Why employees don't use collaboration tools

Enterprises continue to roll out tools like Slack and Hipchat, but many struggle to get users to adopt them. Here's why.

puzzle pieces problem solved teamwork collaboration
Credit: Thinkstock

Slack exploded onto the scene three years ago, and since then just about everyone from industry giants like Facebook to small groups of open source developers have been getting in on the team collaboration software act.

Today the pace of collaboration software development and innovation is frenetic, and according to research by G2 Crowd, a peer-to-peer business review platform, the boom in corporate adoption shows no sign of slowing down in the near future. It found that more than half of all companies have already implemented team collaboration solutions of one kind or another, and 31 percent plan to adopt one in the next two years.

But not everything is as rosy as it seems in the team collaboration software garden. That's because these solutions work best when all members of a team use them, but evidence suggests that many companies struggle to get their employees interested. G2 Crowd found that only four platforms could regularly boast adoption rates above 75 percent, and no product achieved 100 percent adoption.

No compelling reason

One reason for this may be that while certain software packages are vital for some employees to carry out their work — accountants need a spreadsheet program, for example — no employees need access to team collaboration software to get their jobs done.

That's the view of Michael Fauscette, G2 Crowd's chief research officer. Although tech-savvy early-adopter types may be clamoring to start using Slack (or something similar) as soon as possible, Fauscette believes that most other employees have to be given a compelling reason to take up a new tool. Otherwise, the evidence shows, many simply won't bother.

 "Many staff will likely think: 'what's in it for me?' If this is not articulated clearly then why should they make the effort?" Fauscette says. "You have to demonstrate to them that the product will provide some value."

"My tip is to ask yourself why your employees need a collaboration tool," he says.  "If you can't answer that question easily then you are going to find that the software you pick is going to be a hard sell, and maybe you shouldn't be trying to implement it."

Poor user interfaces

One thing that G2 Crowd's research picked up is that the user interface of collaboration software can "make or break" user adoption.  This focus on appearance may seem contrary to Fauscette’s advice to demonstrate value, but Fauscette says that it comes down to persuading people to change their behavior. In many cases this means getting them to stop using a selection of other tools — including email, but also newer apps like WhatsApp, Twitter and so on — when they move to a corporate collaboration app.

"They will have had a simple user interface experience on the consumer side, so there is the expectation that this is how these tools should be," he explains. "Tools like Twitter are actually not simple, but they have a front end which is easy to use. Asking people to change is not easy, so you need to move to a tool that offers a similarly clean and smooth interface."

Unnecessary functionality

Another reason users prefer collaboration tools with simple interfaces is that many — probably most — users only do simple things with them, according to Alan Lepofsky,  a specialist collaboration tool analyst at Constellation Research. "People can jump into something like Slack, but when you show them what it can do only about 5 percent of people actually need or use that. If you put Slack into a typical sales and marketing department it will just be used like Skype but with the occasional smiley thrown in," he says.

Lepofsky adds that Facebook's Workplace has a huge advantage over other collaboration tools simply because most people are already familiar with the Facebook interface. For that reason, he believes that enterprises that implement Workplace will see above average adoption rates.

A simple or familiar user interface may be important to get people to try a new collaboration tool, but can it get them to stick with it?

Here companies face what Fauscette terms the "email overload problem version 2." Put simply, he says that many employees get bogged down under the weight of vast numbers of emails, and moving to a tool like Slack or Hipchat simply shifts the problem to a different platform. Instead of getting too many emails, employees risk getting too many notifications and messages.

Artificial intelligence to the rescue

One solution to this in the short term may be better education for new collaboration tool users, to ensure that they know how to filter notifications and separate activities into channels so they don't get swamped.

In the longer term this may not be necessary thanks to the increased use of artificial intelligence (AI) to help filter what an employee needs to see immediately from the general noise that collaboration tools can generate, Fauscette believes.  "If I can teach a machine what I am interested in in various contexts then it can filter information for me," he says. "AI is great for filtering and I think that this is the way that things will have to go."

Fauscette adds that another reason some users may not stick with a company's chosen tool is that its functionality may be weak in an area that they use frequently.  "We can end up with a Slack-centric company, and employees are expected to use it for all the things that it is good for, and for all the things that it is not so good for," he says.  The result can be that some users select and use other tools more suited to their needs — often without the knowledge or approval of the IT department.

But, ultimately, companies should not get too fixated on the levels of adoption that their collaboration tools attain, says Alan Lepofsky, because even small pockets of collaboration within an organization can lead to significant overall benefits. "What tool does have 100 percent adoption in an organization?" he concludes. "Probably only payroll and HR."

Related video:

This story, "Why employees don't use collaboration tools" was originally published by CIO.

Shop Tech Products at Amazon