Should you let IT teams choose their own collaboration tools?

CIOs should give IT departments the freedom to choose the collaboration tools that work best for them — without losing sight of security and compliance.

Sharon Florentine May 09th 2018 A-A+

Collaboration is often most productive when it is driven from the bottom up. IT staff given the freedom to explore collaboration and team communication tools are adept at customizing and specializing the solutions they use to manage their workflows. CIOs who dictate which collaboration tools IT departments should use may be slowing down workflows, building resentment and undermining productivity and engagement.

While security and “shadow IT” concerns remain, loosening the reins to give IT departments the ability to choose their own collaboration tools may help give your organization a competitive edge, both in terms of productivity and in retaining top talent.

Here is a look at why you should consider giving your IT departments greater freedom of choice when it comes to collaboration tools — and how to address concerns that may arise.

Today’s collaboration technologies: Less commitment, less risk

Choosing a software solution no longer carries quite the same risk it once did, as cloud-based offerings have become the standard for delivery, says Mike Kelly, CIO of Red Hat. That also means a larger array of options, and less obligation to stick with a given solution, he adds.

“Whereas the CIO of 1994 was attempting to drive a transformation from built-in-house, homegrown solutions to purchasing from large vendors — which didn’t always fit and resulted in a lot of cost overruns because of the need for customization — today’s CIO faces a much bigger array of offerings and much greater flexibility once you’ve decided,” he says. “You can select a solution, sign up and try it, see how it works and what adoption is like, and if that doesn’t work, you can walk away in six months or a year.”

Another major change is the rise of APIs, says Patric Palm, founder and CEO of Hansoft. APIs ease integration issues, and as more vendors offer and leverage APIs, organizations can be relatively certain those solutions can be made to work with legacy systems.

“Companies are realizing, too, that walling off systems isn’t a good practice, and they need to open things up,” Palm says. “Slack, for example, has gained a lot of traction because it’s so easy to access and the functionality works almost everywhere. And this kind of seamless integration is leveling the competitive playing field somewhat and allowing smaller players the opportunity to gain a foothold while providing IT departments with the functionality they need.”

The most progressive companies are creating internal “app stores” that allow workers to choose the tools and applications that they’re most comfortable with and that work best for their needs, Palm says.

The freedom to be productive — and engaged

Empowering your IT departments to choose their own collaboration software can boost productivity and ease frustration, Palm says. While CIOs shouldn’t give up control entirely, loosening the reins gives your IT teams the flexibility to collaborate more effectively and innovate more quickly, he adds.

“There are echoes of the BYOD movement when people wanted to use their iPhones and personal devices at work, and that definitely accelerated the influence of consumer tech functionality and access into the enterprise,” Palm says. “BYOD, though, was largely driven by executives and worked its way down into the greater workforce; this time, the workforce itself, and IT departments especially, are pushing for the adoption of these tools that they want to use because it can make them more productive,” he says.

Moreover, IT departments that are free to choose their preferred tools tend to be more engaged, says Palm.

“Empowering your IT teams to make decisions and use the software and collaboration solutions that allow them to do their jobs in the more effective, efficient way possible can keep them motivated and engaged, and that’s really important,” he says.

Freedom of choice, especially in implementing cutting-edge technologies, can also enhance an organization’s ability to recruit and retain top talent, says Palm. “It’s not actually very smart to hire for IT positions and then give them ‘dinosaur technologies,’” he says.

Dealing with drawbacks

While CIOs should consider stepping back from dictating what IT can use, they are still responsible for vetting, integrating and maintaining the solutions IT chooses, Palm says. “You’re not just a strategic advisor to the business as far as how these tools can enable efficiency and innovation, but you’re helping your teams choose the best tools to help them do the best job they can,” he says.

Red Hat’s Kelly notes a fundamental issue CIOs encounter when shifting to a choose-your-own approach: “What you don’t want to do is completely let go, and then all of a sudden you have fifty different ways people are communicating with each other — that’s a mess. You as a CIO have to walk a line between standing there and saying, ‘You are required to use this and only this,’ and making it a free-for-all.”

One chief concern is the possibility of constraints that regulatory compliance and data governance may have on these decisions, depending on your industry, Kelly says.

Another is security. Organizations need to make sure that any chosen solution meets privacy, compliance and security requirements, in addition to fulfilling any functionality requirements, says Palm. The good news is that many vendors and application developers are reacting very quickly to security concerns and are able to make their tools highly available and highly secure, he says.

“You don’t want to encourage a shadow IT ‘black market’ kind of situation, of course,” Palm says. “That’s a disaster waiting to happen. But so many of these collaboration solutions successfully combine the seamless functionality, easy access and security features that are necessary.”

The politics of special treatment

Another concern is the optics of giving IT “special treatment,” especially when freedom of choice isn’t available to other departments. In some cases, though, that’s necessary for organizations to stay competitive and on the cutting edge, Palm says.

“Software developers, especially, have had these privileges for a long time — to test new technologies, to try and build things that might not be available to other departments; sometimes there are one set of rules for technical talent and other rules for the rest of the company,” he says.

Here, transparency is key. Being open about why these rules (or lack thereof) are in place and the benefits to the company and its place in the industry can help stave off resentment. And if you consider IT’s forays as pilot projects, demonstrating how these technologies can be used by other departments can be beneficial as well.

At the end of the day, CIOs face the same challenges as they always have, says Kelly; how to successfully argue the case for implementing specific technologies and outlining the pros and cons of each.

“The questions you ask of any implementation are the same, regardless of whether you’re trying to figure out how to standardize on one solution or if you’re coordinating a bunch of different solutions. It really comes down to, ‘How do I convince people that this is a better “mousetrap” than before?’” Kelly says.

“The conversation around collaboration is difficult because it’s hard to dictate how people work together; how they collaborate. So, it’s actually more important to have the commitment to collaborate, rather than focusing on the specific tools you’re using to do it,” Kelly adds. “Whether you’re using one, three, five different tools or if you’re meeting in person, or, heck, if you’re stringing two tin cans together, it comes down to what problem you’re trying to solve, what’s the best way for you to solve it and what works for your particular company.”