Whether or not you choose to consider collaboration as a platform or an activity, the fact that can’t be debated is that the two ends of any network are information and people. When the industry accepts that people and information are the two constants that have never changed, the notion of collaboration becoming a platform to connect the two ends of the network becomes more palatable. Let’s look at how the collaboration platform has evolved.
We can look back into the earliest of times and how communications were managed. People shared information by recording that information in stone tablet, hieroglyphics, just to name a couple. In fact we can argue that one of the earliest representations of data centers would be the Egyptian pyramids. Over time, as civilization matured, communication took place through the use of books, smoke signals, teletypes, radio, telephone, television, and today’s modern collaboration platforms. I suspect that our children’s children will make fun of the fact that we had to hold devices to our ears to communicate, and that we had to sit in front of a special camera to see each other.
Defining the Communications Strategy
There are undoubtedly many ways to communicate, and with each day comes a new technology, a new device, and a new form factor, but the fact remains that the end goal is to connect information with people. Does this mean that businesses need to enable every form of communication in the collaboration platform? The answer is maybe. Let’s dive a little deeper into that notion to gain a better understanding of how to determine what the most effective means to communicate is.
In order to create the most effective collaboration platform, business has to begin by understanding the information that is important and relevant to the individuals and/or teams that will consume it. Some considerations would be:
- What form is the information kept?
- What form is the information?
- When does the information need to be accessible?
- On demand
- In time
- Who needs access to the information?
- Where do they need to access the information?
- Inside the business controlled network
- Remotely, but secure
Understanding the “DNA” of our information, it becomes easier to start mapping the characteristics of the relevant collaboration platform by defining the consumption models that individuals may require. In addition, businesses can begin recognizing mismatched communications strategies for their information. An example of an information communication plan mismatch could be the following:
- Information is kept in memory
- The type of information is knowledge
- Information needs to be accessed on demand
- The public needs to be able to reach the information
- The information needs to be accessible publicly
There are really two strategies that business could approach to address the consumption model necessary to facilitate the above scenario.
- Build a call center.
- A call center staffed with knowledge workers that keep the relevant information in their head would have the ability to address the data set above as defined without any modifications. Depending on whether there were many different units of information that would need to be kept this way, a call center could prove to be an extremely cost prohibitive model for the business. There is a significant amount of operating expenditures that would couple a significant capital expenditure in order to build the call center if it wasn’t already in existence.
- Convert the information to another form
- A secondary approach would be to take the knowledge stored in someone’s memory, and record that to video, audio, or some other on demand capable technology. This is a relatively simple task to accomplish, and could considerably reduce the operating costs of continuing to make that information available in its original format.
The most difficult challenge that business faces today is not which tools of the collaboration platform will drive the most efficiency and productivity. While organizations will debate the cost versus benefit of various technologies, deciding the right delivery vehicle for information tends to be relatively straightforward. These debates typically occur because organizations have yet to identify and prioritize the relevance of the various pieces of information that will drive the most productivity itself.
Culture Drives the Communication Strategy
What is the most widely used communication tool in the collaboration platform today? I would venture to assume that nearly every one of you, without hesitation, thought email, and you would be correct that it is the most widely used delivery vehicle. However I want you to think for a minute about the information contained within email, and rate the relevance of the information to your business. More often than not, emails will contain attachments of information that were sourced from some other repository, or a link to a website, or contact information to reach someone via phone or video. These attachments tend to be what is relevant, and the actual text of the email adds a bit of color. So why is email still the most widely used? I believe the answer is “ubiquity” and “obstinacy”.
Think of a place that you cannot get your email… Yeah, I find it hard as well. Email is everywhere, and I don’t mean here or there, it is here AND there. Think of just these few examples below:
- Web browser
- PC email client
- Smart phone
- Telephone voicemail
- On network
- Public internet
Now think about the simplicity of that email. One email, sent to one address, will appear on any or all of the above endpoints in any or all of the above locations. If you read that email on any of the endpoints from any of the locations, the email will appear as read from any of the other locations as well. It is literally a unified communication and action strategy.
I don’t believe that “you can’t teach old dogs new tricks”, however I do believe that once a dog is taught a trick, he doesn’t want to later be told there’s a better way to do the same trick… I believe that transition from one type of communication to another is somewhat of a generational thing. As we see the older generation, or the “old dog” so to speak, retiring, and the new generation moving into influencer and decision maker roles in business, the “new tricks” are becoming the norm. The reality is that once we are in a habit of doing something one way, it is often difficult, or even at times impossible, to step out of our comfort zone, open our mind, and try it a different way.
The proof is that today, email usage as a primary communication tool is on the decline. The reason email is on the decline is that the younger generations; the generation that communicates differently, is penetrating the workforce in measurable numbers, and they just don’t use it.
How Collaboration Drives Opportunity
I’ve mentioned before that the most frustrating statement I have ever heard a salesperson make is “we want to help align IT with your business objectives.” Seriously? When is the last time you heard someone say, “We need to align accounts payable to our business objectives”? The reality is that IT should not be aligned, dating, or married to business objectives, rather it should be part of the foundation that supports the business objectives. IT, just as other back office functions, should be a mechanism to drive profitability, growth, productivity, and client satisfaction better, faster, and/or cheaper than without it. If not, then the spend would be wasteful, and contradictory to the fundamental goals of any business. This is where the collaboration platform becomes not only real, but relevant.
