No more email? Why companies are turning to collaboration technology

Collaboration technologies are helping companies improve their employees' work-life balance

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People waste huge amounts of time travelling to meetings, processing emails and simply trying to track down the right people in their organisations to speak to.

Email in particular can be a great time waster, giving employees a sense of being busy, but without necessarily helping them achieve useful results for the business.

The answer for many companies is unified communications, a convergence of technologies which promises to help people communicate more effectively.

Unified comms can bring rapid returns on investment, while at the same time freeing up workers from the drudgery of email and voicemail.

But IT leaders report that the biggest benefit is better work-life balance for staff. That means happier, more productive workers and a better environment in which to work, leading CIOs told a meeting of Computer Weekly’s CW500 Club.

Virgin Media: Taking on the tumbleweed

Virgin Media, the UK cable and telecoms company, grew up through a series of acquisitions, leaving it with employees dispersed across 200 sites around the UK.

Over time the company found it was becoming increasingly expensive to manage communications between its employees.

“We have an ever-increasing travel and entertainment budget because of people travelling to meetings,” said Colin Miles, director of IT technical services at Virgin Media.

Email was not an effective substitute for travel, as employees found they were spending more of their time dealing with items in their inbox.

Email is ‘stupid busy’

“Our CEO used to call it ‘stupid busy', said Miles. “It is a very linear form of communication. People read it either from top to bottom or from bottom to top, and there is very little business etiquette to prioritise information.”

Conference phone calls were little better. They took up a lot of time and employees often found themselves disengaged on long calls.

“I am sure you have all experienced the tumbleweed moment when someone asks a question and there is silence on the line,” he said.


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Faster decision-making

These problems were the catalyst for Virgin’s move towards unified communications. The company began by installing high-definition video-conferencing suites in its offices.

The real goal is horizontal collaboration -- people forming new networks even though they have not met.
Colin MilesVirgin Media

The result was a noticeable improvement in the speed of decision-making, but the solution was far from perfect, said Miles. There was such high demand for video-conferencing that staff in regional offices often found it difficult to book a slot.

Virgin solved the problem by introducing Cisco’s WebEx conferencing service, which allows people to make video-conferencing calls from their laptops and PCs.

It is using the same technology to share videos with its employees, secure in the knowledge that any sensitive information cannot be viewed by the wrong person.

“We used to send top-down emails where we would discuss our results or a message from the CEO. That changed to a faceless conference call. Now it's on video,” he said.

Meeting new people is the real benefit

But the real benefit of unified communications is helping people communicate across the organisation with new people, rather than people they already know. 

“We recognised that the real goal is horizontal collaboration. That means real people forming new networks even though they have not met each other before,” said Miles.

It took some effort to convince employees that using collaborative, social media-type tools at work could actually help them to work more effectively.

Collaboration technology in action at Virgin Media


Virgin has used the same collaboration technology to improve the way it trains its employees. The company has always offered online courses to staff, but previously they lacked the interactive element of being in a classroom, said Colin Miles, director of IT technical services at Virgin Media.

Now the company places every employee in a training community with other students. They work with the community to prepare for the course and continue to swap ideas with the community long after the course is over. “The community becomes the real course,” said Miles.

Capturing knowledge

Technical specialists do not always enjoy writing reports, so they tend to hold on to their knowledge once they leave the company. “The risk as they progress through the organisation is that tacit knowledge leaves the organisation, all because we made it difficult to share knowledge,” said Miles.

Following Virgin’s move to unified communications, employees can press a button and make a recording of their screen as they are fixing a fault, and share it with the rest of the organisation.

Mobile engineers

Virgin’s engineers are involved in a pilot for the use of tablet computers to set up video conferences with the head office while they are out in the field. If they encounter a new or difficult problem, they can take pictures and videos and share them with other experts in the organisation, including people they may not have met before.

“Engineers are able to fix faults more quickly and we have been able to improve customer satisfaction because we have a first-time fix more frequently than ever before,” said Miles.

Mention Facebook and people protest, 'Why should I want to know what my friend is doing?' But in a business context, social media makes sense, said Miles.

“Change the word 'friend' to 'colleague', and why wouldn’t you want to know what your colleague is working on?”

Today employees at Virgin can type a search term into the company intranet, see a list of documents related to that topic, and identify all the people in the company who have expertise in that area.

They can see at a glance whether a person they might need to speak to is in our out of the office, and can fix up a voice or video call at the touch of a button.

Employees become more engaged

As a result of these changes, Virgin’s staff surveys have recorded a 7% increase in employee engagement.

