not a an individual activity; it's a group one. That means a personal fit may not be good for the group, and the group is unlikely to make major changes to satisfy the personal preferences of a few.

That's why so few of these tools stick around.

Email is too entrenched and useful to be thrown out for some other communications venue. Whether or not you like Microsoft Outlook, it's going to remain the center of the email universe, and successful alternatives are going to have to fit into its worldview, as Apple Mail and Samsung Email do and Google Gmail increasingly does.

Likewise, collaboration over fragments of workflow -- over just documents, over just metrics, over just videos, and so on -- is all but doomed to fail because so few workflows are that limited. I get a steady stream of pitches for such content-segmented collaboration tools, but I've yet to see any get adoption precisely because collaboration in the real world is not segmented that way.

But there are natural segments for collaboration. That's why tools like Atlassian's Jira have quickly become entrenched: Projects are natural segments for collaboration. So a tool like the annotated-documentation-oriented Jira can thrive even if general-purpose (messaging-based) collaboration happens over a well-designed tool like Slack or Atlassian's HipChat, which focus on people segments. In fact, it makes a lot of sense for an organization to use both Jira and Slack (or HipChat) -- it's like using both Excel and a database product, addressing different needs despite some overlap.

In fact, I'd argue that collaboration needs to be segmented. Another fad we see is the "everything" style of collaboration tool that claims to do everything in one place. That's a recipe for confusion, at best. We have natural clusters in our workplaces (we call them departments and business units) and even those clusters have subsets (teams and functional groups). Deep collaboration tools align to such clusters and subsets.


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