Collaborating for Productivity

With a need to constantly strive for better productivity and stay ahead of the competition many organisations are turning to unified communications and collaboration applications to help them on their way. But, as many industry observers note here, are larger enterprises at an advantage over their SMB competitors?

The new business workspace is a platform of communications and collaboration capabilities that can be delivered to every user, regardless of their size, location or device. What is new is that this new business collaboration workspace is inherently:

Mobile: Users access the tools and information when and where they need them

Social: Enterprise social software and collaborative platforms connect users

Visual: The addition of video enhances communications

Virtual: Deliver applications and data securely and reliably from clouds

Comms Business talks to key suppliers of collaborative solutions to explore how they can address these four tenets of the applications.

We spoke to Peter Cochrane of Cochrane Associates, also ex-CTO of BT, to put some perspective these tenets, stating with the mobile aspect.

“The ultimate mobility means non-corporate, BYOD and ownership of IT connectivity, utility devices, apps and security. Work is no longer a place you go – it is what you do from wherever you happen to be at times that people choose. Being connected is a lifestyle – and the difference between being employed and successful or not!”

With regards to Enterprise social software and collaborative platforms connecting users Cochrane says this is extremely powerful and empowers people in new way.

“The apps and services they choose rather than some remote and disconnected IT Manager or Committee. IT is powering a new age of creativity and problem solving on a scale and breadth never seen before. And with the addition of video enhances communications?

Only if there is plenty of bandwidth, a big screen and a realistic rendering, otherwise it become a distraction/irritation. It also helps if you have met all or most of the people in the video meeting before. One further facet is that normal face-to-face meeting behaviours do not always work. Eye contact and gaze awareness are essential, as is the illusion of the voice coming out of the right mouth.”

Addressing the virtual applications – delivering apps and data securely and reliably from clouds Cochrane concludes, “Again you need enough bandwidth for both directions – anything with ADSL on the label will fail. This also has the advantage of negating the need for IT Departments provided the people are afforded the BYOD mode of operation. Corporate computers do not cope well – if at all!

Daanish Khan, head of strategy MindLink Software Ltd, a provider of purpose-built business critical collaboration platform that allows teams to coordinate and exchange information rapidly across the business, says that mobility is an expectation and a requirement rather than a nice to have in today’s business environment.

“It is not enough to just be connected to email. Users demand access to the data that lives in various line of business applications, as well as an easier way to communicate than email. Security and Compliance are the most obvious challenges when talking about providing access to confidential corporate information to mobile workers. Several existing providers as well as new vendors have emerged to solve this challenge through Mobile Device Management or Mobile Application Management solutions. These solutions give some level of control to the organisation over the users’ mobile device and applications.

Once the security challenges are solved, however, the next issue becomes actually delivering mobile or smartphone versions of applications. While some software vendors provide mobility solutions, not all do. In addition, there is a tremendous burden on IT departments to install and maintain these several applications across a multitude of mobile platforms. Home grown applications add to the burden, with users demanding mobile versions of those applications as well.

When it comes to collaboration, however, the key challenge is being able to review the information in those applications and discuss it with relevant co-workers. Email is terribly inefficient for multiparty conversations. More importantly, email lacks the filtering capabilities required to quickly get to the point and discuss the highest priority items.

As users’ demand for access to information is met over the next few years, the key challenge for users and IT will be to have an easy means for filtering out that information and associated notifications based on each individuals priorities and business needs.”

Virtual Deployments

According to Simon Skellon, UK Sales Director at Mitel, more people are working from a range of locations and making use of devices to carry out essential tasks.

“With cloud-based services and virtualisation organisations can access data and applications from any device and any location.

“Virtualisation and the cloud provide a flexible approach to communications for business, enabling companies to scale when required, while providing a predictable, lower-cost model. Solutions such as Mitel’s single cloud-ready software stream allow unified communications to be delivered in the most appropriate way for the customer, either in a private, public or hybrid cloud environment.

“Contact centres no longer need have to be located at one site, with virtualised voice and unified communications enabling home working agents to seamlessly engage in customer service delivery.

Recently Mitel saw a 40 per cent increase in the delivery of cloud-based voice communications by its UK managed services partner Worksmart Technology, in just 12 months. This significant growth sees Worksmart now delivering 90 per cent of its telephony services via the cloud, compared to 50 per cent in 2011 and 25 per cent five years ago.

