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Over the last decade, as digital technologies have matured, organizations are confronting a dizzying array of opportunities and challenges. But at the heart of every IT initiative lies a simple fact: the ability to operate an enterprise successfully depends a great deal on how effectively workers communicate and collaborate.
Navigating this frontier is no simple task. A spate of communication and collaboration tools — IP telephony, mobility, messaging, video conferencing, telepresence, social collaboration and more — have already changed the face of the enterprise. They’ve altered the way workers interact and forged new models for connecting people and work anywhere, anytime, and with any type of mobile device in hand.
But now, as a result of ubiquitous Internet availability, cloud computing and deeper integration of these tools and technologies, the concept of collaboration is further evolving – even entering a new age. New apps, cloud capabilities and social collaboration software have organizations looking to build a total collaboration experience.
Yet, in the quest for greater connectedness, the enterprise faces a number of formidable challenges. These include how to best design an infrastructure, how to weave systems together seamlessly and how to match products with business processes and workflows.
The nature of business has always been collaborative. Over the span of several decades, telephones, fax machines, email, discussion boards, blogs, instant messaging (IM), video conferencing, presence and social media have all played a significant role in connecting people more quickly and efficiently.
However, in a fast-paced global business environment, domain and technical experts must share ideas, concepts and knowledge more quickly and effectively. Collaboration is a critical component in everything from building products faster to resolving organizational challenges faster and better.
In recent years, organizations have turned to unified communications (UC) to build greater efficiency into their networks. These IP-based systems have merged email, voicemail and other functions while creating more efficient ways to connect to people — via find me/follow me features and unified messaging.
UC has fundamentally changed the way people interact — and provided more efficient ways to link workers using mobile devices in the field. But now organizations are looking to ratchet up UC capabilities by plugging in mobile apps, cloud capabilities and enterprise social collaboration software.
“We are entering a new era,” states Ken Snyder, practice lead for collaboration at CDW. The current changes are just as revolutionary as the first phase of UC and digital collaboration that shook the enterprise a decade ago. Cloud-delivered collaboration-focused strategies and applications enable many new capabilities.
To be sure, collaboration has emerged as more than a way to avoid travel or video chat with a colleague across the country. Cloud-based applications such as Google Apps allow staffers to draft, edit and share documents dynamically — neatly simplifying the task of version management and eliminating the tedious and error-prone chore of tracking changes through email. What’s more, using IM, virtual workspaces and other tools, teams can share files, documents and content in ways that were unimaginable only a few years ago.
Likewise, social collaboration technology is redefining the way people interact and enabling greater ability and innovation. Only a few years ago, sharing expertise and knowledge within an organization was extraordinarily challenging, if not impossible.
Too often, expertise that resided in one person, place or system was impossible to find. As a result, pools of knowledge frequently went untapped and organizations often found that they were constantly reinventing the wheel.
“Social collaboration makes it possible to find coworkers who are subject matter experts. It helps people engage in free-form discussions,” Snyder says. “It creates an entirely different communication flow.”
As organizations interconnect these capabilities and extend collaboration features to mobile platforms, the gains are often exponential, notes John Jackson, vice president of global infrastructure at Tronox, a Stamford, Connecticut-based global chemical company with nearly 4,000 employees and independent contractors spread across the U.S., Europe, Africa and Australia.
The firm, which has built a collaboration platform around Microsoft Lync and SharePoint, strives to “create greater synergy across business units and geographically separated workers,” Jackson says.
The company uses a variety of communication and collaboration tools to streamline processes and simplify work. It has a UC platform in place, video conferencing, social collaboration systems and virtual whiteboarding capabilities. Teams can connect across continents on an as-needed basis using cloud-based video sharing, conference rooms and other cloud-based software tools.
In addition, the company increasingly relies on the cloud to reduce infrastructure expenses and complexity, create a more agile IT framework and plug in and bridge capabilities in a more modular and flexible way. “The cloud has become a key strategic piece of the overall collaboration strategy,” Jackson explains.
Various industry studies indicate that collaboration tools — particularly new cloud-based systems — deliver a high return on investment. A 2012 report conducted by McKinsey & Company, The social economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies, found that social collaboration technologies boost the productivity of workers by 20 to 25 percent.
These systems, it says, are particularly valuable for enhancing knowledge sharing within an enterprise and across organizations. Although 72 percent of companies now use social technologies in some way, few are using these systems to their full potential, McKinsey & Company notes.
Meanwhile, the 2012 State of Unified Communications report from Information Week found that employing cloud collaboration tools typically result in a 20-minute-per-day savings per employee. Most of the benefits revolve around the use of UC communications and improved message management.
The same study found that 75 percent of organizations experienced improved employee productivity across geographically dispersed locations. Says Mary Hamilton, managing director at Accenture Technology Labs, “Collaboration technologies are allowing organizations to create new ecosystems and connect with employees, vendors, contractors and others in real time. Software vendors are adding collaborative elements and social tools into their applications.”
The end goal for today’s enterprise is to deliver any message, document or chunk of data to any person using any type of device at any moment. Not only do these systems help unlock productivity and trim costs, they usher in fundamentally different ways of thinking and interacting, according to David Nichols, IT Transformation Leader for consulting firm Ernst & Young.
What’s more, younger workers who have grown up with a steady diet of video, text messages and tweets are demanding these tools. They are increasingly thrusting them upon the enterprise via bring-your-own-device (BYOD) tactics and consumer apps on smartphones and tablets.
Organizations embracing collaboration increasingly find that it pays dividends. For example, 64 percent of 527 senior global executives surveyed by Forbes Insight in May 2013, reported that cloud-based collaboration tools help their businesses execute faster than they would have previously.
The technology shortens time to market, speeds product upgrade cycles and leads to faster responses to competitive challenges. The figure increases to 82 percent among industry leaders. In addition, 58 percent of respondents — and 90 percent of leaders — reported that cloud-based collaboration has the potential to improve business processes, including purchasing, manufacturing, marketing, sales and technical support.