Along with providing core software packages for business users, enterprise IT is increasingly being asked to extend communications to enable staff to work remotely, and support greater levels of collaboration and unified communications. Many of the technologies driving the connected enterprise are now coming from outside IT.
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In a recent paper, Forrester Research principal analyst Elizabeth Herre noted, "As the lines between network equipment, communication applications, and collaboration diminish, advanced collaboration tools such as shared workspace, calendar co-ordination, and rich presence will support many business processes. Improved usability for collaboration applications makes it easier to share information across an enterprise and reach decisions more quickly. Collaboration applications create an informed and connected workplace."
Unified communications is the starting point for these benefits. Steve Cramoysan, a research director at Gartner says unified comms improves productivity and innovation, and can help businesses manage costs.
He says, "One of the benefits of unified comms is that it becomes easier to organise conferences. For instance, you can see if people are available using presence indicators."
Forrester Research sees a convergence of various communications and collaboration technologies into what it describes as "the information workplace". Through the consumerisation of IT, devices and web applications are entering the enterprise through people's social lives.
Big enterprise is starting to recognise this and some firms are creating social networking applications to enable staff to collaborate and innovate. BT is to roll out Facebook-style social networking services to its 100,000 employees, in a move it says will help staff collaborate more effectively on projects, whether they are in the office or working remotely.
The company has developed two social networking tools based on Sharepoint 2007 to Sharepoint 2010. The first will offer each employee of BT a Facebook-like profile page. The second tool, known as Dealpoint, will help BT staff to manage bids for contracts.
IBM, Google and Novell are among the software companies developing collaboration suites based around social media: IBM Project Vulcan; Google Wave; Sharepoint 2010; Novell Pulse; Cisco InBox; Gist; Xobn; Notes 8.5; and Outlook 7 are all examples of next generation e-mail systems, aiming to make collaboration easier in the connected enterprise.
Wave is an e-mail client that offers real-time collaboration, while IBM's Project Vulcan, unveiled at Lotusphere Florida in January 2010, takes elements of Google Wave and Facebook combined with proactive analytics. This allows it to filter and present information based on business context.
The recent disruption caused by the Icelandic volcano ash cloud and BA strikes are strong business cases for using video rather than a face-to-face meeting. Room-based telepresence suites, such as the one used by Formula One team AT&T Williams (see box), allows a small number of people to conduct meetings with colleagues in different locations, where participants look and sound as if they are sitting on the other side of the table.
In some situations, such as during a merger or acquisition, apart from forcing busy executives to travel to frequent meetings, there is no practical substitute to telepresence. But it is expensive, requires a dedicated network, and can only be used in a specially-designed conference room.
Analyst Gartner expects mass adoption of video conferencing to happen on the desktop, through unified communications client software running on a converged network.
Thanks to the availability of low-cost, powerful smartphones, mobile collaboration is now a reality, extending the connected enterprise into the field.
Oxford Archaeology, one of the largest independent archaeology and heritage practices in Europe, has begun deploying the Motorola Android-based Milestone smartphone to 150 users.
CIO Chris Puttick says the device was selected because it offered a proper keyboard and the ability to use "USB host mode", so that a waterproof USB keyboard could be plugged in. This was important given the wet and muddy conditions of an on-site archeological survey, where the device needs protection from being accidentally submerged.
According to Puttick, smartphones make better data entry devices than tablet-based devices. "Smartphones are normally cheaper than a tablet, have better battery life and built-in connectivity," Puttick says.
When the IT project began Puttick needed an Android-based data collection application, but as luck would have it, he discovered an open source product. "We were about to start writing an app when uncovered one that met our needs, based on open source, which was released to Android just a few weeks ago."
The app, running on Motorola Milestone devices, will replace paper-based data collection. As an added benefit, he says, "On a complex archaeological site you can get much better outputs by seeing survey information earlier on," because the project manager can see data as it is collected, which allows him to guide on-site staff.
Experts believe IT-enabled collaboration will help businesses through difficult times.
According to Rob Koplowitz, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, "Fear is the biggest driver for collaboration. Firms looking to gain a competitive advantage use collaboration to innovate and design better products." Unified communications, video conferencing and mobile collaboration are all examples of technological trends that can help businesses collaborate more effectively.