Help! I'm Drowning in Social Collaboration Software!

Jeff Walpole, CEO
#Atrium | Posted

Whether you call it an intranet, a portal, social software or a collaboration tool, chances are your organization has a web-accessible system for knowledge management. That doesn’t change the fact that there are literally thousands of solutions in the social collaboration software space, or that they’re incredibly overwhelming.

At Phase2, our clients face the challenges around social collaboration software, and often come to us for help in finding a good solution. Our experience with so many needs, pain points, and opportunities in the space has strongly influenced our build of the upcoming Open Atrium 2.0, built on Drupal 7. This post is the first in a series of three posts on the topic of social collaboration software where we will explore the landscape, organizational considerations and open source options in more detail.

Dip just a single toe into the waters of intranet, wiki, project management, or social collaboration software tools, and you will almost immediately be swept into a swirling tide pool of confusion. Oh the features! What's the difference between asset collaboration and document management? And what the hell is a microblog? The overlap between solutions is mind-numbing.

Then there are the various models: Platform vs. Product. Open Source vs. Commercial. The hosting: installed internally or hosted in the cloud? The pricing: per user per month, per gigabyte of storage, or per project?

A useful description of the market for social collaboration software comes from Ray Wang, in his article on the landscape for social software. He describes it as "a dynamic, confusing, and converging market." Hell yes! After years of following the market I think this is even more increasingly true today. So I will try to make a little sense of it for you.

To start with, here are some major players in the space. It helps a bit to look at these products within the context of few key different types of solutions (though they often overlap) including:


And here is a quick (but not exhaustive) list of the features these guys are offering that includes a wide array of discussion, task oriented, asset management and social sharing options:

You can make sense of all those features, and all those players, in a few key ways. Wang looks at platform solutions that do it all (like Sharepoint) versus "purpose built" solutions, that focus on one or a few key functions (like Yammer). And a recent Gartner report looks at those who focus on communication (like Salesforce Chatter) versus those that focus on asset management (like Alfresco).

We think the best way to look at this dynamic landscape is as a combination of these two dimensions. So the "playing field" looks something like this:

Screen Shot 2013-04-12 at 11.04.28 AMWhile this view introduces many players, there is one major elephant in the room: Sharepoint, which is where many experiences of this market are forged. Sharepoint is, to borrow from Homer Simpson’s quote about alcohol, the “cause of and solution to many of life’s problems.” But for all of its weaknesses, it has massive market share -- it’s a $2+ Billion market!

So whether you’re using it, your clients are using it, or you meet someone trying to migrate off of it, you can’t ignore it. They are investing heavily on both the asset and communication fronts; and they are working hard to be a best-in-class platform solution. That doesn’t mean that Sharepoint is for everyone. In fact, we feel Sharepoint will start to lose marketshare to open source options, just as proprietary solutions did in the web CMS space, but it does mean that (for now) it dominates our experience with the market.

So how do you navigate in this space? If you're choosing social collaboration software (or are helping your client do so), think carefully about what your users value the most - not what vendors offer. What we hear matters most from our clients is this:

Usability, organization and search are the primary key ingredients to adoption. Flexibility, cost and integration with other solutions are the keys to long term success. If you can cover those six things, you'll be meeting the majority of the needs of most teams.

In all of these, a forward looking organization must also consider how mobile factors into these needs - how will my team use this on their mobile devices and how would the experience be different? You can offer a secondary mobile experience, but you must offer a mobile experience.

But a solution that covers those six key components does not accomplish your organization's collaboration goals "out of the box." There are some forgotten factors in any implementation of social software, and before (or alongside) your software decision, we highly recommend to our clients that they consider and build a plan for the following considerations:

  1. Governance: who is going to "own" and manage your organization's use of this software - particularly as the policies and process within the organization adapt and change?

  2. Training: who is going to show everyone how to use it? and make sure new users are trained?

  3. Maintenance: what happens when something isn't working, needs customization, or requires upkeep?

  4. Security: are we 100% comfortable with the levels of access control we are providing to information? How do we ensure ongoing security?

  5. Accessibility and localization: Can ALL of our organization's team members both present and future easily access and use this software?

So you don’t have an organizational collaboration problem that’s new to this space. Without looking too hard, you’re going to find collaboration software solutions that meet some, most or all of the needs your organization faces.

The really critical piece is to understand your own environment, which factors to weight above others and know your own pain points. Do that, and you’ll eliminate 80% of the swirling whirlpool of the collaboration software market, right off the bat. Go in with a “we need it all” approach, and you’ll likely be calling for a life boat.

In the next post on this topic, we will explore more about what your organization should be looking for from these solutions (and yourself).


Jeff Walpole