FEATURE: Mobile collaboration in the enterprise

Collaboration is at the heart of every enterprise, and is a space where CIOs can really get noticed across an entire organisation.

A fine line, however, separates whether they are noticed for good or bad reasons.

A senior director holding a video-conference on his iPad with his team in New York while in a taxi to Heathrow Airport may remember to thank his CIO at the next board meeting.

But when he realises that he’s unable to download the Dropbox file integral to his next meeting, and hasn’t been briefed on an alternative, he may change his mind.

IT teams therefore face a conundrum when defining their mobile collaboration strategy – having to juggle both the opportunities of the innovation and the security reservations. And such hesitation has meant that employee demand has exceeded actual deployment.

‘I’d say there’s now widespread recognition of the need for these solutions, but I think IT departments are definitely struggling to keep up with employee adoption,’ says Garry Veale, president of Avaya Europe.

The proliferation of smartphones and tablets among consumers, as well as the social applications that come with them, has driven expectations regarding user experience to an unprecedented level.

‘We’ve come to expect the same user experience and functionality at work as we get at home,’ Veale says. ‘Increasingly, that’s compelling organisations to invest in infrastructures that are flexible and robust enough to manage the variety of technology that employees want to use in the office.’

With this in mind, it has reached a point where a seamless user experience is crucial for the survival of enterprise apps.

For this to happen, vendors must work hard in 2014 to bring the design and functionality of enterprise applications up to the standard that users are accustomed to with consumer apps.

‘Professionals are accustomed to the ease of use and sleek design that they get from the apps they use in their personal lives, and want to carry that same kind of experience into the apps they use for the office,’ says Paul Steiner, general manager for EMEA at Accellion. ‘A sophisticated user interface and efficient user experience is crucial for any enterprise software or app offering that expects to thrive in the future.’

>See also: Mobile collaboration in 2014: 4 big predictions

However, regardless of whether organisations are making those investments, employees are pressing ahead with using these next-generation apps and collaborative solutions to go about their work on their personal devices. Such use is having a significant impact on business processes and security practices.

‘It is giving companies a huge cause for concern,’ says Andrew Mills, VP of Samsung’s enterprise business team for Europe. ‘You’ve got a huge demand from people in enterprises to have access to tools where they can share things.

‘That’s a huge concern because you’re potentially creating an uncontrolled platform upon which you might have people who are sharing confidential information.’

Keeping pace

Mills believes the real challenge for CIOs right now is to keep pace with the demands of their employees to be able to have access to these sorts of tools in the workplace.

To do that, they would have to either provide those tools or provide a secure platform upon which third-party tools can be used.

‘The intelligent CIO will have a multi-tiered approach depending upon the type of user and information that they’re using,’ Mill adds. ‘I would recommend to any CIO in those communities that are dealing with highly sensitive information to put the tools inside the firewall, or make sure that your third-party provider is giving you SLAs around security and encryption that meet your corporate standards for security.’

As with any evolving trends, vendors are queuing up to offer their own enterprise social networking products. But with adoption still at an early stage, CIOs are finding it difficult to measure the ROI of such an implementation.

To date, this question is mostly answered in the same way that people defend BYOD deployments: if employees are able to work and communication more and often and from anywhere, it stands to reason that there are significant gains to be made.

The main ROI comes from the savings in hardware costs when employees bring their own devices to work, according to Chintan Patel, head of solutions business development at Cisco.

Support and maintenance overheads are also apparently reduced, with the logic being that when employees use their own devices for work purposes, they tend to take much better care of them than they would a corporate device.

‘Having a truly distributed, mobile workforce also brings with it real estate cost savings, and means organisations can get more productive time from employees as they’re always connected,’ Patel adds.

>See also: Most UK businesses still not providing the right collaboration tools – report

Safe collaboration

However, security is a vital element in all of this. CIOs must consider what needs to be done to ensure that enterprise security isn’t compromised when primary collaboration shifts to mobile.