“Clearly the appetite for cloud and virtualised computing is increasing. In a survey by Mitel of 650 IT managers at VMWorld 2012, it was clear they are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of moving telephony and unified communications (UC) to the cloud, with only 4% not considering a cloud-based approach.

“Mitel already has an installed base of more than 228,000 cloud users, with over 30,000 new cloud users added in the three months from December 2012 to February 2013; we anticipate this growth will continue through 2013.”

Far From Ideal

Khan, at MindLink Software , says that Enterprise social software has been touted as the saviour of all our problems. The reality, however, is far from the ideal.

“Few companies are seeing long term adoption and utilisation of the social platforms. Furthermore, companies that do see healthy adoption find it difficult to associate any tangible business value with the social tools.

The main challenge for social software is that it is not directly relevant to employees’ day-to-day operations. This is partly due to the nature of the technologies, but mostly because organisations themselves are unsure of the benefits social collaboration tools can offer. They simply implement a solution and wait for employees to join, hoping for organic or grassroots growth.

There is also a bit of stigma associated with the term ‘social’ in the corporate context. For most people in management, social is ‘something you do after work.’

Collaboration tools that simply focus on connecting people are doomed for failure, particularly because they are not integrated in employees’ existing processes and workflows. They become ‘yet-another-thing-to-do.’”

Khan says the key to successful collaboration is to not focus on ‘connecting people’ but why people are already connecting, and making those connections stronger and more productive.” Employees are already collaborating – the focus should be improving those collaborations in pursuit of specific business objectives.”

Mark Herbert, Business Development Director, at intY, believes that mobility, cloud and changing working practices have provided a new opportunity for collaboration tools and services to finally make their mark in businesses.

“Whilst collaboration – IM, presence and even video – has for a long while been touted as a productivity tool by the industry, for users internally few have seen it is a necessity, and many struggled to get real cultural adoption.

This is now changing; with the increasingly global, competitive and mobile nature of the business world more geographically-dispersed, organisations, markets and partnerships have developed. This, coupled with the increase in flexible working patterns of users and the innovations in mobile, wireless and cloud technologies that underpin all this, leads us to a new approach to gaining productivity through collaboration. Inter-company collaboration.

The benefits of collaboration and unified communications are moving beyond the internal environment and into a cross-company one where suppliers, customers and partner companies are pulling together to streamline their working practices and provide a better service level to customers.

This is where the opportunity lies, breaking down communication silos across multiple businesses. No one ever-made money selling to themselves! Your customers’ customers are looking for secure real-time connections to information and answers. Cloud platforms such as Skype, Microsoft Lync and SharePoint, now accessible on any number of mobile devices at any time of day, can provide the foundation on which organisations can nourish relationships and work collaboratively with peers, partners and customers to make that happen.

For the channel, the ability to sell the proposition of an anytime, anywhere integrated working environment, not a just product set, is key. Creating an environment fit for communication through various mediums, from various locations, for sharing information and ideas between companies is where resellers need to be farming their opportunities. Helping organisations recognise how collaboration tools can expand and improve their business ecosystem, not just internal productivity, is a real area for value-add.”

Everything Integrates with Everything?

Lest we forget, the vast majority of resellers sell mainly to SMBs and do not implement or roll out enterprise scale deployments of all embracing and encompassing collaboration applications for their customers. Talking to Paul Burn at Nimans therefore puts more of an SMB perspective on the matter.

Maintaining control is the key to driving collaboration, says Paul Burn. “If you class collaboration as a greater uptake in video then yes there has been more demand and it’s the same with conference bridges based on businesses trying to maximise their equipment probably driven by fuel prices etc.,” he explained.

“Collaboration spans many different pieces of a jigsaw that get tailored for individual requirements. The challenge for a reseller is working out which pieces best fit a customer’s needs and expectations – and how they interact together.”

Burn continued, “Data security for example will involve a company’s IT department so there are several different areas of a business that have to be considered. As technology develops then the infrastructure develops and therefore IT Managers play an increasingly prominent role. Understandably they want to have the most secure network available.

“LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter are now classed as business tools as well as social solutions. I think charting collaboration trends is often difficult to assess; some areas are easier to monitor than others, a lot of it is anecdotal.

“There’s no doubt the use of social tools to spread messages is gaining significant momentum. Individuals are now using these tools to pass on core marketing messages. These are still going out via traditional methods but people are becoming their own news generators, using their own interactions to spread the word. It’s done in a very casual and informative way. There’s a lot more routes out there but that can also be slightly dangerous in respect of controlling the message. An individual saying something might not be what a company would want to say.”

Burn concluded: “Ultimately everyone wants everything to integrate with everything. That’s the current message where end users want different business tools and applications to work together. There’s an expectation for this to happen whereas in the past a phone system, data network and database may have had limited integration. Now companies are demanding it all integrates together whether in the office or at home. Resellers are told to make it happen.

“I think it is happening but the challenge for a reseller is how to keep control because there may be different partners in charge of various aspects such as IT, voice and infrastructure. Control is the key to collaboration.”

Tim Loveday, Sales Director, Indirect Channel at Coms Plc tends to agree with the end user size being significant when he says, “In essence, collaboration assumes that all of the above are working together as a package to make everything ‘collaborate’ however in practice, these things are usually delivered in a modular fashion using the best fit functions and features on a case by case basis. Very rarely do we see a completely integrated set up where all of the capabilities are used. When they are however, usually in larger corporate entities, they do deliver a very slick and functional working environment.

In a small to medium sized business I believe that the Mobile and Virtual/Cloud elements of this proposition far outweigh the other two as they remove costs, can be delivered at minimal capex and add instant value to business efficiencies. They add flexibility and an “office anywhere” environment that gives an impression to a customer that a company is actually much larger than it is. The visual and social elements of this equation are both very nice to have and will both add a small amount of value to a business but questions around ROI and whether these platforms would actually get used should make potential users think very careful before making any kind of investment in these specific technologies.”

End User Comment:

Joel Bramwell, Business Development Director at Worksmart Technology, told us, “The way organisations are viewing their IT infrastructure is changing. Attitudes to the cloud are shifting and customers who traditionally shied away from hosted solutions are now seeing the value that it brings and we expect this trend to continue. By working with Mitel and embracing the cloud, we have been able to capitalise on the increasing demand for cloud-based services and grow our business significantly.”

Reseller Comment: 

Green Fields Technology Managing Director Matt Tomon, Managing director says that just having mobile access to e-mail has visibly become insufficient for productivity and collaboration within organisations today.

“The integration of devices such as smartphones, laptops and tablets, along with new ways to access applications and data on any device, make it easier than ever for teams to collaborate and communicate not only with each other but with their clients and partners.

Mobile solutions allow people to access data and resources without being tied to a single location. This is providing greater access and increasing productivity during periods of travel and in turn, having a positive impact on internal and client communications.

Video communication is evolving rapidly and moving away from the historic need of expensive conferencing rooms that do not provide a practical solution for one to one communications. By offering, and more importantly, being able to support solutions such as Microsoft Lync, Green Fields has seen a dramatic uptake in group and individual video conferencing. Ease of access from mobile phones, tablets and laptops has allowed more face to face communication whilst on the move.

Beyond hosted email, Green Fields has leveraged our Infrastructure as a Service Cloud platform to provide access to all applications as if you were in the office. With the increasing trend of BYOD, the need for flexible remote working solutions has become an expectation for most employees who have had a taste of the Cloud in other forms.

In addition to an infrastructure strategy, it is pivotal that focus is placed on how people work remotely from a practical view. Limited access to quality connectivity or a lack of understanding of the challenges they face in their job could equate to a remote working solution that could actually decrease productivity.”

Ed Says…

The market for unified communications and collaboration is growing rapidly as business begins to reap the rewards of greater flexibility and innovation can realise increased productivity when teams work together more easily. Having said that the enterprise is often at an advantage as by definition they have more teams to collaborate so perhaps the larger firm sees a return on investment faster than the SMB who, by definition, should be fleeter of foot in the first place. Hmmmm. The issue for the reseller as always is to see the wood for the trees. Understanding how all these applications can benefit their end users and matching them to individual needs can be a task.



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David Dungay

Editor - Comms Business Magazine
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