“This pandemic didn’t create new digital trends. It accelerated them, sometimes by a decade,” said Bret Taylor, Salesforce president and COO at the recent Dreamforce Conference. And one of those digital trends is a move to a more collaborative form of work.
That isn’t news. We have been talking about improving collaboration for remote workers since the pandemic began over a year and a half ago. What is news is that the tools we discovered and used to connect with remote colleagues, like Slack, Zoom and Microsoft Teams are now morphing into a new generation of development platforms that will become tomorrow’s desktops … wherever we work.
Much like the browser during the dawn of the internet era, these new tools are vying to become the place where we spend our daily work time. The comparison is closer than you think. Rewind 25 years. At that time, the internet offered geographically remote people real-time access to ubiquitous information for the first time, as companies rushed to claim a domain and post their first website. In those early days, the browser was merely an application to do one thing — view static web sites. Over time, browsers have become development platforms that are constantly evolving to support new business services. The browser has served us well, but as we morph into the next phase of remote communications, it might be time to pass the baton to the “collaboration development platform.”
That statement sounds counterintuitive in today’s world of exploding SaaS cloud offerings, which are almost exclusively based on web browsers. But what has changed over the last year is that workers are no longer just working inside their business apps, they are simultaneously collaborating in real-time with clients and colleagues using chat or video meetings, around those tasks being carried out in the business app. Presently, the collaborative experience is parallel to the business task, each taking place in a separate app. Think of a conversation with a customer in Slack window while you are filling out a Salesforce client record, or a Teams call with a colleague while adding financial details to an Excel budget spreadsheet — two separate apps across two different windows.
This kludgy workflow is inefficient and prone to errors. Next generation tools will integrate the collaboration experience into the core of the business process, creating one smooth flow. The big enterprise vendors are already rolling out early versions of these collaboration platform tools.
Salesforce Slack-First Platform
Salesforce has been particularly vocal about this new direction. At Dreamforce, Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff introduced this new user experience, calling it the “digital headquarters (HQ),” which he defined as “the collaborative place where work gets done.”
The Digital HQ is a user experience that connects business processes with the human interactions that bring those processes to life. Saleforce’s new Slack-first Platform is the company’s Digital HQ offering: “a new low-code development platform that lets users create workflows and actions for Salesforce inside of Slack.” As an example, using the platform, a salesperson can chat with a customer on Slack and then use the conversation text as input to the CRM system rather than copying and pasting the information into a form. In the process, interaction with clients and colleagues becomes the CRM user interface rather than a parallel task.
Related Article: Why Salesforce Really Bought Slack
Microsoft Teams Development Platform
Microsoft is also taking this approach. Microsoft Teams, the company’s next generation collaboration application has seen meteoric adoption, going from 13 million users to 250 million users in just 19 months. Initially rolled out as a virtual meeting place and chat tool, Microsoft has huge aspirations for Teams to become the enterprise Digital HQ for Microsoft 365 customers. Like Salesforce, Microsoft is touting Teams as developer platform for apps that will be driven by human interactions in the form of chat and video. In a recent interview in the Financial Times, Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella predicted Microsoft Teams is going to be the biggest developer platform since the internet, saying Teams will be “the place where workers spend their day, with all the tools they need in one place.”
Speaking earlier this year at the Microsoft Build Conference, Nadella provided additional details. “Teams is … an organizing layer for all the ways people work learn and collaborate teams. It’s the only solution that brings together meetings, calls, chat, documents, collaboration and workflow in a single integrated user experience, and it enables you to bring collaboration to the forefront of app design. We’re enabling a new category of cross-device collaborative applications, just like Win32 defined a new era of apps and web apps and mobile apps did the same. This new generation of cross-device collaborative applications will be a transformational first-class platform opportunity.”
As an example, Microsoft demonstrated how ServiceNow built a collaborative app for incidence response using Teams as the user interface, the Microsoft Graph to connect with the right people in the organization, and a bot to alert them to join a conference call when required.
Zoom, the ubiquitous video conference tool that boasts 300 million daily meeting participants, also has its sights on the Digital HQ of the future workplace. The Zoom Platform, launched in 2018 “enables third-party developers to build applications that leverage Zoom’s video-first unified communications platform that spans video, voice, content sharing, and chat across desktop, mobile and workspaces.” While far less integrated into business applications than Salesforce or Microsoft, Zoom has enormous potential to become a player in the collaboration developer platform.
Dawn of the Collaboration Development Platform
There are many other players in the collaboration space who are likely to jump on the developer platform bandwagon. This new opportunity is, of course, being accentuated by the urgent need of remote workers to organize and streamline their work experience. But it is also being accelerated by technological advancements in Natural Language Processing (NLP), speech to text translation, and machine learning, all of which make such intelligent interactions possible. These new advancements are empowering software companies to turn unstructured data like speech and text into constructs that can be used directly in business applications.
We should expect to see more entrants and product announcements in this market over the next year.
Related Article: The Myth of the Digital Workplace Hub
Where Are We Now?
The last war for the worker’s desktop was the ferocious struggle between Microsoft and Netscape over a quarter of a century ago. Even today, the browser remains king of the user interface for most workers, and surprisingly, the browser war continues on, albeit with some different combatants this time. But in the grand scheme of how work gets done, the browser wars are yesterday’s news.
The next contest for the worker’s desktop is the emerging collaboration development platform. If you are an app developer, you can’t afford to ignore this trend. Now is the time to craft your strategy and investigate at least one of the horses in this race. You will need to uplift your app to become part of a worker’s natural interactions with clients and colleagues, rather than just be one of many apps they use.
If you are an IT executive, you also need to be watching these developments carefully, to make sure that you work with the infrastructure vendor who best integrates the set of business apps that you need to run your business.
With so much at stake, it’s an opportunity not to be missed. Maybe Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield said it best, “This is a once in a generation opportunity for every company to reinvent themselves and make work more flexible, inclusive and productive.”
David is a product expert with extensive experience leading information-intensive technology organizations. His specialty is helping organizations “do it right the first time”— get to market quickly and successfully through a structured process of working closely with design partners from day one.