Is IT Collaborating on Collaboration?

30 Nov 2016

When it comes to collaboration, the focus is almost entirely on employees and how they can be more productive within the enterprise. That may well be the endgame, but before that can happen, a very different form of collaboration must take place, and it has very little to do with the technology driving Unified Communications.

There is no denying that implementing UC can be complex and can deter efforts to go down this path. However, if the business value is there, these issues can be overcome, especially since UC has multiple deployment models to choose from. Identifying that business value is a different challenge and requires IT to collaborate in ways you may not have anticipated.

The real challenge with collaboration

The challenge exists on many fronts, and really hasn't been present with previous technology-related decisions. UC is different for several reasons, starting with the fact that the value proposition is difficult to define. Being a vendor-coined term, the UC concept doesn't resonate naturally with end users the way telephony, conferencing, messaging, etc. does. While employees use the underlying applications all day long without difficulty, the notion of integrating them into a common interface isn't intuitive. In this regard, habits are hard to change, so there's a real challenge in terms of getting employees to see UC as a better way to collaborate.

Compounding this, the concept of collaboration itself can be highly subjective, and this raises a few issues. Without a standardized approach to collaboration, everyone understands it differently, and for UC to gain adoption, IT needs to be viewed by employees as an enabler. With UC being deployed by IT, employees may see it as a technology solution, but not necessarily a collaboration solution. That may be the outcome that the business values, but it won't occur unless UC truly meets the needs of employees.

To illustrate the challenge, consider the IP PBX, which is often a consideration when making decisions about UC. Historically, these systems have been deployed with little regard for end user needs, simply because everyone used them, and everyone used them in the same way. IT didn't need to do much after rolling them out, as the utility of the desk phone was clear to end users. The reality of UC is very different, as employees have choices for every application supported by UC, and those choices can be made with little or no IT involvement. This translates into a loss of control for IT where collaboration experiences can be defined on the employee's terms, and they can also determine how much or how little UC addresses their collaboration needs.

To a large extent, this reflects the different set of expectations of Millennials, who are entering the workforce in greater numbers. Conventional UC offerings may not fully address how they collaborate, and that's precisely why purpose-built Web-based collaboration platforms such as Slack have become so popular. If IT doesn't take proactive steps to establish a leadership role when deploying UC, this trend will continue, making it harder for the enterprise to realize the full value from UC across the business as a whole.

Aside from the fact that individual employees can chart their own course for addressing collaboration needs, this pattern is also being repeated on a line-of-business (LOB) level. Again, in cases where IT hasn't determined end user needs prior to deploying UC, the solutions invariably fall short for some - or many - LOBs. When that happens, those LOB decision-makers no longer rely on IT for technology guidance. In these cases, they have scanned the market and found cloud-based solutions that suit their particular needs. With Opex-based offerings, LOBs have the budget to buy what they need, and with hosted solutions, they can choose their own applications and manage them independent of IT's purview.

This may be great for LOBs, but can really diminish IT's value to the organization. If too many LOBs follow this course, the enterprise may have a Tower of Babel scenario where collaboration across LOBs becomes problematic, and runs counter to everything IT and the enterprise was trying to achieve with UC as a singular solution for everyone.

Can IT get its mojo back?

Presuming this is what IT wants, the short answer is yes. There certainly are cases where IT has fallen too far behind and lacks the will and/or the way to regain some level of control where their future is assured. Depending on how quickly the collaboration needs of employees are evolving - and if the mindset of IT is not shifting - there may be a realization that order will never be restored, and all things UC should simply be left to others.

If that's not your mindset, and you want IT to play an active role in using UC to drive collaboration with today's employees, our research indicates three things IT can do.

1. Take a collaborative approach to collaboration

Taking this approach to define technology needs has not been the norm for IT, but it's a root cause of the above problems. By assuming that everyone collaborates the same way, IT is assured of missing the mark by choosing a one-size-fits-all UC solution. That's a reactive approach, and what's really needed is a proactive approach whereby IT engages various end user groups to define those needs in advance. As the discovery process unfolds, this is where the surprises emerge, as IT learns how extensively employees are using their own applications unbeknownst to IT. This is where the collaborative approach is so valuable, and helps level the playing field between what employees truly need and what IT can deliver when making the right decisions.

2. Leverage your own data to create new forms of value

Enterprises are moving to data-centric models for making decisions, and since all aspects of UC are digital, IT can tap tremendous amounts of data to create many types of performance-based metrics. Given the inherent difficulty of measuring the ROI on UC, there's a promising opportunity here for IT to create new value by measuring the utilization rate for each UC application, and how each is being used in collaboration settings.

Armed with this data, the intention is for IT to show that employees collaborate more effectively with UC, and that network resources are utilized more efficiently when collaborating via a common platform instead of across a mashup of standalone applications that may or may not be running within IT's field of vision. Not only can this be used to substantiate UC's value to management, but also to provide guidance to employees so they can learn how to collaborate better with UC.

3. Choose the right UC partner

Partner relationships for legacy-based solutions tend to be technology-centric, where the value is derived by how well everything works within your network environment. While that very much applies to UC, as the balance of power shifts to a more user-centric model, there is arguably greater value to be derived from how well the partner understands your UC journey. The underlying technology is just the starting point, from where UC partners can bring to bear their collective experience with successful deployments.

At the heart of that success is helping IT take a collaborative approach with internal stakeholders to define collaboration needs. Once those user requirements are understood and effectively supported, IT can establish or regain a leadership position for introducing new technology to the enterprise. When that happens, collaboration becomes more powerful by engaging employees from across the entire organization; and when done over a common platform, there's great value to be realized from the learning from which best practices can be established. That, in turn, will give LOBs less reason to take their own path, and steer more budget back to IT, which can be invested to make UC better for everyone.

My basic conclusion is that this is what IT should look for in a UC partner. Being the sponsor of this series, AT&T is one such partner, and as you should expect, they bring more to the table than integration expertise. As with other service providers, they have a consulting arm to help drive end user adoption, and their UC capabilities were reviewed in a recent UCStrategies analysis.

This type of user-centric approach reflects what's needed in today's environment. If your thinking shifts to this model, I have no doubt IT will at least have a fighting chance to own collaboration; otherwise, LOBs will own it, and along the way, disown you.

This paper is sponsored by AT&T.



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