“Video-conferencing means employees can spend more time in the office or at home completing their activity. That saves five to 10 hours of travelling time per week,” said Miles.

In practice, employees split the time they save. Half goes back into the business, and they use half to spend more time with their families. That is good for the workforce and it's good for Virgin, said Miles.

City & Guilds: Making the IT infrastructure fit for purpose

City & Guilds, the qualifications awarding body, turned to unified communications to help its 8,000 staff spread across 800 sites around the world communicate and collaborate more effectively.

Back in 2011 the charity, which issues two million certificates to students a year, was struggling with an antiquated IT infrastructure and rickety telecommunications.

“We had a desktop [estate] that was not fit for purpose, a terrible network and an ageing telephony system. We could not even deploy a screensaver without breaking something,” said Ian Turfrey, IT director at City & Guilds.

Datacentre jungle

The charity’s datacentre was a jungle of wires and servers. For staff working from home in the UK, accessing City & Guilds' virtual private network (VPN) was hit and miss, at best. For people working abroad it was impossible.

“That led to some very unhappy customers,” said Turfrey.

It was clear that something needed to be done, and the charity’s board agreed to back a major infrastructure transformation project. “It was not hard for the board to understand the need for change. They were are frustrated as we were,” he told the audience of IT leaders at Computer Weekly's CW 500 Club.

Any time, any device, anywhere

The charity’s aim was to allow anyone, anywhere in the world, to access the company’s systems from any device.

We can now share information much more seamlessly using cloud and social media.
Ian TurfreyCity & Guilds

It invested in Citrix technology to allow people to access their Windows desktops from mobile devices, and upgraded its desktop software to Windows 7 and Office 2010.

“This was a massive success. For the first time we had stability in the estate and our staff could work from home just as productively as they did in the office,” said Turfrey.

At the same time, the IT team began a huge programme to reduce the number of software applications it supported from 8,000 to just 500. This, in turn, helped City & Guilds reduce the number of servers it needed to support its datacentre, and virtualisation technology reduced the numbers still further.

The charity invested in Microsoft Lync 2010, a unified communications software package, to provide its UK staff with instant messaging and the ability to check whether their colleagues were at their desk before calling them.

And C&G was able to use the savings generated by slimming down its fixed-line network to fund a replacement corporate intranet. That gave staff in the organisation the ability to share blogs and comments with their colleagues for the first time.

Next on the cards was Wi-Fi for C&G’s UK offices. Turfrey started with a small-scale pilot using cheap routers from PC World to prove the concept. With full-scale Wi-Fi now in place, employees bring their tablets and mobile phones into C&G’s offices and make calls over the Wi-Fi network – saving on 3G phone costs.

“Staff productivity and engagement increased by 10%,” said Turfrey.

Struggling with video-conferencing

But the system was far from perfect. Employees working overseas were not able to access the intranet easily, and City & Guilds was struggling to make video-conferencing work.

Turfrey solved the problems with video-conferencing when he upgraded to Microsoft Lync 2013. “I can talk to my fellow board members and participate in meetings when I work from home. I now federate with key suppliers. You all know how difficult it can be to get two or three in the same meeting – it is now a lot easier,” he said.

Collaborating in the cloud

Next on the cards is a project to replace Microsoft’s collaboration software – SharePoint 2010, currently hosted internally – with SharePoint 2013 hosted in the cloud.

“We’ve already done some trials and we had issues with our Indian operation when sharing documents and editing with the UK. But with SharePoint 2013 in the cloud, collaboration works very well and effectively,” said Turfrey.

With most of C&G's infrastructure powered by Microsoft, it makes sense for C&G to issue its staff with Windows mobile phones. They will integrate smoothly with C&G’s existing IT systems and can be managed in the cloud, said Turfrey.

Turfrey expects to make further savings by replacing C&G's copper wire telephone systems with a cloud-based telephone service. The project will allow people to make and receive calls from "softphones" built into their laptops and PCs, and to receive instant messages, and video calls.

Unified communications has transformed the way C&G works, said Turfrey. A few years ago, C&G as a business was not ready for unified communications, he said. Now it's demanding it.

“It's saving us on travel and improving communication. Our people are using it as the norm. We can now share information much more seamlessly using cloud and social media,” he said.


BBC: Calling off a phoney war

If there is one thing the BBC is not short of, it's phones. Offices are stuffed with them, often inherited from previous productions, and in many cases it's not clear to whom the phone belongs.

