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Published Tuesday, April 6, 2021

What is contextual collaboration?

Context is everything. Growing up in a house filled with lawyers I assumed this was a legal maxim, as it was usually invoked when my parents tried to arbitrate a fight between my brother and I. In some of my first creative writing classes in college, the first notes I would usually get back on any outline would be “why does this story take place now and not at another point?” When pressed about why that mattered so much, my professor patiently replied “for people to connect, context is everything.” 


For people to connect, context is everything. Now, as more and more of our working life moves online, and more teams scramble to increase productivity without the crutch of a shared workspace, I think about that phrase more than ever. How do we communicate about our work when our work is done in so many different digital spaces? How do we collaborate effectively? The answer is contextual collaboration.


What is contextual collaboration?

Contextual collaboration is the notion that important collaboration features, such as online chat, file sharing, or to-do lists should be fully integrated into applications where your team works. You’ve likely encountered examples of contextual collaboration here and there: the “comment” and “suggest edits” functions in Google Docs, or the “chat” function in Zoom are great examples of limited contextual collaboration. In practice, contextual collaboration saves you the trouble of having to navigate away from where you’re presently working to ask a colleague a question or share an important file, digitally recreating some of the benefits of an office environment.


While contextual collaboration was a "nice to have" in the age of office work, our new distributed work paradigm has made it essential for reducing friction in the digital workplace.

Who’s on first?

When they were first introduced, tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams were revolutionary additions to office communication. Quick questions could be answered, files could be shared, and meetings could be scheduled all without ever having to leave your desk. It smoothed out some of the most common sources of office friction. Shortcomings with this model were easy to overlook since the conference room was always down the hall for when real collaboration was needed.


But as anyone who works on a distributed team can attest, these kinds of office tools were far less effective when removed from the office. With team members working together across a myriad of different tools and as many more versions of any given file, a simple conversation over revisions to a Powerpoint presentation could quickly devolve into the world’s least entertaining rendition of an Abbott and Costello routine. In the world of contextual collaboration, revisions to said PowerPoint would be immediately surfaced to every team member working on it, and entire conversations could be had around specific parts of the document:


Screen Shot 2021-04-01 at 12.48.35 PM

As you can see in this totally real screenshot, my colleague and I were able to quickly address an issue with this important presentation without ever having to navigate away from the document. Add in a feature like user tagging and suddenly our supervisor could join in the conversation and quickly sign off on the change. Add in a feature like secure file sharing, and our supervisor could quickly share our internal metrics document, allowing us to add even more relevant information to the slide without ever leaving the tab. This, however, only scratches the surface of what contextual collaboration is capable of. When implemented thoroughly and thoughtfully, contextual collaboration allows distributed teams to work together faster and more efficiently than they could in any office.


Are iPaaS apps contextual collaboration?

Integrated products as a service (adorably dubbed iPaaS by my peers) seek to streamline digital workspaces by using API's to create a central hub for all your cloud based applications. While services like these may make your life easier by decluttering your tabs or keeping all your work in the same space, the nature of API's requires each distinct service to remain silo'd off in it's own box. Your apps may all talk to each other, which is great for data sharing and aggregating information, but in doing so they eliminate the context that makes communicating around specific items easier.

Whether you have to navigate to Slack in another tab or have to navigate to it in your iPaaS the effect is the same: your work and your collaboration are being kept apart.  So long as the place where you communicate is distinct from the place where you do work, collaboration cannot be truly contextual. Real effective contextual collaboration must be fully integrated.


A tale of two use cases

As is the case with many marketing professionals, much of my day-to-day work is done in HubSpot, which Weavy uses as both our CRM and CMS. While setting up an automation workflow for an upcoming webinar, I needed to get relevant Ad ID’s from our performance marketing lead so I could input them into my workflow. Since Hubspot doesn’t offer any contextual collaboration features, I asked her for the ID’s in our messaging app. Thanks to an error with the ad platform’s API, Hubspot wouldn’t recognize the ID’s. What that meant for me the next day, when the error was resolved, is that I had to scroll through an entire day’s worth of conversations about other topics to find those ID’s and try again.


Situations like this are a regular occurrence for remote teams, and the issue has only compounded as companies have added more and more productivity tools to their repertoire as they transitioned to fully distributed models. While standalone collaboration apps like Slack and Teams can try to smooth this frustration out with features like search, there’s no replacement for truly contextual collaboration.


Imagine for a moment if Hubspot offered functionality similar to Weavy, this would have been a completely different tale. Instead, I could have pulled up a quick chat window on the workflow page and tagged my colleague with a request for the ID’s. Even if the error had happened, I could simply have gone back to the relevant page and pulled up our small chatbox. Instead of wading through a sea of different conversations to find the relevant information, those ID’s would have been waiting for me. Not only would this have made my work day easier, but it would have also freed up my normal chat with my colleague from that manner of specific collaboration, allowing us to have a dedicated space for high-level and off-topic discussions.


The future of contextual collaboration

As our reliance on web based productivity tools increases, the need to make the end-user experience as friction-free as possible also increases. User demand for integrated communication functionality has never been higher, even in the consumer space. Just this week, Sendbird, which allows B2C applications to add messaging and video call features through a simple API, was valued at $1 Billion. When Salesforce acquired Slack late last year, likely with the intention of integrating Slack’s functionality directly into their CRM, it validated that the future of collaboration was contextual. 


Luckily for companies that don’t have an extra $27 Billion lying around, low-code API based solutions like Weavy can allow those features to be integrated into their applications in a fraction of the time and cost. Eventually, the age of hitting alt-tab to go to a dedicated chat app will come to an end, because when it comes to digital collaboration and communicating effectively, context is everything.


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