Collaboration – The Next Generation

By Jon Arnold
7 Nov 2018

Where We’ve Been

Collaboration has always been a fundamental element of the workplace, but with recent technology advances, its meaning is now as much about the related activity as it is for the “solutions” that enable collaboration. There’s no question we have great technology now to make workers more productive, but the definition of collaboration has become quite fluid, making it hard for IT to know how well the various offerings can support the needs of workers in 2018.

Before addressing what those needs are, it’s important to understand how collaboration solutions have evolved, and why they will fall short if they don’t keep pace. Unified Communications was the first generation of collaboration solutions, with VoIP being the core building block. These offerings were developed by vendors primarily as a successor to the IP PBX once it became clear that the primacy of phone systems was in decline.

As such, UC offerings were telephony-centric by nature, with the breakthrough coming from solving the technical challenges around integrating various communications modes and applications into a common platform. This truly brought new value to the enterprise, as VoIP could now be part of the bigger collaboration story, elevating voice beyond a commodity application.

This was certainly a big step forward, but the evolution has taken a long time, and the value proposition did not resonate initially with enterprises. Some benefits were self-evident, but UC wasn’t solving a specific problem, and end users weren’t asking for it. As such, adoption has lagged vendor expectations, and while they struggled to create a demand-driven market for UC, other technologies and trends were quickly emerging that have fundamentally changed the conversation around collaboration.

First-generation UC offerings certainly did the heavy lifting to integrate applications into a common platform. Aside from being telephony-centric, they were primarily focused on enabling communications, and were not so much built around collaboration and workflows – hence the name UC.

There is certainly value in those core capabilities, but enterprises soon started placing more value on driving productivity, and supporting teams to deliver better business outcomes. This narrative goes beyond first-generation UC, and that’s where new technologies and trends come into play.

Of most relevance here would be the rise of Millennials and their workplace expectations, along with four major technology trends – the cloud, mobility, AI and IoT. Not only are these forces taking collaboration to another level, but they are happening faster than many UC offerings can adapt. While first-generation UC still has a place, it doesn’t fully reflect today’s needs for collaboration, so we need to consider a different value proposition.

Where Collaboration is Going

Each of the drivers above warrant separate posts, and this analysis can only address them at a high level. These are all powerful forces, and it would not be a stretch to place them under the umbrella of digital transformation. Like “UC,” this term has a broad meaning that will keep evolving, and the process may actually never be complete. All of these forces are part of what constitutes digital transformation, and the important takeaway is that this is very much happening now, not down the road.

Consider first – and foremost, really – the demographic shift that isn’t just changing the workplace, but the nature of work itself. Your workers are the ones doing the collaborating, so it’s essential to understand their needs. By 2020, 50% of the global workforce will be Millennials, and Generation Z is quickly following on their heels.

Unlike earlier generations, their workplace technology expectations are largely being shaped from their consumer lives, and that means having a great user experience, along with ready access to whatever applications they need, across all networks and devices. First-generation UC can support all of this somewhat, but not to the extent that workers expect in 2018. Not only do they need a more dynamic solution, but IT needs a better roadmap to deliver it and find the right partners who can support it.

The four technology trends cited above all play a distinct role in reshaping the collaboration value proposition. For end users, cloud means having a consistent set of tools and interfaces whether working from the office or remotely, such as from home or a client site – anywhere across the globe. Mobility means being able to collaborate just as effectively from a smartphone as from the desktop. AI means using chatbots and digital assistants to automate tasks and streamline workflows. Finally, IoT creates new data streams from “things” to help teams work on more complex projects.

As these technologies mature, AI will take on a bigger role in automating workflows, freeing workers up to be more creative in solving problems, and using teams to develop new breakthroughs to make the business more competitive. This also speaks to the agility that executive leaders now value so highly, and when considered in that context, collaboration becomes much more strategic.

Implications for IT

If this evolution isn’t driving your current view of collaboration and its strategic value to the business, then a re-think is in order. First is the need to move beyond telephony-centric models of UC; this may be a step forward from VoIP, but does not go far enough for where things are going. Second is to have a more holistic view of the relationship between collaboration and everything around it. By embracing the cloud, IT can better support distributed organizations, especially those with a global footprint. By embracing mobility, IT will be able to properly support workers where they are, as opposed to where you might still assume they work from.

By embracing AI, you’ll open up a new world of analytics that will not just provide new metrics for worker productivity, but also for IT to optimize the use of network resources. This will also make APIs more accessible, and that translates into customized applications for specific collaboration tasks, job functions or team requirements. Finally, IoT represents where collaboration is going beyond 2018, and that will mean deeper integration with digital assistants, and the emergence of VR and AR applications that can literally add a new dimension to team work and collaborative problem solving.

This represents a value proposition that goes well beyond first generation UC, and while much of this may look futuristic, it’s largely available today. The possibilities for collaboration to drive new business value have actually never been better, and the missing piece for IT is finding the right partner/s. IT can still take a piecemeal approach and align with specific vendors for each application, but that’s getting harder to do given the analysis herein.

A better approach is a singular partner that has already integrated all the best-of-breed applications into a tightly-integrated platform. To whatever extent you’re ready for cloud-based collaboration – either full-on or hybrid – there really are two pieces to consider. First is the collaboration platform itself, and second is the underlying connectivity to support the applications from the cloud to your enterprise. The more global your organization, the more that latter part matters. Both elements must be carefully considered, and addressing them together in your decision-making is the best way to ensure your workers get the best possible collaboration experience.


This paper is sponsored by AT&T.

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