BBC’s UC Lessons

  • Provide centrally funded headsets or handsets
  • Build, test, pilot and explicitly plan the migration
  • Hire data analysts to understand how people work and how it’s very different at each site
  • Split delivery into manageable phases
  • Rationalise historical data like the global address list and phone numbers
  • Get someone to stay throughout the whole project lifecycle
  • Provide headsets
  • Sell unified communications – it really can change how people work

Steve Shepherd, head of IT and business alignment at the BBC, was the man responsible for trying to rationalise the BBC's estate of phones. “There were lots of telephones that people did not use, and lots of red lights going off, where we did not know who owned the phone,” he said.

The BBC's plan was to move to a system where it could give each employee a single phone with a number they would keep for the duration of their career. The corporation chose to install Microsoft’s Lync communications software to provide telephone services, audio and video-conferencing.

But rather than replace its existing IP-based exchanges, the IT team decided to run Lync in parallel. “We installed Lync and the phone system side by side. When you have a really large organisation, you can’t move seamlessly from one system to another,” said Shepherd.

For an organisation as large as the BBC it’s the technical details that make a project like this succeed or fail, he revealed. “For the big sites, it is really simple – give everyone everything and it just works. For smaller sites, such as radio stations, you have network issues.”

Something as simple as changing a desktop phone, could mean changing the wiring in a building, and suddenly the project becomes a much bigger piece of work. 

Another unexpected problem was that employees did not take to the headsets the BBC initially provided them. This is one item, said Shepherd, that it's important not to skimp on.

Unified comms positives outweigh the negatives

One of the challenges in moving to unified communications, particularly one that is based in the cloud, is that organisations inevitably lose a certain amount of control over communications infrastructure.

That can leave companies more vulnerable to the performance of their technology suppliers. C&G's Turfrey was frank about the risks: “If Microsoft has a bad day, we have a bad day.”

But the business benefits more than make up for the loss of control, he said. “For me it’s a very cost-effective proposition. We are not a massive galactic dotcom. I am happy to lose that control.”

And, as Simon Levene, senior strategy consultant at Jive Software, told the meeting, data is often more secure in the cloud than it would be on a company network. “There is just one instance of the data in the cloud, rather than multiple instances spread across the organisation, and it is protected by iron bars and wrapped in cotton wool,” he said.

Email on steroids

As companies introduce more collaboration tools, employees have much more information at their disposal. Managing that information can be difficult, the meeting heard.

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“Instant messaging is email on steroids when you have flashing screens all over the place,” said Virgin's Miles.

One solution is to use to use the filters built into today’s collaboration tools to filter out information that is not relevant to your work. But even then it can be difficult to separate the reliable information from the unreliable. 

Information and knowledge often gets embedded in company wikis and blogs, said Don Kavanagh, head of business architecture at the Security Industry Authority.

Establishing the provenance of that information is difficult. “Instead of one answer, you get 10 answers,” he said.

It’s a problem that Virgin Media admits it has not yet solved. “It is a real challenge,” said Miles. “One of the key problems is misinformation getting around the company. It's very common.”

One answer is to allow employees to comment and vote on the usefulness of the comment, said Jive Software's Levene. “We found that through collaboration, you can identify the right answer. If 20 of your colleagues who are experienced in the subject think it's good, the chances are you will think it's good,” he said.

Proving the value of collaboration

Proving the value of unified communications to the business can be difficult, as many of the benefits are soft benefits which are difficult to measure. City & Guilds' Turfrey recommends starting with a structured pilot, with benefits that can be measured, to prove the concept.

Comparing the same task carried out with and without unified communications is another useful tactic. C&G, for example, found that a team using collaboration tools finished a task much more quickly than a team carrying out a similar task without them.

If people save time and go home earlier, that has value to the firm because you have a happier, healthier workforce.
Simon LeveneJive Software

“With that, we had the ability to truly measure the bottom line in pounds," said Turfrey.

Levene rolled out Jive collaboration software to 135,000 people in his former role as a director of knowledge management at PricewaterhouseCoopers. 

“There are three levels of metrics: how many people are using the network; how many people are contributing; and stories about how people are using it,” he said.

The take-up of Jive at PwC was so enthusiastic that after three months Levene had to back to the board to ask for more money to put more employees on the system.

The software helped to reduce the time taken to develop a business proposal from two weeks to one week and the effort spent on processing documents was reduced by 80%.

But it would be a mistake to think of unified communications as a tool to squeeze more out of the workforce. Better to think of it as a tool to improve people’s work-life balance, the meeting heard.

“If people save time and go home earlier, that has value to the firm because you have a happier, healthier workforce,” said Levene.

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