Collaboration technologies have been catapulted to the forefront of the connected world. Comms Business explores the latest developments and emerging trends.
Collaboration technologies have progressed rapidly over the past decade, with many businesses now relying on collaboration platforms to carry out daily activities. This software has been thrust further into the spotlight due to the pandemic, playing a leading role since the first lockdown and throughout the last 18-months.
Clément Wehrung, product strategist at Fuze, believes that the collaboration solutions in most demand are those that help users collaborate continuously, both in real-time and asynchronously. He explained, “A group chat function in a collaboration solution enables users to share information, such as notes, agendas and follow-up actions on meeting items, and users can easily jump into a real-time video conversation if needed, within the same unified communications platform. Combined with in-context notifications from other business applications, collaboration solutions which are integrated within a user’s workflow are adopted and drive the most value.”
He pointed to recent research conducted by Fuze found that in every industry, every job category, and every region, fewer than 10 per cent of workers consider seeing someone’s face the most critical part of an effective meeting. Wehrung added, “While we have seen an exponential increase in the usage of video over the past year, it is important to note that messaging and voice solutions are paramount as people experience video fatigue.”
Navigating the pandemic
Bart Scheffer, EMEA vendor marketing manager, Westcon-Comstor, thinks tools such as Microsoft Teams have come out on top as heroes from the pandemic. “With latest figures showing Microsoft Teams has now over 250 million active monthly users, this not only demonstrates that the hybrid workplace trend is set to continue but also shows how the software and its SaaS competitors are going to continue to grow and innovate. However, what’s also interesting is how it’s having a direct impact on other solutions.
“The need for quality video or audio experiences for Microsoft Teams is giving a significant boost to headsets and cameras. These used to be treated as an eventual ‘bolt on’ solution but as companies now rely on video calls, having great audio and video is becoming central to a positive customer experience and future adoption, even more so in sales departments where companies need to reach new prospects virtually – and being able to see and hear them as naturally as the technology allows will impact on the quality and outcome of a sales call.”
For Helen Ranaghan, business development director, Pragma Group, it seems customers are still quite focused on tools that will allow their staff to work remotely, so softphones give them the flexibility to work wherever they need to. She said, “Many businesses had to make rapid decisions in 2020 to keep their businesses operational and didn’t have the luxury of time to investigate what was right for them. Microsoft Teams was an early winner here as so many businesses were able to capitalise on their Office 365 services to give them a quick win. But in many cases, this is not proving to be a good long-term solution, and we are seeing customers look for alternatives that better suit their needs to accommodate their telephony requirements.”
Jeff May, UK sales director, Konftel, said the pandemic has triggered an explosion in video conferencing which has now become a regular part of working life for many people. “The ability to collaborate and hold meetings anywhere and everywhere has been crucial over the last 18 months to maintain business continuity and overall performance. The next phase is hybrid working where some people are going back to their office desks whilst others will continue from home. A mix of the two is the preferred choice for many. Video meetings are in huge demand based on a seamless and high-quality experience where everyone can be seen and heard clearly. Demand for online meetings will continue to accelerate. There are lots of reseller opportunities.”
Wehrung, from Fuze, emphasised how collaboration solutions provide a “unique opportunity” in supporting workforces moving forward. “More efficient asynchronous and real-time collaboration: as AI enables workers to collaborate more effectively across time zones and remotely with natural language processing, it can act as your personal and team assistant, bridging the gaps between teams and tracking actions or timelines.
“Communication tools should offer the best of both worlds: employees in the office should feel like everyone is there in person, while remote workers should continue to experience an inclusive virtual working environment.”
Scheffer pinpointed, “From a distributor’s perspective, we’re seeing more cloud-based collaboration solutions emerging in the market. As many organisations large and small are looking to scale up and achieve ultimate flexibility, cloud solutions in the collaboration space are taking off and we are seeing all of our vendors move in this direction.”
Pragma’s Ranaghan was equally upbeat. “Our WebRTC clients are proving to be a real winner. They give customers of all shapes and sizes the choice of the device that is right for them – with a Cloud based, true telephony system at the core that can accommodate the needs of individuals and departments whether they are office based or in any remote location.”
Rita Lutikova, chief project manager and business analyst at IDS Group, said that although collaborative solutions have been increasing in popularity for some time, 2020 brought about the urgent need for these tools for a much larger audience. She said, “With these platforms rapidly becoming mainstream, they are no longer used primarily by tech professionals meaning the features that users want to see has shifted. Ease of set-up is now essential, with colleagues from a variety of backgrounds adopting these platforms as their main method of workplace communication.
