Making Collaboration as Pervasive as Dial Tone

The problem with most workplace collaboration technologies has been that to actually boost productivity, they have to be widely used, and they have to be widely trusted. If either of those is not true, employees fall back on phone and email.

As an executive at RingCentral, I have nothing against phone calls. Knowing when to pick up the phone, rather than using some other form of digital communication, is an essential business skill. As a technology, making and taking phone calls reliably may not be novel, but it's essential - and as a cloud phone service, we can add sexier applications on top of that base. Despite being often abused and misused, email also has an important place in business communication.

What's sad is not that we use these tools but that we use them when there are better tools at hand - typically because switching from one mode of communication and collaboration to another is too clumsy, involving a mess of separate logins and browser plugins.

Where I see an opportunity to break with this pattern is by offering a single stream of communications that flows across all devices and flexes to support multiple modes of communication and collaboration - team chat, document sharing, project and task management, plus voice and video calls and conferences.

The latest generation of team chat tools have garnered a lot of attention as an email alternative that keeps team members in continual communication with each other in a way that email does not. Beyond that, team chat has the potential to grow into something much more interesting - a hub for all modes of communication and collaboration.

This is what some analysts call "workstream communications and collaboration" (WCC). That's as distinct from "unified communications and collaboration" (UCC), which always seemed to be more about extending the franchise of telecom technology players than delivering truly "unified" experiences. Or maybe it's just UCC finally happening, for real.

Team chat becomes the heartbeat that keeps the conversation alive. Once you have that, you can elaborate on it. For example, you can add structure to a message by turning it into a task with an assignment and a deadline. A task pops up in the same stream as other messages, but adds accountability. When I post a task to a team conversation, everyone sees the work I have assigned, and everyone will be able to track whether it gets completed on time. That's one of many examples of enhancing the message stream with application logic. Whether this is accomplished by building a feature like task management into the product or with an API link to another tool, the important thing is to deliver a smoothly flowing user experience.

This combination becomes even more interesting when you add the ability to connect the team in real time - just click the camera icon on any member's profile or any team's page to launch a video chat.

I said earlier that it's important to know when to "pick up the phone," but you really should be thinking through a range of options for voice or video, one-on-one or group calls. The biggest hurdle standing in the way of those options is the complicated setup, involving emailing out conference IDs and passcodes and coded links. When we can slide from team chat to video chat or phone conference with the click of a button, all that goes away.

In this blending of synchronous and asynchronous communication, the workstream is a little bit of both. When you see a coworker online, you can chat with them live, in the mode of instant messaging. Step away for a few hours or days, and you can skim the stream when you return to see what you missed.

Arguments about whether workstreams will replace email largely miss the point that they are good for different things. Internal email will continue to be used for a lot of announcements that in years past might have been paper memos.

Team chat is strongest where email is weakest - long-running group message exchanges between regular collaborators. In email, it doesn't take more than a couple of rounds of "reply-to-all" (with people added and dropped from the cc line along the way), for those to turn into chaos. On the other hand, a good team chat keeps everyone in the loop and up to speed, getting just the right messages to just the right people.

You don't have to "replace email" with team chat to dramatically reduce the amount of email you exchange with your closest collaborators. Instead of searching and filtering email to retrace the thread of a team conversation, you can have it all gathered in one place to begin with. Finding the latest version of a file attachment suddenly becomes less of a time wasting chore.

This is an enterprise architecture story as well. As we increasingly rely on cloud applications, the cloud APIs to connect them with each other will not always be perfect. That is why a communications and collaboration hub is so useful -- when people are connected, they can smooth over the rough edges and keep workflows flowing. We can take advantage of relatively simple integrations to push application messages into the workstream, allowing employees to intervene as needed, resolving problems and taking advantage of opportunities.

To get work done, we need to communicate, and we need to collaborate. The distinction between the two will fade as we break down the barriers between different modes of interaction - all the ways we exchange messages, share documents, or connect in real time.

Collaboration occurs when people work together to complete projects, launch products, or accomplish other business purposes. That means communication and collaboration in the workplace ought to be close to the same thing - purposeful communication that makes things happen. Yes, there will be idle talk, but even that can be productive if it builds relationships that allow people to work better together.

We built our company around reinventing phone service in the cloud. We recognize businesses need a broader range of communications and collaboration options, but to really make a difference they need to be broadly used. That's why we want to make it just as easy for our customers to be just as generous with accounts on Glip, the workstream product we acquired this summer, as they are with phone extensions.

Collaboration needs to be as pervasive as dial tone. We will be doing our part to make it happen.