Clear away the confusion with this straightforward guide to the various categories of collaboration tools — what they offer, what they don’t, and how to choose the right one for you.
Collaboration tools have become critically important for any organization, hoping to keep up in a data-driven, digital world. This range of tools — including project management dashboards, chat tools, and document sharing programs — promises to help businesses collaborate more efficiently in today’s market.
But to create a fully-functioning digital collaboration environment, many organizations end up piecing together solutions from several tools or find themselves switching from tool to tool trying to find the right solution. It’s time for companies to take stock of what their workers need and focus on choosing a tool that meets these needs from the start. With the right collaboration tool in hand, you can go beyond basic communication and tasking and enable a real workflow transformation.
Categories of Collaboration Tools
There are a few key categories of collaboration tools available on the market, but the names, acronyms, and descriptions can be confusing. Many products claim to offer more than they can deliver — to make an informed decision, you need a realistic understanding of what each category has to offer. The following guide outlines the key features and limitations of the most popular collaboration tools available today:
Document Management (DM)
These tools focus on document storage, sharing, and co-editing. Their premise is simple but important, and for offices where work is heavily based around documents (including both text and image files), document management tools are a must. While it’s possible to use an on-premises document management system, most are cloud-based. As such, the primary advantage of most of these programs is that you can access work-related documents from anywhere.
Document management tools are useful, but they are also quite limited. Communication is typically relegated to the margins of the documents, with notifications routed to email. You might be able to integrate these tools outward (so that you can access the documents from other platforms). Still, there are fewer options for integrating other tools into your document management environment. In addition, these tools aren’t meant to be particularly customizable — they are built to support document organization and access. They are a vital building block, but not a complete solution.
Project Management (PM)
Project management tools vary widely, but generally, they are built to assist teams in organizing the various steps involved in bringing a project to completion. These tools are designed to allow teams to create tasks and subtasks, set deadlines, and communicate around specific project steps — they typically allow you to connect text and image files to particular tasks. Replacing inefficient emailing, endless team meetings, and obscure timelines with a project management tool can be an excellent solution for many organizations, particularly if your deliverables are based around text, image, or other digital formats.
On the whole, project management tools are useful for keeping users aware of their tasks and ensuring projects are completed by the designated deadline, but they lack flexibility. For operational teams that deal with a changing environment, these tools may not be the right choice. The workflow is by and large controlled manually and can slow processes down. Additionally, these tools may have an accompanying mobile application, but they aren’t truly meant for on-the-go or in-the-field use. They are primarily a way to restructure and streamline existing in-office workflows — they don’t have the flexibility or features to boost real-time operational teamwork.
Business Intelligence (BI or BA)
Collaborative business intelligence tools are still relatively new. Still, there are a few tools out there that link team communication features with analytics and data processing to enable coordinated decision-making. These are similar to project management tools, but with analytics built into the platform.
These business intelligence solutions are all about transforming data into relevant insights, with the added ability to share the findings with others. Traditional business intelligence features like reports and dashboards can be combined with fresh ways of visualizing data insights. These tools also allow teams to send or link this content via email, IM, social media, or within comments on the platform itself.
Business intelligence tools do need to integrate with other platforms. They are big data analyzers, so they must hook up to databases. But business intelligence tools tend to be focused around utilizing stored data, not real-time data. Their collaborative features do broaden organizational visibility, but they aren’t designed for operational speed and don’t make use of actionable alerts and notifications. If your team needs to not just analyze data but also put that data into action, business intelligence tools will likely come up short.
Instant Messaging (IM)
Instant messaging tools offer an informal and immediate way for users to communicate. In many workplaces, these tools have fostered a large-scale exodus from back-and-forth emailing — largely for the better, even though the constant stream of alerts and social chats can be distracting.
Most instant messaging tools allow teams to create channels around particular topics. They typically support file sharing within conversations, and a few tools preserve conversations for later reference. The top IM-based products on the marketplace show that these tools have primarily evolved past simple chat capabilities. Slack is well known for its channels and a long list of integrations.
Most IM tools fall short when it comes to workflow customization. These tools are typically centered around ad hoc conversations and can decrease overall productivity. The continuous chat pop-ups and alerts may end up diverting attention rather than focusing it. And while IM tools can incorporate data from some other tools — especially files or project management tasks — those capabilities are often limited. For instance, if you’d like to build chat around a data stream from legacy software or IoT devices, instant messaging may not be the right solution.
In a similar vein, IM tools inherently spread conversations across multiple channels, making it difficult to search and store data for a historical record. IM tools also struggle when it comes to combining channels or adding users to a chat after a conversation has already started — which may make them a poor fit for rapidly changing distributed teams and organizations that need to adapt in real-time.
Workstream Collaboration (WC)
Workstream collaboration tools unify the best of the above features to enable fast, contextual communication to drive informed decision-making. Unlike most of the above categories, workstream collaboration is a complete solution for a broader range of users — not just office workers or departments, but operational and field service teams as well.
When it comes to communication, WC tools prioritize persistent (and searchable) channels that occur in conjunction with the workflow, focused on particular teams, tasks, or events. Workstream collaboration tools offer a wide range of communication options like instant messaging and the sharing of images, videos, and audio. These options help them better serve distributed teams. In this same vein, many workstream collaboration tools are mobile-first, designed with on-the-go use in mind.
Many of the previously mentioned tools integrate to some degree, so that you can easily draw data or text files from one program to another. Workstream collaboration tools go further to ensure that you can automatically route the data you need into your workflow, whether from other applications, databases, or IoT technologies. Few other tools are designed to link to your IoT array, but for many industries — like logistics or manufacturing — data from sensors and devices offer critical information.
Above all, workstream collaboration tools are meant to be customizable and flexible. Teams have different requirements of a collaboration tool — especially operational teams that deal with rapidly changing conditions. For these teams, a workflow that reflects real-time conditions is crucial.
Choosing the Right Collaboration Solution
Gartner considers workstream collaboration tools the unified solution that businesses need to stay competitive, streamlined, and in sync. If you’re looking for a comprehensive collaboration solution that suits your dynamic, real-time decision-making process, consider workstream collaboration tools. This emerging product type offers comprehensive benefits, united in one workspace, and built to be customized to your specific requirements. Stop piecing together functions and data from various tools. With workstream collaboration, you can build out a unified product with the integrations, focus, and flexibility you need to meet your objectives.
Coolfire’s tool takes workstream collaboration one step further to add a critical layer to workplace communications — situational awareness. To enable situational awareness within an organization, Coolfire goes beyond data access and custom workflows to include location information that puts real-time data to work. For example, first response teams can use Coolfire to provide a data-rich map view that allows teams to view where other officers are located in the field. Add in actionable alerts and centralized discussions that can be focused around events or tasks, and you have a tool that truly works to empower your team members to get the job done.
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