Three Key Webinar Takeaways: The Benefits and Risks of Collaboration Tools

In our recent webinar, The Benefits and Risks of Collaboration Tools, we explored the explosion of collaborative tools like Microsoft Teams and Slack and also examined some of the new risks they can create along the way. Thanks again to Brian Hill from Wellington Consulting for sharing his insights and deep knowledge of the collaboration and unified communications markets. For those who were not able to join the session, which I will summarize here, the recording is available to watch.

Over the past 9 to 12 months, our customers and prospects have expressed a dramatic growth in interest in collaborative tools—primarily Slack and Microsoft Teams, but also Cisco WebEx Teams, Symphony, and others. This interest comes from firms large and small and was a popular discussion topic at our June SmarshConnect and more recently at eDiscovery and compliance events such as Today’s General Counsel in NYC and the SIFMA Compliance & Legal Society regional meeting in San Francisco. The growth in interest and demand is not limited to the market we serve. Microsoft recently reported that more than 500,000 organizations are using Teams, which has surpassed Slack with 13M daily active users (DAUs) compared to Slack’s 10M. For many, the choice of collaborative tools is not limited to a single platform. Pull from specific departments and functions, mergers, and the lack of a corporate standard often result in the presence of multiple tools within an organization. In fact, collaboration technology provider Mio estimates that 91% of organizations have more than two collaborative tools, with an average of 3.3 per firm.

In order to better understand the reasons behind this increased adoption, we explored the benefits firms have realized from collaboration technology. As one might expect, many of the expected benefits of collaborative tools are intangible. Productivity gains and the improved ability to share customer information, for example, are difficult to measure. However, some published results appear to validate firms’ investments in these platforms. For example:

  • In an April 2019 study led by Forrester Research, users of Microsoft Teams reported a 17% reduction in the volume of emails received daily and a 19% reduction in the number of meetings attended weekly.
  • In a survey conducted in 2017, IDC reported that users of Slack experienced a 32% reduction in emails and 23% fewer meetings, percentages that have likely increased since the publishing of this report.
  • In its own research, analyst firm Nemertis Research reported that, while the vast majority of firms have not established quantifiable metrics around the use of collaboration technology, those that have experienced a 12% reduction in email and a 22% reduction in the number of meetings.

Suffice it to say, the benefits of collaboration are appealing, whether measured explicitly or when looking more broadly at enabling agility, improving response time, and reducing cycle times around collaborative work.

So, what about risks? As we discussed on the webinar, three primary categories are causing firms to hesitate before enabling even broader use of these technologies:

  • Policy risk: A primary challenge of collaborative tools is the lack of guardrails. In many cases, employees are not provided guidance on what the tools can and cannot be used for. Potential exposures can be introduced if communications policies that guide the appropriate use of intellectual property and other sensitive information are not extended to new collaborative tools. For many firms, these policy controls need to go much further than simply leveraging the native features provided by Slack, Teams, and others.
  • Modality Risk: Collaborative tools tend to provide a rich set of features, including the ability to engage in persistent chats, embed files for joint authoring, enable recording of voice and video, and use emojis and other non-text messaging as part of conversations. This can result in exposure to features that were previously not available or addressed in policies as well as increase confusion and complexity, as each collaborative tool is unique and has its own method of access, native controls, and capabilities.
  • Review Risk: The multiple modalities—along with the fact that conversations can be changed, modified, or deleted—create new complexities for compliance and discovery programs that are designed for email. Familiar parent-child relationships of email are not as easy to decipher when there may be hundreds of participants in a persistent chat, and where content may be consistently evolving. For regulated firms and those facing a large volume of litigation, the risk of missing a critical component of a conversation is exceptionally high, and using tools unsuited for today’s collaborative technology is an exposure that more legal and compliance teams are tuning in to.

Given these factors, what guidance can help firms keep benefits and potential risks in proper balance? Brian Hill offered the following:

  • Understand that risk and value can live anywhere: As we’ve stated many times, content and context—not specific technology—are determinative. This is true when managing litigation, meeting regulatory demands, or protecting against loss of intellectual property. Collaborative tools are yet another example of platforms that need to be brought under the umbrella of governance controls.
  • Training around collaborative tools needs to be explicit: As many have learned from previous technologies such as Microsoft SharePoint, deploying new tools without guardrails and user guidance can easily produce yet another dumping ground. Firms should establish clear guidelines on what can and cannot be shared on collaborative platforms and ensure that training programs remain active and current as new features and interactive capabilities emerge.
  • Examine discovery and compliance tools now: Persistent chats and interactive content behave fundamentally differently than email. For firms relying on technology that can only ingest and process content in an email format, this can result in breaks in chains of custody and create tremendous complexity in the review process. Firms should examine their existing technologies to understand how they will manage these non-email sources before the first case arrives.

Finally, as we’ve stated elsewhere, the evaluation of new technologies itself should be a collaborative exercise. It should involve the direct participation of legal, compliance, security, and privacy stakeholders to support IT and business units and provide a complete picture of the benefits and potential exposures introduced by Slack, Microsoft Teams, and other collaborative platforms.

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Robert Cruz

Robert Cruz

Senior Director of Information Governance at Smarsh
Robert Cruz is Senior Director of Information Governance for Smarsh. He has more than 20 years of experience in providing thought leadership on emerging topics including cloud computing, information governance, and discovery cost and risk reduction.
Robert Cruz

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