“While remote work was the trend of 2020, 2021 brings us hybrid working — a new and flexible approach to the workplace. And with fresh opportunities come additional challenges. Ensuring meetings remain effective when people are attending from various locations is certainly one of them.”
Kieran Dalton, NEC cloud sales account manager, highlighted how artificial intelligence is currently a hot topic. “NEC’s Univerge Blue includes the ‘virtual assistant’ feature which automatically transcribes meetings using voice recognition, compiles action items and sends them to your inbox. This enables the host of the meeting to focus entirely on the meeting taking place. As well as being genuinely useful it’s an excellent talking point for customer demos!
“In 2016, AI didn’t even feature among the top 100 search terms on the internet. However, today AI has not only broken the technology space but has made it to the list of ‘must-haves’ for any digital business.”
In terms of differing requirements between SMBs and larger organisations, Jeremy Keefe, CEO, Nuvias UC, doesn’t believe there are any notable differences. “This is because all vendors offer solutions for all meeting room sizes. I would have said in the past that SMBs would prefer a hosted/managed service approach, however we are seeing that many large corporates are adopting cloud-based solutions, and many are happy to have more public cloud offerings rather than private.”
But Paul Gibbs, sales director, MyPhones, feels there are differences around office space and the usage of it. “With larger enterprises reviewing their offices and with the effect of Covid on where their workforce are residing this may mean either a reduction in square footage or a complete rework on how they use their space. SMB’s have been more focused on keeping their businesses afloat for the long term and as part of that technology that they once used, is now proving not fit for purpose. Both are triggering businesses to review their technology and for the channel this means a wealth of opportunity.”
Keith Jackson, regional VP, channel sales EMEA at 8×8, discussed the emergence of experience communications as a service, or XCaaS. He said, “Three years ago, I would have said that SMBs and large organisations were worlds apart. But today, XCaaS has completely changed that reality and business decisions – no matter how big or small the organisation might be – are being driven by the end user, the customer. With XCaaS, organisations can support the communications requirements of all employees as they work together to deliver differentiated customer experiences.”
Jane Craven, sales director at EPOS, believes that other than scale, there’s not many differences. “Our research has found that 85 per cent of businesses across the board plan to put in place policies and technologies to support hybrid working.
“Since the pandemic, businesses have taken an increasingly proactive approach to supply employees with the right equipment. The days when it was expected that employees would buy and use their own devices or devices’ built-in audio are passing. However, the issue with employees buying their own equipment is that businesses then lack consistency in quality, often because the equipment employees can afford is simply not made with professional usage in mind which often results in negative audio experiences that detract from employee productivity and focus.”
Ian Cottingham, wholesale specialist at BT Wholesale, said with hybrid working becoming the norm, companies are reimagining how they work. “One trend which goes hand in hand with collaboration technologies is the UCaaS market. [This is a] growing sector [that] presents a substantial opportunity for communication service providers with market revenue set to exceed £1 billion in 2021 rising to £1.9 billion annual revenue by 2025. UCaaS platforms offer businesses a simplified route to deploy next-generation communication technologies and adopt collaboration solutions.”
Collaboration technologies give employees much more freedom to choose where, when and how they work. Phil Perry, head of Zoom UK & Ireland, said, “It also benefits the upskilling of workers, which is essential for all businesses as upskilling helps staff adapt to rapid digital changes and remain resilient in the workplace. Collaboration technologies can improve training programmes by adding online tutorials and scenario-focused, real-time tasks and situations. A recent report flagged up that 95 per cent of cybersecurity threats are due to human error. To plug this gap, organisations can use collaboration technologies to provide training on security issues such as phishing schemes, password attacks, elicitation, and email compromise situations.”
For Keefe at Nuvias UC, all of the solutions on the market today offer a good experience whether working from home or being in the office. “However, we have found that the main differences when in the office are typically better bandwidth, larger screens which ensure collaboration and content sharing is a better experience and less talking over each other.”
Craven at EPOS, added, “Simply put without the use of high-quality audio, hybrid working will not meet the needs of employees and businesses. Post pandemic, audio technology and equipment solutions have fast become critical components in enabling business continuity as they transition from the office to remote to hybrid working.
“Overall, by embracing technology, businesses can enable greater productivity, give employees a seamless experience, provide better customer service, and enhance their retention.”
Tony Martino, CEO of Tollring, highlighted how for businesses to not only survive change, but thrive on new opportunities that surface, analytics are critical – but it needs to be the right data, available at the right time.
“Collaboration analytics, when considered across the whole business and not just in a contact centre, provides a unique view on a company’s internal and external communication. It illustrates how effectively your people are adapting to this new way of working, providing in-depth visibility, highlighting workflow improvements and identifying business performance issues. And, taking a 30,000ft view, it underpins decision-making and reduces uncertainty so businesses can focus more energy on what makes them competitive.