Today, technologists view the intersection between data center, network infrastructure, and unified communications the point at which convergence happens and information can be shared. Unfortunately, there are still many characteristics of converged communication required to create the collaboration platform. The “white space” that is exposed outside of the convergence point in the graphic above represents all of the inadequacies of technical solutions, as these “white spaces” are where line of business applications exist. Applications examples are:
- Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)
- Customer Relationship Management (CRM)
- Logistics management systems
- Customer service applications
- Internal portal services
These applications, integrated with communications applications running on the collaboration platform allow businesses to streamline information distribution, at the same time making it timely, relevant, and presented in a way that the information consumer can use it best to perform their job function. Some of these integrations could be things like:
- Big data-mash up
- Virtual application presentation
- Identity management
- Utility computing (cloud)
- Mobility (Anywhere access)
What Does It All Mean
At the end of the day, what this all means is that we consume collaboration at the pace to which culture will allow us to. I recently read an article that talks about why some teams gel and others fail at collaboration, and the crux of the article reinforces that collaboration is a generational thing, and while businesses can have the best intentions around providing the communications vehicle that is most relevant, individuals will use what they are comfortable with.
The other reality that my travels have taught me is that individuals want to know “what’s in it for me?” As connected of an individual that I am, I don’t want to be more productive. I joke often when I tell others that I only work half days, and that 12 hours is all they are getting out of me. While there is humor in that statement, there is some truth to it. I don’t want to be able to pack 16 hours of work into a 10 hour day unless there is something in it for me. I think companies need to start considering ideas such as:
- Self-health time – These times would be taken during the day, unscheduled, which would let individuals accomplish things for themselves. This is an unscheduled event, doesn’t require reporting, and doesn’t mark against them on the time card
- Doing away with timecards – If someone wants to manage me to a timecard, be prepared for me to document EVERY minute of my time spent working. I know what needs to get done, and I will get it done; which leads me to the next important point…
- Manage individuals to results, not efforts – Businesses are not measured based on how much time they spent trying to sell something, they are measured by the revenue and profitability. It is ok to measure individuals by objectives, but not by tasks. Start focusing on the results you expect from your people, and let them self-manage their time to achieve those results. This removes negotiations from the equation.
I often reflect on a team that I led for the past four years, and we were a “gel” team when it came to collaboration. I can honestly say I believe the biggest contribution to our ability to be successful was providing the team members with the flexibility to manage themselves to accomplishing their objectives. I didn’t manage them to a timecard (very uncharacteristic of the leadership style by most in the business), I didn’t make sure they were accomplishing tasks, I simply worked with them to define their deliverables, and removed obstacles that kept them from achieving those objectives. By doing so, we achieved phenomenal results, shared best practices to help each other grow, and had a great time doing it.
In the end culture will catch up with strategy and technology, and by then, we’ll be pushing the proverbial envelope, trying to figure out why our users are not adopting the next wave of technology that will make them more efficient and more productive, but the fact remains, whatever the culture does, whatever the next wave of technology is, the only constant I can guarantee is that you will be figuring out better ways to connect people with information, and that is what collaboration is all about.
Dynamic collaboration across enterprise and inter-enterprise boundaries represents “the new normal.” Organizations are now challenged to work closely with suppliers, partners and contractors to deliver their offerings in today’s high velocity markets.
“Web 2.0 tools such as video portals, podcasts, blogs, wikis, and discussion forums are changing the way in which information is created, published, managed, and consumed,” according to a recent report from Cisco. “Technology advances and the need to work outside of normal business hours and locations foster an increasingly mobile and distributed workforce. A flood of new devices and applications is entering the corporate IT environment as employees elect to merge consumer-based tools with standardized communications.”
As organizations grapple with global value chains, information overload, and more mobile workforces, they are challenged to embrace and integrate new collaboration capabilities.
“As the number of intra- and intercompany stakeholders increases, the number of collaborative tools and communication formats increases,” states the report. “In other words, the scope of collaboration must be broadened. It must combine document- and text-centric collaboration — such as email messaging, instant messaging (IM), team workspaces, and conferencing — with voice, video, and context to fully support the needs of the business.”
Cisco contends that enterprises will need to recognize several key principles as they implement collaboration technology and infrastructure in the coming years. Among them:
· An interoperable, open architecture: As collaboration increasingly occurs across organizations and with people on the move, it is no longer a given that IT can control the devices and applications used in collaborative sessions. Today’s environment requires an interoperable, open architecture that allows for any device or application to use a core set of collaborative services.
· Secure inter-company collaboration: Organizations will increasingly move from collaboration within functions to intra-company collaboration to inter-company collaboration. In this environment, securely enabling collaboration with partners, suppliers, and customers as if they were behind the firewall is fundamental.
· Flexible deployment models: IT requires the flexibility to adjust to a dynamically changing business and technology environment. Enterprise and IT architects do not make decisions in the context of on-premises versus on-demand, but seek to couple the robustness, security, and performance of the enterprise network with the openness and flexibility of collaboration through the cloud.
Strategic planners in IT need to ensure they construct a core foundation that supports a rapidly evolving set of applications — one that also optimizes the various media types that comprise today’s collaborative experience. They’ll need an open architecture that secures collaboration and supports multiple approaches to deployment.