This is a cost that should not be forgotten when weighing up the pros and cons of investing in a mobile collaboration solution. ‘Security is key,’ says Martin Nurser, vice president of Qumu EMEA. ‘There needs to be access and control over all mobile devices used at work for collaboration on BYOD.’

IT should therefore manage who gets access to what. There is also the important aspect of having a strategy in place should a mobile device be lost or stolen, and guidelines as to what happens when an employee leaves.

Passwords need to be enforced, content security policies must be implemented, and compliance rules need to be in place.

‘This can be done by the IT department in part, but it is up to compliance to make sure that employees are aware of the issues involved and the company’s policies regarding mobile device usage,’ Nurser adds. ‘A sound, secure cloud infrastructure is also very important to prevent data leakage.’

Further considerations exist in relation to governance, risk and compliance policies. Having been largely defined for the generation of the PC, do they need to be written for the mobile age?

‘Yes, but they need not be drastically different,’ says Graham Fry, managing director at avsnet. ‘IT security constantly evolves to manage a changing threat landscape, but its fundamentals do not alter, especially how corporate data is accessed.

‘Organisations must still consider encryption, deep packet analysis, and device and user authentication to manage data flows.’

The time is now

This may all seem like a lot of work for solutions that ultimately lack in use cases demonstrating their ROI.

But with the mobility trend not looking like losing steam, combined with the evolution of cloud applications, few could disagree that mobile social collaboration is set to transform existing business models. The only question is when.

‘This transformation is happening now,’ answers Nelson Pereira, mobile solutions specialist at Software AG. ’Cloud-based social collaboration platforms in the workplace are already starting to make inroads into the previously dominant email world, as businesses and individuals recognise their ability to collaborate more effectively with large numbers of colleagues and third parties.’

The aforementioned new generation of employees who are joining the workforce have little to no experience of email, and so don’t see it as a primary communications platform.

Similarly, some businesses have already started to replace email with a variety of social collaboration platforms.

‘In doing this, firms have shown a willingness to trade a degree of security in placing content in the cloud, as they recognise the benefits as well as the risks of a more collaborative environment,’ Pereira says. ‘In order to manage this effectively, they are introducing strong use policies that incorporate a strict code of conduct, defining what users can and can’t do when using these social collaboration tools.’

>See also: Schneider Electric deploys Box for seamless global collaboration

But will 2014 be the year when a mobile collaboration strategy becomes critical to meeting business objectives?

One indication could be a recent report from IDC, which found that tablets outsold laptops and PCs in the fourth quarter of 2013.

James Campanini, vice president and general manager, EMEA at Blue Jeans Network, certainly thinks so. The increasing strength and speed of tablets and smartphones, as well as their ability to access essential tools and documents through the cloud, has made mobility a truly critical business application, he says.

‘It’s essential that businesses provide their staff with not only the essential mobile hardware, but also collaboration tools that can be accessed with ease from laptops, PCs tablets and smartphones alike.’

Laying down the law

Like many IT heads, Dean Mostert, director of ICT at Stephens Scown Solicitors, was faced with the challenge of outdated architecture when he wanted to support mobility within his organisation.

Remote working relies heavily on the communications infrastructure available. The use of BYOD or company-supplied devices will make no difference, and in some cases will be the same hardware type.

Where BYOD devices are used, additional policies and MDM software may need to be implemented, Mostert found.

‘Up until a few years ago, because of the way the firm had grown, we were running several legacy phone systems, which didn’t support IP communications,’ he says.

The company invested in a unified communications system from ShoreTel, which offered it a range of applications that make remote working much smoother.

‘I would recommend that firms like ours, which have geographically diverse offices and want to enable remote working, first go about centralising and securing their data,’ Mostert says.

‘Employees will be accessing it from all over the place, from cafes with Wi-Fi to trains. Many connections will not be secure, and therefore ensuring data security at source is vital.’

He also advises CIOs to review the mobile connectivity available. ‘You need to make sure that there is mobile coverage at least in the broader area you operate in, not just towns. Companies should also look at the other applications and tools available to facilitate remote working and improving client service.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...