Solving the Collaborative Work Management Puzzle


At this beginning of the year, I embarked on a research project to examine the domain of collaborative work management. The catalyst for this research was the fact that when I looked at various definitions from other analysts and vendors, they simply didn't make a lot of sense under closer scrutiny. But I could also see there was something of value, because why else were people bothering with the concept?

The other problem is that collaborative work management is simply not a phrase or concept that people in the workplace use. This issue came up time and time again during my research. But then hearing all the complaints about "videoconference fatigue" during the pandemic, I'm more convinced than ever that there is a better way to work than just relying on email, video conferencing, and spreadsheets.

All I can say on reflection is that I ask you to indulge me and forget about the phrase for the moment. Deconstructing collaborative work management may help you to understand why and where it fits.

Deconstructing collaborative work management

In my opinion, we need to instead talk about what makes an effective collaborative work management system, rather than think about individual products or solutions.

An effective collaborative work management system consists of three different components, which are part of your overall digital workplace environment.

While it might be self-evident that your collaborative work management system sits within your digital workplace, what I mean by this is that it can't exist in isolation. Collaborative work management solutions are collaborative in nature, but not necessarily as a feature. And even when they offer collaboration features, there are only a few vendors that can cover all modes required. The full-suite vendors are few: Microsoft and Zoho come to mind. But I would argue that even these vendors don't offer a complete system. There are also others that may not provide the full breadth as a full-suite vendor but can provide the keystone in your collaborative work management architecture.

The three specific components that make up an effective collaborative work management system are:

Architecting a collaborative work management system

But these components can not stand alone, because getting work done (or at least the parts we haven't automated) remains a human endeavour. We still need other collaboration features like email, content tools, group chat, and video conferencing.

There is a bit of a red herring hidden in here, which is the idea of a digital work hub that brings all those collaboration features together into a single pane or portal. Does this mean work hubs are collaborative work management solutions? Well, that depends, but there is no tool that does everything. However, your work hub could well be a keystone or primary way of interacting with your collaborative work management system. The prominent examples here are Microsoft Teams and Slack, but in reality, they aren't entirely comparable:

Things quickly get complicated, because, for example, we can combine tools like Teams with Wrike to avoid the complexity of Microsoft 365, or use Slack as a collaboration tool with Monday or Atlassian. Meanwhile, other collaboration vendors are making moves that either bring them into the sphere of collaborative work management, like Zoom. And collaborative work management vendors are also introducing rich-media collaboration features, like Asana. What this means in practice is that a collaborative work management solution is also a work hub except when it isn't!

All this is possible because everyone integrates to some degree with each other or through third-party integration platforms like Zapier and the vast majority also offer an API for bespoke customisations. The differences are in the quality of the integration for your particular use cases.

During the research, my discussions with people about collaborative work management also revealed a connection to two other complementary domains: knowledge management and digital placemaking.

We need to consider knowledge management so we can avoid reinventing the wheel and to ensure people understand how and why a particular process exists. Aspects of knowledge management might be built into a particular collaborative work management solution, like templates or shared workflows, but you may also need a strategy to deal with other aspects that can't be made explicit in the system design. For example, how will you onboard new employees?

Digital placemaking is about addressing the human and social factors in an organisation, because people aren't machines and they need to feel connected to the purpose and social network of an organisation. Similar to knowledge management, some collaborative work management solutions, particularly those that focus on outcome alignment, will contain features that support the goal of digital placemaking. However, if people are working remotely and you deploy a task-oriented work management solution, you need to think about how you will also back that up with the right kind of social support.

I've pulled all these elements into a high level diagram to describe what I call a Collaborative Work Management System Architecture:

Collaborative Work Management System Architecture

Collaborative Work Management System Architecture

The primary functions of collaborative work management are work management, automation, and outcomes alignment. You might deliver these with a single solutions or multiple tools. However, your collaborative work management system will not be complete without integration with a work hub and other productivity tools that help us to communicate and collaborate. Those productivity tools include email, messaging, video conferencing, and content management. Finally, your collaborative work management architecture should also solve the related issues of knowledge management and digital placemaking.

What's the value proposition?

We now have a conceptual understanding of collaborative work management, what is the value proposition for doing anything about it?

As I hinted at above, the rise in remote work because of the pandemic makes the role collaborative work management more important than before. However, collaborative work management existed prior to Covid-19. Looking across the board at the business case put forward by different people, I see four key benefit areas:

Some data exists to back this up. A few vendors have published Forrester Total Econmic Impact reports about their own products or general reseach about the impact of remote work. Naturally these demonstrate the positive benefits of their own solutions or provide indirect evidence of the general driver behind the need for collaborative work management.

However, I have found a couple of interesting reports from Asana and Wrike that give some more general statistics based on user surveys:

These few data points suggest that despite the terrible name, collaborative work management is a valuable concept, but there is room for more qualitative and quantitative research in this area.


As I said at the beginning, let's forget about the challenges of the phrase "collaborative work management". This is mostly an unfortunate marketing issue. However, the more relavent challenge is how we go about putting the puzzle together to create a fit for purpose digital system that will give us a better way of working.

But through that lens of creating a better way of working I'm reminded that its not about any particular solution or technology, but about empowering teams through collaborative work management. Keep that in focus and you shouldn't go wrong.

In my next and final post about collaborative work management for this research project I'll be sharing a market map. I will also share profiles of some different vendors to demonstrate the diversity and commonality across the ecosystem.