There are a number of contributing factors to the issue of application fragmentation and how it is killing productivity. The digital workspace is home to our content creation, document storage and management, communication, scheduling, collaboration, and dozens of other activities that comprise the average work day. When digging through the application stack for the average worker we run into a number of common themes and trends.

The Fragmentation Problem

The number of applications an enterprise uses is much larger than you would typically think. The Economic Times found that the average enterprise now uses over 900 cloud applications to manage its processes, and that number is continuously increasing. One further finding from their survey was that 59% of workers say the number of tools they use to work has increased in the past year.

While clearly not all workers use every app, the amount of applications we use sucks up valuable time for workers. RingCentral found that Sixty-eight percent of workers toggle between apps up to 10 times an hour, and 31 percent of workers said toggling causes them to lose their train of thought, making work more cumbersome.

Switching applications can waste an alarming amount of time. RingCentral also found that 69% of workers waste up to 60 minutes a day navigating between apps. That means workers lose up to 32 days a year navigating between the very apps meant for workplace productivity, costing hundreds of billions of dollars for businesses annually.

Dropbox acknowledges the problem in its S-1 Filing, writing “The tools people use are fragmented. Content created at work tends to follow a predictable pattern: It’s authored, sent out for feedback, and shared or published once it’s done. At the same time, teams are organizing that content and coordinating tasks around it. But many of the tools people use today don’t work well together and support only one or two steps of the content lifecycle. This requires users to constantly switch between these tools and makes it even harder to get work done.”

This fragmentation is the main reason for massive content silos. According to a 2016 IDC report, more than half of companies ranging from 100 to 5,000+ employees use at least three repositories for accessing documents on a weekly basis. Difficulty in finding the right information amongst these content silos creates employee stress — this 2015 survey by Wrike found the number one source of stress in the workplace is waiting to receive information or not being able to find the content they need to do their job.

This fragmentation leads to a serious loss in revenues. The IDC states that Fortune 500 companies lose around $12 billion per year as a result of the “Knowledge Deficit”, or intellectual rework, substandard performance, and inability to find knowledge resources.

Now that we covered the severity of application fragmentation, let’s take a look at the main contributing factors.

Application Overload

To start there are just a ton of applications needed to handle everything a business does on a daily basis. As I mentioned earlier, it isn’t crazy to suggest that a larger business uses over 900 applications. This taxonomy of the enterprise application stack shows that there are fifteen basic types of application software and under that, a total of around 50 subtypes. Within each subtype, there are multiple applications actually being used, whether they are company mandated or not.

Not only is there a massive amount of applications to handle the work of the modern enterprise, but many of these applications also need to communicate with each other as they’re used in various parts of the same piece of content’s lifecycle. Beyond the content and information created, these applications need to integrate with each other because of the way teams communicate and manage projects towards completion.

For example, picture a creative team taking insights from the business intelligence, strategy, and knowledge management teams to create collateral for the marketing team. This collateral gets stored somewhere, shared, and eventually gets communicated to the sales and business development teams. As products change this content is updated, communicated to teams, and the cycle starts over again. While this is occurring secondary tasks are completed and managed through project management and collaboration software.

The content lifecycle and its associated tasks often live within dozens of different applications, which leads us to our next problem.

Lack of Integration & Interoperability

People love the tools they use, and typically want to stay with what they know and are familiar with. For many companies, the days of management declaring what software products will be used, and only those products, are gone. However, the problem goes beyond the sheer number of applications being deployed. As I mentioned above, Dropbox writes in its S-1 filing “Many of the tools people use today don’t work well together and support only one or two steps of the content lifecycle.”

Bertrand Duperrin also believes the problem might not solely be the number of applications, “but the functional overlap and lack of interoperability capabilities.” As Drew Hendricks of writes, the lack of interoperability “eventually isolates information from other processes…Fragmented systems lead to duplicate information and repetitive entries as employees working with different data sets attempt to collaborate.” This lack of interoperability is a massive contributor to the content silos and knowledge deficit plaguing workers today.

