This article originally appeared in the Oct. 2011 issue of INTERNET TELEPHONY
For many communications technology professionals, myself included, one of the most promising and exciting IP-based technologies to enter the marketplace in the past 10 years has got to be collaboration tools. The ability to initiate and conduct video and web conference calls, share documents, and remain productive while on the road has certainly impacted many businesses and enterprises that have come to rely upon these solutions. In essence, collaboration tools have helped businesses improve a number of processes, like shortening sales cycles, improving customer service, and reducing travel-related costs. At a high level, collaboration is an impressive technology that can tangibly improve business performance.
But, when one considers the relative lack of broad acceptance of collaboration tools, perhaps it’s time to take a different look at why utilization is limited, and see how to leverage the business benefits without trying to force a behavior change onto users. Just as any valuable technology continues to evolve, the culture of business, and the people that comprise that culture are also evolving at a dizzying pace. Just consider the impact that social networking and the ability to check in have had on the way people interact and communicate on an interpersonal level.
People and processes have become peering endpoints on many levels, and as social culture changes, so changes the culture of business. If you don’t buy into this, just take a look at how smartphones, through the integration of powerful productivity and communications solutions, have quickly become indispensible business tools.
The existing approach for collaboration doesn’t even scratch the surface of the new mobile and always-connected culture. Nor does it really harness the extreme value of the immense amounts of data that are now available about individuals, their social and business connections, and the previously untapped collaboration opportunities available through multiple peer-to-peer relationship channels. The current focus of collaboration has been on the content that might be shared between parties – but with the new always-connected paradigm, the focus needs to shift to the contextual relationships between people, their connections, and their information.
A Cumbersome Technology
Although the pedigree of collaboration technology originates with some of the greatest providers of communications technology, including the likes of Cisco, Microsoft and IBM (News - Alert), it is not a simple solution suite to deploy, and an even more difficult one to get users to actually use. Most current solutions mandate that users perform multiple – and sometimes complicated – tasks to initiate a collaboration session with peers. And as anyone who has worked in an enterprise environment can attest, the more cumbersome the user interface, the greater the chance it will be ignored.
Before a collaboration session can begin, the basics must be determined: who, what, when, where, and of course why. The first activity is actually determining which colleagues are available for the collaboration session. In typical circumstances, modern day presence management tools help identify which colleagues are online and available for a chat or call. But if team members are in disparate locations, or mobile, then the promised ease of setting up a session quickly spirals out of control. Instead of efficiently solving the what and why, the manager is often left scrambling trying to locate and re-connect participants, and the value of the collaboration session is lost.
On top of the mad scramble to pull the right people into the conversation, once the actual communications portion of the session is established, there are still multiple steps that need to be performed. While some of the more advanced collaboration tools enable an administrator to control another’s desktop, in most instances, each participant must locate and retrieve the correct file to participate in the session. Getting every participant on the right page, at the right time, may seem simple, but in the world of business communications, what is taken for granted is often the hardest task to accomplish.
Regardless of how intuitive, simple or foolproof providers make their collaboration solutions, the simple reality is that the majority of users still feel they are too complex and cumbersome. As a result, many enterprises remain skeptical that their employees will actually use these tools, and have chosen to remain on the sidelines regarding the integration of collaboration technologies.
Introducing Automation into the World of Collaboration
The fundamental value of automation in its simplest form is to complete simple tasks that do not require human action. This frees up the user to focus on the more heady and important parts of the process – the ones that bring value to the business at hand.
Real Power: Combining Collaboration with Voice and Social Media
Though collaboration as a stand-alone solution has appealed primarily to technology-savvy businesses, the possibilities open up geometrically when it can be seamlessly linked with traditional voice communications and social network technologies. Through this triad, the setup of collaboration sessions can become automated processes that connect users by analysis of the history of interactions between colleagues and associates, as well as the files or data over which they have some common interest or experience. In essence, the automated approach is built on contextual data that is repeatedly stored and mined whenever connected parties work together.
Powerful social network algorithms – the same technologies that enable Facebook (News - Alert) and LinkedIn to suggest friends and colleagues – enable the collaboration platform to retrieve automatically shared documents when prompted by the initiation of a standard voice call. The platform then populates the preferred device of the user, such as a computer, smartphone, tablet, or other connected device, with folders containing all pertinent materials common to the involved parties. The user can then efficiently choose the appropriate folder and jump right into the collaborative session taking place on the conference call. It is an intuitive process that delivers the right materials to the right people at the right time.
When applied to the new contextual relationship model, the entire nature of the collaboration process changes. The network of connections and commonalities between information and people provide a rich matrix of data that can be systematically analyzed to populate a real-time landscape of pertinent peering relationships.
While the social media technology enables the confluence of voice and collaboration, it is the voice call that acts as the trigger. It is a simple, yet effective, use of three key technologies.
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Edited by Jennifer Russell