Email has been the dominant workplace communication tool for decades. Yet its rank may be in jeopardy as a new generation of enterprise collaboration tools gain converts.

The new enterprise collaboration tools--which combine group and direct messaging, “channels” for group or project discussions and a fun, social media-like interface--offer a different way to communicate with colleagues. Tools like Slack, HipChat and Yammer in some cases are replacing email and face-to-face meetings at many companies.

Two-year-old Slack seems particularly popular, with a reported 2.7 million daily users and a market valuation of $3.8 billion. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory uses Slack to facilitate communication between the teams creating the software for the Mars Rover 2020 mission.

Advantages

Collaboration tools like Slack have been called “email killers” as many companies note a big drop in intracompany email volume once users embrace the tools. One survey of paying customers by a collaboration tool provider found an average 49% drop in email volume.

Users can access documents, message and collaborate with colleagues using HipChat’s mobile app.Users can access documents, message and collaborate with colleagues using HipChat’s mobile app.As one example, Ruven Gotz, director of collaboration services at Avanade, cites the inconvenience people sometimes feel when it comes to obtaining input from several people on a document. Typically, the document is emailed to coworkers who make changes and return it to the sender, whose job it becomes to reconcile multiple changes into the original.

Gotz says this process can be made more efficient by sharing the document from a group in Microsoft’s collaboration tool, Yammer. Users can edit the document individually or all at once, and the changes are reflected in the original document. “So the idea of this really changes; the way people work really changes. A lot of this lack of efficiency goes away,” Gotz says.

Jay Rutherford uses HipChat at AstroMutt Creative, the company he founded, and says that the ability to set up different channels for collaboration can “absolutely” reduce email clutter.

“The nice thing about creating all these different channels and rooms is that you have the ability to let somebody log into a different room and have the entire history right there; it’s very straightforward,” he says.

T.J. VanSlyke, a web developer who has used Slack, says “the biggest advantage is when real-time, synchronous collaboration is a must-have.” For instance, he says that working in sysops or dealing with time-sensitive inbound customer inquiries means that Slack can be “indispensable for notifying you about the on-goings in your business to the minute.”

Collaboration tools like Slack can bring together multiple people but some worry they run the risk of being time wasters. Collaboration tools like Slack can bring together multiple people but some worry they run the risk of being time wasters. Engineers who need to collaborate frequently could find value in a collaboration tool, says Gotz. An engineer with expertise on bridge design might need to collaborate with an expert in materials, for example. These two engineers could create a room to discuss the project and, as needed, invite other engineers to join them.

Tools that enable collaboration more simply and smoothly can “really work well for engineering teams,” he says.

To facilitate communication, some companies include vendors and contractors in select collaboration channels. Despite the convenience that this type of access may provide, Gotz says that employees may need to be reminded about what is and isn’t appropriate to share.

Implementation Advice

Collaborations tools like HipChat tend to be adopted from the bottom up. In other words, a small group of users start using the software and then convince information chiefs that other employees would benefit, too. Sean Regan, head of growth for HipChat, says this is a good way to get staff to use a social media like tool like his.

“Products that were pushed from the top down became ‘zombified,’ so what you would have is a zombie social network,” he says. The reason that happens, he says, is that “you can’t artificially push a social network down into an organization. People won’t use it unless they’ve found value and unless they share it with their friends.” He says that when a social and collaboration technology is stacked from the bottom up, more active and engaged users are the result.

Ruven Gotz, director of collaboration services at Avanade.Ruven Gotz, director of collaboration services at Avanade.Gotz agrees that the bottom-up adoption method is a good way to determine if collaboration tools are a good fit for an organization. He suggests, however, that some guidance may be called for. “I think that you need the advice and support of people who can help you use it appropriately, understand how best to use it and how not to use it so that you can really determine the value of the tool set,” he says.

One part of a successful implementation is training, says Gotz. Engineers sometimes get short shrift with software training as people assume that “technologists” should be able to master a new software package with little or no training. In the case of a collaboration tool like Yammer, a busy engineer who has not received training may not try it at all since the benefit may not have been clearly explained. In that case, he or she may go back to what works – email.

“It works badly, but it works,” Gotz says. “Change management in engineering firms is something that mustn’t be forgotten, and needs to be an important component of any implementation.”

Collaboration Tool Challenges

Despite a wider acceptance in the marketplace, some users report that collaboration tools can decrease productivity.

One challenge with some collaboration tools is their Twitter-like dashboards, where notifications stream by in real time. If users aren’t paying attention they may miss relevant conversations. This is especially true of Slack, according to VanSlyke. “If I miss a conversation on Slack, the only way for me to regain context is to re-read the entire chat log.” In some cases, there could be pages of unrelated discussion amidst the relevant discussion, he says.

What’s more, the addictive, instant-gratification nature of Slack leads VanSlyke to call it “the ultimate workday distractor” because it interferes with his productivity. “Spending all day in email (or Slack) means I’m not thinking freely,” he says. “I’m not innovating. I’m only building upon the thoughts of others.”

So although email remains the king of workplace communication, many companies are investigating and adopting tools that are challenging this reigning monarch.

To contact the author of this article, email engineering360editors@globalspec.com