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Adapt to the changing nature of work

By Nick Wailes  November 13, 2017

Since the first email was sent in 1971, the system has created a deluge of messages that has turned into a time-consuming villain at work.

According to a study from Adobe Systems, an average US worker can spend 30 hours a week just checking emails.

As a one-to-one (or one-to-a-few) form of communication, emails are difficult to share and spread across an organisation, and they are poorly integrated with other systems and tools.

So right now, in the enterprise space, a multibillion dollar war is taking place between software companies to replace email and to become the backbone for new and more productive ways of working.

As far back as 2012, global consulting firm McKinsey & Co estimated that enterprise social networking and collaboration tools could increase productivity by between 20% and 25%.

These platforms use chat to create one-to-many communications, so that a larger number of people than those cc'ed on an email trail can be kept up to date with what is going on.

They make it possible to keep track of lots of different conversations and to opt out of those that are not important to you. They also make it easier to access existing organisational knowledge.

The early leader in this battle is Slack, a cloud-based communications platform. Slack was originally developed to support communications between developers of an online game called Glitch. The game failed, but in what may be the most successful pivot ever, Slack soon became the fastest growing enterprise software in history.

Launched in February 2014, by 2017 it had 2 million individual users and 950,000 paid seats, and its platform was being used by 77% of Fortune 100 companies.

Add to this the large number of integrations with other software packages and services offered, and Slack and its rivals become not just a communications platform but the place where you can do all or most of your work and collaborate with others.

Organisations are seeing the rise of something akin to the Hollywood model where temporary teams are formed and then disbanded once a project is completed

But Slack no longer has the market to itself. Australian start-up Atlassian's Hipchat competes directly with Slack (though it offers integrated video calling and screen sharing).

Now a giant software company, Atlassian famously started with students at UNSW who thought there must be a better way for teams to communicate. And they created a tool to do just that.

It is revealing that when it floated on the NASDAQ, Atlassian chose TEAM as its stock market ticker and markets its products as unleashing a team's potential.

In 2016, Facebook launched its version of Facebook for work, Workplace, and most recently Microsoft introduced its own Slack clone, Teams. The stage is set for an epic battle between these companies to dominate enterprise communications and an estimated US$10 billion a year market.

But just having these tools and platforms in place won't automatically prepare you and your organisation for success in the new world of work. It also requires new ways of working and a different type of organisational culture.

First, these systems require transparency. They also work against hierarchy. To be effective, they require everyone to be equal and to be prepared to work in the same way.

The most successful adoptions of enterprise communications platforms are underlined by leaders who model the types of behaviours on these platforms as something they would want to see in their organisations.

Without this leadership, these platforms will end up going the way of Myspace and we will be left with bulging inboxes and organisations that can't collaborate and innovate.

But contemporary organisations remain highly siloed. People work in different departments or divisions and increasingly in different locations and countries. At the same time, many of the things that organisations are trying to achieve require individuals and teams to work across organisational boundaries.

Successfully launching a new product, expanding to a new location or keeping up to date with what is happening with key clients requires input from teams – and teams of teams – and means that a greater number of people need to be kept up to date with what is going on.

As routine tasks in organisations are becoming increasingly automated or outsourced, the real work of an organisation is about creating new value and this involves higher levels of creativity and collaboration.

Indeed, many organisations are seeing the rise of something akin to the Hollywood model where temporary teams are formed and then disbanded once a project is completed.

So, if you are about to email a link to this story to other workers in your company, consider if they are already overloaded with email. And, is there a cloud-based communications platform that would do the job much better?

And then look at the company itself. As we enter the gig economy, and workers stay with a company for a short time to get the job done, perhaps the entire structure of your firm could do with a shake up.

Nick Wailes is a professor and associate dean (digital and innovation) at UNSW Business School. A version of this post appeared in the South China Morning Post.

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