Businesses have long had access to different tools that help far-flung employees collaborate. But those tools often require so many workarounds that it leaves everyone feeling frustrated and discouraged.
For Landmark Bank, a community bank based in Columbia, Mo., the breaking point came in late 2011. The organization has 720 employees in 53 locations in Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas, but its board of directors is even more dispersed, with some members living in Alaska and New Jersey.
“Our board can almost never make it to one spot for meetings, so we put a video conferencing system in place some time ago. But it was little more than TVs on carts and was so out of date and clunky that it just wasn’t working anymore,” explains Senior Vice President and CIO Brenda Emerson. “My CEO came to me one day and said, ‘You have got to find a way for us to have better meetings.’”
Emerson and her team decided to deploy Avaya Scopia, an enterprise room-based high-definition video conferencing system that features web collaboration and telepresence capabilities and supports desktop and mobile applications.
The solution was an immediate hit. “The board was once again having highly productive, highly engaged meetings,” Emerson says. “And that’s because it felt like everyone was in the same room, no matter where they happened to be.”
In fact, the video conferences were so lifelike that employees in different branches started to forgo phone calls in favor of face-to-face meetings via video conference.
Loan officers and customer service representatives began using the system to connect their customers with the bank’s subject matter experts. And the human resources department used the system to provide live training and information sessions (while saving money and time on travel).
As a result, the video conferencing system runs almost constantly. In 2015, Landmark Bank held 1,271 video meetings, a 60 percent jump over the previous year, and that number is likely to grow in 2016.
“It has provided benefits we didn’t even realize we were missing,” Emerson says. “It’s brought us together as a company because now, people aren’t just voices on the phone or grainy images on an old TV. Now, people can see each other. They can interact with each other. They can see the same document. They can collaborate effectively. And they can build relationships in a way that gives them a much better picture of the company and their role in it.”
Many companies find that today’s collaboration solutions enable them to do more and do it better. But not necessarily because the tools themselves are evolving much, says Vanessa Thompson, research vice president for collaboration and communities at IDC.
“What’s happening is that these solutions are starting to converge and be used in altogether new, innovative ways because we have cloud technology and we have mobility,” she explains. “It’s all about enabling collaboration from anywhere and at any time, using any device.”
For example, Bravo Group, an advocacy public relations firm based in Harrisburg, Pa., decided in 2014 to move all of its productivity and collaboration applications from an on-premises virtualized setup to the cloud.
“We hosted our own Outlook server and our own server storage and we had a virtualized desktop solution in place, and that worked fine — for a while,” explains Chief Operating Officer Rhett Hintze.
However, when the company, which has 45 full-time employees, opened two remote offices in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, allowed employee telecommuting and started utilizing freelancers and subcontractors for client projects, it quickly outgrew its collaboration solution.
“It got to a point where nobody could get quick access to their files and people were having to email documents all around,” Hintze says. “We had to find a better way.”
In January 2014, Bravo Group executives decided to switch to a cloud-based solution. After evaluating different options, they chose Google Apps.
Today, employees in all three offices and those working offsite or on the road collaborate on large customer documents and art files in real time using Google Docs, Google Sheets and other built-in applications and third-party plug-ins.
“One of the competitive edges we need in our business is the ability to quickly pivot, and because of this switch, we can now move a lot faster than other firms,” Hintze says. “It’s increased our speed, but it’s also maintained or improved our ability to matrix out our staff in various locations so they can collaborate and work together better.”
Buildera, a startup based in Redwood City, Calif., designs, manufactures and distributes building products, test and measurement solutions and structural design software. It also turned to the cloud for collaboration.
The company faces unique challenges because it must bring together a cross section of collaborators — including software and hardware engineers, intellectual property patent advisers, marketing support and contract manufacturers — in a confidential creative process that involves 2D and 3D computer-aided design models, videos, drawings and patent filings.
Still, in its early days, Buildera relied on traditional email and conference calls for its electronic collaboration. Not surprisingly, collaborators experienced all kinds of difficulties and frustration.
“We quickly ran into limitations with email due to file size restrictions, and content getting lost or blocked in spam filters,” recalls Greg Lowitz, Buildera’s founder and CEO. “We experienced delays in sharing confidential documents. And we found that critical information was getting lost in multiple email threads.”
A few years back, Buildera managers concluded that Box would provide the best balance of storage capacity, price, mobile access and integration with other third-party platforms, such as Salesforce.com.
Today, their collaboration setup provides a number of benefits, including secure information-sharing across collaborators, mobile device access and file uploads, higher quality content resolution and automated feedback of document downloads.
“We experience significantly faster and more organized information exchange across multiple constituents, leading to faster decisions, approvals and change orders,” says Lowitz. “I can’t imagine trying to run our business at this point without Box. It is fully ingrained in the way we work and collaborate with our partners.”