The emergence of new technologies is leading to new possibilities in the way companies operate and people work.
Businesses are able to become much more distributed, with employees working to a greater degree from home or in local offices rather than commuting to more centralised headquarters. Employees are becoming much more mobile, with a range of different computing devices.
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Companies have become fluid and distributed
For the vast majority of businesses, the creation, storage and exchange of information and documents is the glue that binds them together.
Central to this success has been the ever-increasing use of e-mail and document sharing, together with the use of associated office productivity applications, such as word processing, spreadsheets and presentations. These have reached such a level of ubiquity that their impact and reach can often be overlooked, and even taken for granted.
As companies have become more fluid and distributed, the inflexible nature of their collaboration environment is holding them back
As business operations and working practices have changed, many companies have continued to rely on e-mail and document sharing to form the bedrock of their communications and collaboration infrastructure. The end result is that even as companies have become more fluid and distributed, the inflexible nature of their collaboration environment is holding them back.
Conferencing and collaboration facilities – particularly web conferencing and to a lesser degree video conferencing – are generally seen as an effective way to help improve the situation.
The difficulty is that not many companies have deployed these solutions officially. Indeed, a number of companies have taken active steps to block this, but in many cases this leads to "underground" solutions being adopted.
Where companies have not been proactive in implementing collaboration solutions, it has often led individual departments or employees to use third-party services in a piecemeal or ad hoc manner. While this may solve a short-term need, the result is often that different departments end up doing the same thing in completely different ways, resulting in inevitable management, integration or compatibility issues.
Spiralling out of control
Alternatively, the different departments may have lucked into using the same solution, but with the overhead of having separate, parallel accounts with different configurations and management.
Letting the situation spiral out of control is therefore something most IT managers are keen to avoid. The question is how to approach this. There are a number of different approaches, and their suitability will be determined to a large degree by how you run your e-mail and document sharing.
Where e-mail and document sharing are run internally, it can be very difficult to consider migrating these to an external provider, therefore any collaboration solutions will need to integrate with what you are already running. The first option, therefore, is to consider providing the collaboration facilities yourself. However, implementing audio, video or web conferencing internally can be difficult.
Often they require significant upfront investment in servers, networking and applications. Then there is the not-so-small matter of professional services to get them up and running and working nicely with the existing systems such as Exchange or SharePoint.
All this requires significant planning and a strong business case with executive sponsorship. Adding to the difficulty is that the level of investment required often leads to opting for a "deep and wide" approach to justify the costs involved and to gain sufficient functionality over existing services to justify the effort.
Hosted services make it convenient to try out new services before committing to them
Full service solutions
A second option is to use third-party services that provide conferencing services, and tie these in to the existing e-mail and office tools. The third party would be responsible for the upfront investment in the platforms, reducing the commitment required to get a solution up and running – however, there would still be a lot of work required to get it running seamlessly with what the workforce is already using.
This brings up a third approach, but this is only suitable if you are able to run your e-mail and document sharing with an external third party. This approach uses one of the growing number of "full service" solutions that have recently come to market. What these services do is provide a pre-integrated set of applications and services that are developed and tested to work together and that provide the full spectrum of e-mail and document sharing, together with conferencing facilities of all types.
These may be either hosted services from smaller providers, through to the latest software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings from the likes of Microsoft with Office 365 or IBM with Lotus Live. They may offer services from a single supplier, or have done the integration work to offer a stack of services based on products from multiple suppliers.
With these types of services, having access to advanced conferencing services is getting close to just "turning on" the desired additional services just by adding additional items to the subscription. In many cases, it is possible to also have limited pilots or to offer the service to only a subset of employees without having to incur large set-up fees, making it even more convenient to try out new services before committing to them.
Switching service providers
The difficulty many companies face is making the decision to switch how they source e-mail and office productivity services, with the majority of companies typically running e-mail and document sharing on-premises. This makes it hard to consider alternative ways to providing them, as even performing a major upgrade is often not a prompt to re-evaluate how to source these.
The upshot of all this is, therefore, to keep in mind the changes that are happening in working practices and business processes, and to look at how new hosted or cloud options may give additional flexibility and value provided you are prepared to give them consideration.
Andrew Buss is service director of analyst group Freeform Dynamics