“For the channel, there is a huge opportunity. Service providers and resellers can take a consultative role, helping businesses to adapt to change now and in the future with collaboration analytics. Demand is high, and with collaboration analytics that are easier than ever to sell, deploy and use, it is an obvious upsell for any collaboration tool opportunity, providing additional recurring revenue and ‘stickiness’.”
Gibbs at MyPhones, believes analytics has never been more important. “It allows us to, not only monitor productivity but also get a window into employee well-being and behaviours. If we see a change in the norm when it comes to behaviours it allows us to engage and look to the reasons behind.”
Mike Conlon, vice president, global strategic partner sales at RingCentral agreed He said, “Data is a critical corporate asset and the right data analytics tools can enable IT teams to see behind the curtain of their company’s operations, to discover what’s really driving success, and what is holding employees back.
“During the rapid shift to hybrid working data analytics and insights took a back seat to managing the immediate impact of the pandemic. Now, as companies establish their new “normal” and get back to the day to day, businesses that don’t assess their data analytics strategy will certainly find themselves falling behind.
“Analytics tools allow companies to monitor not only the content of communications, but also the quality. This insight can therefore be used to improve both customer experience and employee collaboration, as well as allowing businesses to predict patterns of behaviour. All of this is essential to facilitate a positive human connection from anywhere.”
Seb Matthews, chief strategy officer at ProvisionPoint, agrees there are many benefits. “Improved analytics give organisations the data needed to make smart, relevant decisions both strategically (for example through trend analysis) and tactically (perhaps due to improved monitoring and alerting) faster and with improved success. Being able to apply AI models, crowdsourced models, and more to vast data sets is potentially game changing for collaboration in the hybrid-work world.”
The future is undoubtedly bright but for Mike Adler, executive vice president, chief technical and chief product officer at N-able, while AR technology has promise, it’s still years away from hitting the mainstream. He said, “In the coming months, we’re likely to see innovation targeted at information exchange and storage. The power of information sharing and storage has started to penetrate SMBs. Collaboration tools are enabling SMBs to edit documents together or work collaboratively from shared information. SharePoint, for example, means SMBs now have the opportunity for this information network to become available to their employees, partners and beyond. And channel partners assist SMBs with configuring these tools easily and successfully.”
Bertrand Pourcelot, managing director, Enreach for Service Providers, believes we are likely to see far more use of bespoke apps and connectors with AI, machine learning and devices coming into all aspects of ICT. “With so many people working differently in today’s varied working environments, the key is for both vendors and resellers to create configurable options to support these new and flexing ways of working and trends.
“Reacting dynamically to a user’s local environment supports users better and handles the blurring lines between business and private and blended time periods. Consequently, we will see the continued rise of IoT, bespoke components and apps that businesses will want to download or even customise how technologies behave. While it is early days for AI, bots and machine learning, so no one has thought of all the use cases, I think we can expect to be amazed at what the near future will bring.”
The rise in hybrid work environments highlights the need for fast, reliable internet connections. As such, the adoption of 5G networks will see an acceleration in the months and years ahead. That’s the view of Bhushan Patil, SVP EMEA, Tech Mahindra. He said, “5G networks will be key in facilitating digital transformations across all sectors. Its ultrafast connectivity, low latency and ultra-reliability offer businesses the ability to improve performance and transform operations. Further, it will also help to accelerate the adoption of other emerging technologies such as IoT, the cloud, and AI. 5G’s capabilities can help to streamline operations across all levels of a business.”
Rob Hancock, head of platform at Giacom, feels digital transformation is a long-term destination and the use of the cloud to support organisations is here to stay. “Be it for collaboration; data security; or to enable business applications to shift to the cloud. The opportunity is almost endless. In the cloud, facilities such as OneDrive syncs users’ live files immediately, ensuring employees have access to the latest version of each file, no matter where they are – delivering both flexibility and productivity for customers. And this isn’t just relevant for syncing files, the ability to collaborate digitally should also bring together phone calls, conferencing, messaging and meetings from any location – unifying the increasing number of decentralised teams that make up the modern workforce.
“As virtual collaboration tools develop even further to deliver advanced capabilities, employee productivity will only increase. Resellers will be the crucial advisors to companies in order to facilitate their needs, backed up with support from communication service providers to help navigate through the most relevant and valuable cloud solutions for their end users. From unified communications and collaboration software, to cloud-based backup and security tools that keep the corporate network safe no matter where the user is based, resellers hold the key to unlocking end user organisations’ continuity, productivity and flexibility.”