Sometimes a product hits the market under perfect conditions. That’s what happened during the summer of 2013 when Slack landed among professionals buried under email. It makes sense that as a company grows, its employees rely more on email than face-to-face interactions. When I worked at Microsoft it wasn’t uncommon to receive 200+ emails a day. Replying to email could easily turn into a full time job, and that’s what happened to me. I’d spend my time in the office on email and then return home to get actual work done for the day.
Around this time I read a lot of articles about how “inbox zero” was a myth, and that the only way out was to perform an annual email purge. The idea was to delete every message in your inbox. And then wait as only the most urgent matters would result in a follow-up email. A popular writer at Techcrunch, MG Siegler, wrote about how he was quitting email. Many technology writers had given up on email or taken a sledgehammer to it.
Slack came along and promised to reduce our email load. And, for the most part, it did just that. Of course, others took notice, and today we have many real-time chat and collaboration options. Some tools go after Slack directly, while others tackle new areas of collaboration. This week I’d like to take a look at number of collaboration tools geared towards the enterprise.
Note: Many of you will already be familiar with Slack so I’m not going to include it in my roundup. It’s arguably the hottest enterprise chat service on the market today, but I already covered a number of its features in a previous article.
Collaboration is such a broad term that I need to begin my settings some boundaries. For this discussion, I’d like to categorize collaboration tools under three types: Communication, Conference and Coordination.
Communication Tools: This refers to traditional ways of communicating that include email, instant messaging and VOIP or video chat. It’s often one-to-one and takes place in real-time.
Conferencing Tools: This includes video conferencing, screen-sharing applications and teleconferencing. It’s usually real-time and one-to-many in nature.
Coordination Tools: These include traditional scheduling tools such as project management applications, time trackers, and portals such as Microsoft Sharepoint.
Before you invest in any of the tools I mention, you should understand under which category most of your company’s communication takes place. For example, if you perform a lot teleconferences with partners and customers, adding a tool like Slack won’t help because it’s founded on text-based communication. Many of today’s tool overlap one or all categories. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the newest tools on the market that are focused on enterprise collaboration.
Microsoft Teams is one of those products that has features across all three categories. It would be foolish to merely dismiss it as a Slack-clone, although Microsoft brought some of this upon itself because Teams looks a lot like Slack. Those who have used Slack or HipChat will feel right at home with Teams, and all three products have a lot in common. What sets Teams apart is its integration with Office 365. In fact, the only way to get Teams today is to subscribe to Office 365. That’s Microsoft’s choice, but it does limit the market for Teams.
Teams promises to provide the same security and authentication model as Office 365 which is a boon for businesses that have standardized on Microsoft backoffice products. If your company uses products like SharePoint and OneNote, you’d be wise to take a look at Teams.
While Teams is a fine group chat service, it really shines if your company does a lot of collaboration using Office 365. Sending around Office documents over email gets old fast. SharePoint has tried to fix this problem. But I often had trouble tracking down the slide deck or spreadsheet even with SharePoint search. With Teams, a colleague can send me a link to her deck which I can then edit without any hassle. Team acts like the glue that brings many Microsoft products together. It’s a very clever move by Microsoft.
If you already use Office 365, it’s well worth a try before investing in a competitive product. Teams well designed and brings other Microsoft products together in ways we’ve not seen before.
Price: Included with Office 365 subscription.
Focus: Those companies who have standardized on Office 365 and utilize SharePoint to manage projects.
Cisco Spark is a messaging platform that includes text, video, voice and content sharing services. As you might guess, it integrates with Cisco’s popular phone system. This is a service that’s best suited for organizations that already use Cisco phone and/or video services. While you can share files and messages on Spark, most of the features are built around video and conferencing collaboration. And while it integrates with 3rd party applications like ZenDesk, GitHub and Zapier, it doesn’t benefit with as much outside developer support as Slack.
But what Spark does, it does well. Cisco has been making VOIP systems for many years, and their attention to detail shows in Spark. This is especially clear when using Spark’s video conferencing tool. Cisco shows its experience in designing features that matter while still making it easy for anyone to use. In fact, Spark feels like a video conference application at the core with other features such as text chat added mainly for good measure. I’ve not worked for a company that relied heavily on video conferencing. In my opinion, it just never took off like many predicted. But in many ways, Spark proves there are still companies that use it.
If your company has invested in a Cisco phone system, you should take a look at Spark. More than any other product on this list, Cisco Spark represents the state of enterprise collaboration tools today. It’s a solid product, if not a trend-setting one.
Price: Limited free version, otherwise $12/month per user.
Focus: Cisco phone system customers and companies who are heavy into video conferencing.
Salesforce Chatter arrived in 2009 as a way for others to leave comments on sales leads and opportunities. Over the years, Salesforce has added more traditional features to Chatter such as groups, actions and email replies. Real-time chat was not one of the primarily features in initial versions.
Chatter excels in providing context to collaboration. For example, Chatter is an excellent tool for collaborating on Salesforce records, updates and business opportunities. Chatter’s ability to provide context to collaboration is where it shines. You can use Chatter as a one-to-one chat program, but that’s not its forte. Chatter was built around enterprise social interactions that make employees more efficient. It just feels like a tool for professionals whereas Slack feels like it was created for millennials entering the workforce for the first time.
In addition to Salesforce, Chatter integrates with Facebook, Twitter and Yammer.
Price: Varies by licensing agreement.
Focus: Companies that already use Salesforce CRM.
Huddle bills itself as cloud collaboration for government and enterprise. The Department of Homeland security uses Huddle along with KPMG and Deloitte. If you’re company works on state and/or federal projects, Huddle should be your first choice.
The best way to describe Huddle is that it was built with large collaboration projects in mind. Many large federal projects have many levels of approval, and Huddle provides that functionality. Huddle allows participants to share files and collaborate on content. It has strong project management features as well. As you would imagine, security is critical feature of Huddle. In fact, some of the pricing tiers are based on the level of security you need.
Unlike some collaboration tools that ask the user to learn new ways to collaborate, Huddle takes a less aggressive approach. Huddle basically takes the tools you’ve used for many years and tries to take them to the cloud where it’s easier to collaborate. I came away with the feeling that Huddle really understands its audience. Huddle is overkills for small, short duration projects. Look elsewhere if that’s your need. But for large scale projects that requires the highest degrees of security, Huddle is one of only a few options in this space.
Price: Starts at $20/user per month. Can get pricey with additional security levels.
Focus: Large-scale, long-term enterprise collaboration projects.
These are a few of the collaboration products that have been on the market long enough to gain a significant customer base. New tools are cropping up monthly, so I’m sure this is a topic I’ll revisit next year. It will be interesting to see if Microsoft Teams becomes a strong Slack competitor or if Salesforce purchases another company to widen its appeal outside of its popular CRM. Stay tuned!