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Q&A with Tony Bibbs, President, GForge, who discusses the current state of project and collaboration software

Q&A

Q:       What do you see in the collaboration software space today?

A:        The collaboration space has no shortage of options: Today’s solutions come in different flavours of software as a service (SaaS), on-premises or hybrid, all promising that a few mouse clicks will help you collaborate better. However, the one attribute most of them have in common is they don’t all deliver what they promise. In fact, many of these solutions actually make collaboration worse.

Q:       What are the most common problems with today’s collaboration solutions?

A:        When business grows so do its needs. Although transition happens slowly, before you know it, you’ve accrued many individual solutions, each addressing only a single task. Even worse, navigating between all those tools becomes painful, as it often does. In the best case, these features add more buttons to an already-complicated user interface; in the worst, there are many more bookmarks to get to the specific features. 

Lack of a comprehensive feature-set makes portfolio management difficult, if not impossible. Some solutions focus on work (tickets, issues, tasks), some on the process (kanbans, CI/CD integration), and others on people (chat). But, what about the bigger picture? How many projects do we have in flight and what’s their relative health? Have we spread our valued team members too thin? How do I find quickly what I’m looking for? Can I easily and successfully search for what I need (projects, users, tickets, documents)? Centralised searching isn’t something you can do without but will require buying yet another tool.

Then, there are the projects themselves: not all are created equal! In a world where organisations have dozens or even hundreds of projects in various phases of development, support and retirement, it’s important to be able to scale features up or down, without having to buy more seats or new solutions.

Then, there’s the ‘SaaS/Cloud versus on-premises’ discussion. There’s no shortage of on-premises solutions, yet many require painful, complex installation and upgrade processes. Given the critical role collaboration solutions play, getting them up and running (and keeping them up to date) needs to be easy. Many of these solutions can’t be even installed without an Internet connection, which means installing a collaboration solution on your super-secure network will be difficult, if not impossible.

And, once you are up and running, how do you control access to your projects?

Access control varies greatly between collaboration solutions. Large projects often have large teams, with technical, management and stakeholder members, each playing a role in successful delivery. Believe it or not, some collaboration solutions don’t allow you to define your own roles, instead imposing a set of roles, often giving users access to either too many or too few features.

Roles are key in any real collaboration solution and are often reusable, specifying the level of access users have. And even if you can specify roles on your project, if you’ve been upsold you may well be stuck having to manage access to each upsold feature separately. This is where the tools start to run the team. What started out as only a simple solution soon includes a wiki, chat, help desk and next thing you know, you are looking at a bunch of tools, held together with duct tape and web hooks, none being the authoritative source of your precious project data, and all individually imposing different ways of working.

Q:       And what about these solutions’ user interfaces – have they evolved successfully?

A:        When it comes to user interfaces, today’s solutions are all over the place. Geek-centric solutions might make your IT teams happy but could alienate your managers – from projects to products and the upper levels. Some solutions open up more work for team members so that management can have pretty reports; other solutions are too enterprise-like, trying to be everything to everyone, but adding to the complexity. Tools’ lack of focus makes the user experience painful – with too many links, buttons and tables, all competing for attention.

Q:       How should businesses approach collaborative solutions?

A:        A common problem with many collaboration solutions is that their base functionality has a high price tag, and yet offer limited scope, implementing only a few well-thought-out features.

With collaboration solutions playing a key role in “getting things done”, the more you use them the more valuable they become. So, what happens when you get to a point when you want to make to change of how you collaborate? For example, there are a few reasons an organisation may want to move from SaaS to on-premises or vice versa and although not common it shouldn’t be impossible. Moves like this should not only be possible but relatively easy to do.

Then, there’s the “vendor lock-in”; you should never get into a vendor relationship that you can’t easily get out of. The upsell models make switching out solutions even more expensive, time-consuming and error-prone. Worse yet, if you have independent vendor solutions for a specific task, then those integrations will break, requiring more time to keep them in sync.

Fortunately, it isn’t all doom-and-gloom when it comes to collaboration software. Be aware that a solution that is right for you now may not be able to grow with you in the future. To that end, it’s important to understand where many of today’s systems fall short; make choices that balance where you are today and where you want to go.

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