Blending email and collaboration in a mobile world

By Andrew Buss

The last decade has seen a dramatic shift away from desktop computers towards notebooks and more recently smartphones and tablets. At the same time, the cost of computing has dropped so much that consumers, rather than enterprise can afford to be early adopters, which is changing the dynamics of how the computing market is developing. When coupled with the increasing ubiquity of network connectivity this is starting to have a more prominent influence on how and where people want to work.

The traditional way of working at a dedicated desk in the office is going to become less important in the future for many employees. This won’t happen overnight as there is too much already in place to just throw everything out and start again, but for employees whose role is mainly outward facing, their main place of work will increasingly be at home or out in the field and they will head into the office much more rarely.

Having a flexible and distributed workforce tends to boost employee morale and productivity. But unless some upfront thought is given on how to get people and teams working together across a virtual divide, it can also lead to a lot of frustration and overhead, dragging down potential gains.

One example of when things may be more difficult is when trying to locate the appropriate people for a task or project. In the office, this may be a headache but it can frequently be solved in a matter of minutes or hours by chatting informally with people who are nearby. At the same time the various conversations along the way often lead to closer relationships and a spread of business information as well as the latest dose of office gossip.

In a distributed workforce where people don’t know names or faces quite as well, this important task can often become a nightmare of organisation chart traversing, skills assessment, guesswork and voicemail tag. The end result is that it can take a long time to get things moving when people are distanced from each other, unless there is some thought and effort put into applications or services that allow virtual teams to work together effectively.

Getting your act together with communications and collaboration can have a massive impact on how well your company is able to adapt, and it can bring tangible results even for those employees who do not work remotely.

Communications and collaboration cover a wide range of offerings from email, shared calendaring and contacts through document sharing to newer services such as instant messaging (IM), web and video conferencing. While it may be tempting to continue making improvements to already established areas such as email, this needs to be balanced and prioritised against investment in emerging areas of collaboration that can facilitate distributed working such as IM, team portals, business intelligence sharing, document management, Unified Communications and web or video conferencing facilities.

Many of these collaborative functions have traditionally been available as separate, often quite expensive, products from a range of vendors. The result was commonly a fair amount of integration effort to get them all working together. This cost and effort would frequently cause companies to divert their focus onto other activities first, leaving investment in these sorely needed collaboration capabilities on the backburner.

Things have changed in the past few years to the extent that there are now quite a few vendors out there that can claim to deliver most, if not all of these functions. The end result is that the collaboration portfolios are starting to work more easily and reliably together. But they often still need to be bought individually and then setup up and run as separate services, which can be quite daunting.

There are now also options to utilise communications and collaboration services from Managed Service Providers (MSPs) and Cloud providers, where the different functions are already integrated and may require little or no upfront cost to turn on. This minimises one of the big barriers to adoption, which is to be able to test and use the functionality before committing.

With such a range of services on offer, it has the potential to get expensive very quickly if you take a ‘one-size fits all’ approach. However, within most organisations, there are usually a wide variety of job roles with different requirements for communications and collaboration services. Business management may require fast and reliable email and business intelligence. Project managers may need voice and video conferencing with good document sharing. Field service engineers may rely more on email or calendaring to do their job. Call centre workers could get by with basic email, access to a knowledgebase and IP Telephony.

Getting the balance right can be tricky with on-premises systems given the high upfront costs of purchase and integration. However, a number of third party or Cloud service providers have developed integrated solutions that provide all the features, but critically have granular licensing that enables you to pick and choose the features, service levels and price points appropriate for each segment of the workforce. This flexibility enables a much finer grained control of costs in the longer term.

On site, managed services or a combination – you now have a wider range of options to fulfil the demands of your business.

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