Stowe Boyd furthers this sentiment when he said “We got past the interoperability issue with email. We just haven’t done it with other solutions. I think potentially there will be some subset sharing of the APIs. I have 27 apps on my iPhone. It doesn’t bother me that Twitter is a different app from Flipboard. That’s what people are doing in the workplace. They don’t want one solution like a giant Swiss Army knife with 120 different blades on it.” This leads us to the next factor in application fragmentation.

Central Hubs Add to the Problem

Box acknowledges the interoperability problem and is trying to solve it with Activity Stream, a way to view the condensed activity from their more than 1400 integrations. This is a common theme amongst competitors in the cloud storage, communication, and collaboration space. Turn your product into a hub that everything else connects to. Unfortunately, when everyone adopts this approach you end up with dozens of these poorly fitting Swiss Army knives. Adding to the problem, these hubs only give you a view of what is going on as opposed to being integral to the creation and usage of the content or processes in completing a project.

Bertrand echoes this sentiment went he talks about the “monolithic and hyper-centralized environment” that theoretically meets every need but ends up failing in practice. Bertrand understands that this approach made sense in theory, as “it was the best approach from a rational standpoint” but concludes “the vision of an intranet as a single entry point that aggregates every communication, collaboration, and business solution and creates bridges between them does not work”. He clarified these central hubs mostly failed from an adoption standpoint.

The reason the “hub software” often fails is the fact that most of the time the implementation of these hubs ends up creating more complexity, more steps to achieve employees' goals and more software to learn and manage. The integrations often aren’t polished enough and typically lead to employees switching back to the original software used to create the content in the first place. This leads us to the next contributing factor, the consumerization of software in the workplace.

Consumerization of the Digital Workplace

Workers don’t generally want to work from a central hub that does a million things, they want to use the apps they already know and love. Employees are typically looking for the most direct and simple way to do things and adding any layer of complexity, even if it is a polished layer, adds clicks, actions, and ultimately steps to the process they’re already used to.

Bertrand found that “Employees developed some habits in their personal lives and want to keep the same habits at work. And even keep the same tools.” He even found that “If for a given use case, the enterprise solution is more complex than the consumer one, the employee will use the second. Even if prohibited.” This is a profound statement and I believe something we see in practice all the time. Adding to the fragmentation problem, employees bring their own consumer apps they are used to into the enterprise environment. This is further exacerbated by the following.

The proliferation of BYOD and BYOA

According to Tech Pro Research, 59% of organizations allow employees to use their own devices for work purposes and another 13% plan to allow employees to use their own devices within the year. Even more interestingly, Syntonic found that 87% of companies rely on their employees using personal devices to access business apps. The proliferation of BYOD has led to BYOA or “Bring Your Own application”. As mentioned above, workers are choosing to use the apps they already have on their devices and are familiar with to get the job done. As BYOD increases, BYOA will as well.

Distributed Teams

A huge contributor to BYOD and BYOA is the fact that team structures are changing. The workplace continues to evolve into the digital space as teams become more fluid and distributed. According to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report, 43% of Americans said they spent at least some time working remotely. In 2016, nearly 53 million Americans were freelancers, which equals about 34% of the workforce and that trend will continue to grow with projections that 43% of the U.S. workforce will be freelancers in some capacity.

In a survey of 1,000 hiring managers, 55% agree that remote work among full-time employees is more common now, and say they expect up to 38% of their full-time workers will be working remotely in the next decade. The fragmentation of teams is leading to a fragmentation of software being used. As team members bring their own devices, the number of applications used for any given project will increase as well.

When looking into current trends, it is easy to come to a conclusion that application fragmentation in the workplace is something that will continue to grow at an increasing pace. Freelancers, distributed teams, and the proliferation of BYOD have led to agile workers completing their work from a variety of devices and software suites. As this becomes increasingly standard, we’ll see a few different shifts in the way technology is built, adopted and used throughout the enterprise. Software and content will become interoperable. More apps will communicate directly with each other without going through centralized hubs, and the consumerization of software will enable lean and integrated vertical applications to thrive and will push the enterprise stack to look more like the consumer applications we all love.

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