For those of you who have followed my research of the collaboration software space, you'll find that I have argued that the real whitespace for vendors is in facilitating interactions between different companies (see examples here and here). This advice, though, has always been given in the spirit of helping vendors enter the market and tell a differentiated story; my goal is always to get product marketers away from spinning tales of travel savings (which everyone does). Recently, I finished a report that explored why intercompany collaboration is important to the actual running of a tech industry business. Like any good story, it's a three-part narrative:
- The definition of a B2B tech customer is changing. There was a time when a tech vendor selling to businesses only had to deal with the IT department. As such, the product design and messaging revolved around fulfilling the requirements of a techie audience: speeds and feeds, interoperability and security. Now? Business leaders are involved in technology decisions, shifting the design points of technology and its marketing to ease of use and ability to solve business problems. Further muddling this view, individual information workers are increasingly able to provision their own hardware and software, thanks to Web-based technologies and consumer technologies — like Apple laptops and iPhones — that IT departments are grudgingly accepting. The pull of these many groups on tech vendors has complicated the job of tech product managers and marketers: They now have to develop their product for and market it to a wider range of people with different interests.
- The channel has to change to meet shifting customer requirements. The evolution of the tech buyer has affected how technology is delivered (e.g., cloud technologies) and the types of services business leaders need to make the tools work (e.g., business process alteration). To remain relevant, the traditional value-added resellers (VARs) and systems integrators (SIs) that delivered vendor products now have to alter their business model and services structure to meet the challenges of this new reality. For example, when vendors roll out cloud offerings, like software-as-a-service (SaaS), it cuts into VARs' traditional revenue stream related to implementations, which means they have to find other sources, such as application development on top of cloud-based platforms.
- Vendors need to work with both clients and their partners to meet both groups' needs. Taken together, the more complicated buyer landscape and the channel's need to address this reality requires vendors to take a more intimate, interactive approach to their dealings with both groups. Client input becomes essential in all phases of product development to ensure the vendor gains customer buy-in to — and take a bit of ownership of — the features and functions in a product. Likewise, vendors must work closely with their channel to ensure that they are creating the products and services necessary to resolve the problems of the customer base.
While there are many process issues that hinder intercompany work between companies, collaboration technology vendors are only now starting to build toolsets that actually facilitate work between businesses. Of course, the product managers at these firms can't move fast enough because this is the next battleground of the collaboration software market: We see vendors starting to build customer and partner communities to interact with these constituencies for purposes of ideation and support. There are still issues that need to be sorted out by the collaboration vendor community, though: Standards, federation, and access control are but a few of the issues that hinder certain tools for intercompany collaboration. But the mandate is clear: Intercompany collaboration is a vital business necessity, and collaboration vendors have an opportunity — an obligation — to help their clients accelerate the associated business processes. The vendors that are slow to move will find they are left out as their competitors that can facilitate both internal and external interactions gobble up market share.