Part 1: Next Wave in Collaboration is Coming

And it’s time to take notice…

Collaboration is overdue for a shakeup and it’s time to take notice. This anticipation is a powerful one, because in this swell — not even the strongest incumbents are immune. History has shown that these types of waves, while rare, are redefining forces for the collaboration industry. Just like in the last wave of Social and Mobile, those who embrace it will be the beneficiaries and survivors. Those who don’t will be swept aside.

This new wave of in collaboration has been building for a long time. Twenty years ago, digitalization on a large scale led the way, changing the artifacts we use and our means of collaborating. Having content in ones and zeros versus paper allowed us to keep every photo we’ve ever taken, every message we’ve ever sent and received, and entire physical buildings of books — all in our pockets and at our fingertips.

Carrying around a rolodex, visiting a bookstore, or even learning good handwriting moved from being necessities to nostalgia as photo albums, slide decks, rolodexes, and mail left their physical forms and reincarnated as digital equivalents.

Having content in ones and zeros versus paper allowed us to keep every photo we’ve ever taken, every message we’ve ever sent and received, and entire physical buildings of books — all in our pockets and at our fingertips.

Ten years ago, Social and Mobile came on the scene and once again collaboration fundamentally changed. Sync and Share and Cloud Computing once again transformed the landscape. Users expected infinity delivered instantly. The idea of syncing an iPod with a single person’s limited library of music gave way to the expectation of having on-demand every song ever made.

To embrace this change, products had to be designed and architected differently from what existed.

This created an opportunity for major innovation. The playing field was level once again: old incumbents who built desktop apps designed around internal networks lost their competitive edge to more innovative startups in the new Mobile-first and Cloud-first world. Companies such as Dropbox, Box, and my last company, Syncplicity, rode these tailwinds to success and redefined the collaboration landscape as Social and Mobile played out and became mature in their own right.

As big as these trends were, there’s one bigger: as data shifts location and form, expectations change and the technologies that use this data move to where the data is. Digitalization moved data from physical to digital and in the process from buildings, rooms, and desks to our briefcases and backpacks. Social and Mobile moved data from flat representations into multi-dimensional searchable and scalable representations in our pockets. In fact, if you look back far enough, this trend holds to the beginnings of computing, helping to drive the move from Mainframes to PCs.

The “folder,” the centerpiece concept of collaboration, is dead. Today we share thoughts rather than purely raw bits.

So here’s the crux: the same build-up we’ve witnessed so many times before a big disruption is happening again today.

Users are moving their data and workflow from old tools to new places where fresh solutions are desperately needed. The “folder,” the centerpiece concept of collaboration, is dead. Today we share thoughts rather than purely raw bits.

Taking its place are conversations, of all types, as the new place of collaboration. The role of the folder as a container of files is now subsumed in these conversations as links, pins, and embeds. This is causing enormous amounts of data to move from structured file formats on monolithic, incompatible platforms, such as shared folders, to unstructured but universal representations on flexible, and ubiquitous platforms such as chat.

Data is changing form, as well as where it resides.

E-mail, the original killer app of mobile is dying. After 18 years, real-time messaging is taking e-mail’s place. With this change, users now expect their tools and their experiences to be real-time as well. E-mail has never been able to meet the requirements of real-time, and importantly for those of us in the collaboration space, neither do most legacy collaboration tools today.

So watch this space: data and expectations have moved and shifted once again. The old collaboration tools, built on old platforms, are obsolete. Users demand newer and better experiences that require new tools built on fundamentally different assumptions.

I’ve seen this story before and know how it’s going to end: The next wave of innovation, disruption, and opportunity is about to begin. And it’s about time.