Should companies ditch ‘unified communications’ for ‘unified collaboration’?

For a long time, business leaders used to think that communication was the ultimate goal for any information technology. First with phones, then the internet and social media, and finally unified communications at the turn of this century – every advance in communication was heralded as a huge leap forward in human interaction and business efficiency.

But just because tech makes it easy to talk to each other, it doesn’t mean that businesses are any smarter or more efficient. If social media has shown anything, it is that instant communication does not necessarily result in greater insight or better results – in fact, it is more often full of “sound and fury, signifying nothing“.

Employers and employees have seen the benefit from remote meeting tools such videoconferencing – saving travel time and speeding up decisions – without really changing the business model; this is simply a traditional meeting, albeit on screens rather than face-to-face. Useful, but not really a transformational use of technology.

>See also: The next era of unified communications

Strangely enough, it is the newest employee generation, the millennials, who have shown the way towards meaningful communication. A generation for whom actually making calls on their mobile phones is a pretty unusual activity are championing messaging and sharing technologies, leaving businesses a step closer to true collaboration among teams. These tools create a powerful argument that we should set our sights beyond the simple replacement of traditional meetings, and instead start talking about “unified collaboration”.

The limits of traditional communications

Having reigned supreme as the only real-time communications tool in town for more than a century, the use of telephones to actually talk to people has been in real-term decline for some years – in both fixed and mobile devices.

Etiquette is changing around the use of the phone. In many organisations, it is now the done thing to send somebody an instant message or email before calling – “are you free for a quick call on this?”

People increasingly put calls in their diaries and shared calendars, whereas a couple of years ago most people would have simply picked up the phone. One Gartner analyst reported recently that they expect the number of “unplanned” calls – i.e. a totally unannounced call – to drop from just 50% of business calls today to a mere 10% of calls by 2021. That may be a little aggressive, but there is no doubt that the pattern is shifting.

>See also: For the many, not the few: A unified communications how-to

Unified communications brought great advances over traditional methods of communication, including some collaboration functions, but has suffered from the huge diversity of different communications and messaging platforms in use among businesses.

In an era where every business, every generation and almost every worker has their preferred messaging platform, the challenge for technology providers – and IT departments – was how to bring these together into a true system of unified collaboration.

The advance of the application

Technology has revolutionised every form of communication. Spiceworks found that 51% of respondents believe that collaborative chat apps were critical to the success of their organisation, while a Frost and Sullivan report found 51% of employees use mandated apps for their business on their phones, an increase from 27% of employees in 2011.

There is no question that Slack, Skype for Business and Spark are changing the way in which we work. They facilitate an active flow of information between colleagues that one way communication simply cannot match. Their adoption represents a world far removed from a workplace reliant on voice, email and fax previously envisaged.

The data protection challenge

Obviously as 21st century technology, this is delivered from the cloud. This has the obvious advantages of being easy to deploy, simple to access, enabling collaboration across organisational and national boundaries and can allow business to pilot and experiment with solutions – even to use them on a workgroup by workgroup basis.

However, that does throw up a couple of interesting data protection issues.

>See also: 3 UCaaS innovations that can supercharge your business

First, if you are sharing documents and messaging you are transferring data, so where is that data being stored? The issue of data sovereignty can be very important in some markets and with some forms of data, so this needs to be understood and factored in when selecting products.

Second, who are you sharing data with? And what data are you sharing? All organisations have confidential information and much of it will be personal data and subject to data protection regulation – including the fast-looming GDPR.

With the increasing availability of freemium services, this is further compounded by some people taking a BYO approach to collaboration services. CIOs are having to get to grips with this new world – providing services that are appropriate, and setting out usage guidelines for their employees using third party tools, or tools that are licenced to partner organisations.

Moving to unified collaboration

Collaboration is here to stay – its benefits greatly outweigh any challenges it creates. But this is a brave new world. The traditional unified communications vendors are taking steps into this world of collaboration – and may have excellent offers. They enable full control of data, permissions, security and audit control and so offer the safest way to deploy collaboration tools.

However, these monolithic vendors also can’t keep up with the pace of change, and there will always be times when the agile start-up comes up with the tool that can really help an organisation. Thus the ultimate panacea of the single unified collaboration system to solve every problem may forever elude us.

Of what we can be absolutely sure, however, is that the blurring between communications and collaboration and between meetings and work, is here to stay.

 

Sourced by Rufus Grig, CTO at Maintel

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is the editor for Information Age. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and cyber security.