By Anthony Bartolo, Senior Vice president, Unified Communications & Collaboration, Tata Communications
Network capacity is abundant. Data is everywhere. Today, the world’s information workers can communicate across continents, collapsing barriers once imposed by time and geography.
Yet when it comes to communication, there’s still work to be done. Email has replaced the telephone as the dominant tool in our working lives. In one minute, users across the globe are sending 204 million emails. This means in 1 hour 12,240,000,000 emails find a new recipient – a number that is hard to imagine. But email has its limitations. Users become overloaded with information, but all too often, the information they need is locked away as an attachment, inaccessible on the organisation’s server.
This explains why deploying social collaboration tools is becoming an ever-more urgent priority for enterprises everywhere. It is becoming increasingly crucial to connect employees internally and to enable them to work more effectively with external stakeholders such as customers and partners. However, as many are discovering, the challenges can be significant. It can be difficult to connect closed and proprietary social platforms with the context of everyday workflow, which is necessary if they’re to become widely used. Mobile, social, gamification and video: all can become part of the social enterprise’s toolkit. But we’re a long way from fusing these feature sets. Inside the enterprise, social platforms remain predominantly text-based.
The flexibility and interoperability of open APIs (application programming interface)address these challenges. Because of their accessibility, enterprises can customise theAPI-based tools they build. This will allow enterprises to design and refine social tools until they are a perfect fit for the enterprise business processes and IT architecture and their employees,thereby maximising participation and productivity gains as workforces become geographically disparate and as businesses look to expand their customer and partner base into new markets.
To illustrate, WebRTC is an emerging open source technology platform that embeds real-time voice, text and video communications capabilities within Web browsers. Because WebRTC is browser-based, it also opens the door to collaboration whereit’s needed: not within yet another stand-alone application, but within the browser, where most of us do most of our work. Open APIs available with WebRTC can enable the ultimate aim of enterprise social networking development efforts: a fusion of mobile, social, gamification and video into a single collaboration platform for end users.
Next-generation collaboration tools that extend seamlessly across the enterprise and beyond are a natural extension of mobile and social trends in consumer markets. If enterprises can deploy tools of this kind to liberate information workers, the potential for productivity gains are substantial.
2) State of play: collaboration technology today
Consider this: in the 19th century, stockbrokers swapped gossip on the floor of the London Stock Exchange; today, in the 21st century, traders send each other instant messages from their Bloomberg terminals. Clearly, the way we communicate and exchange critical informationhasevolved with the times.
Mobile workers areincreasingly usingnew forms of communication such as virtual meetings, mobile video conferencing and telecommuting to make their skills available globally without the need for actual relocation. Such mobile workers account for between 7% and 8% of the working population.
According to Ericsson, global mobile penetration stands at 6.4 billion subscriptions with around 4.5 billion unique subscribers. Already, 50% of mobiles sold are smartphones and with this, by 2018, video is expected to drive around half of the world’s mobile data traffic withmobile data traffic (currently running at 1,200 petabytes/month) beingexpected to hit nearly 14,000 petabytes/month.
Despite the exploding growth in demand, networks have never been cheaper to use and capacity has never been so abundant. In 1990, a three-minute transatlantic phone call cost over $3. Today, the same conversation costs a few pennies.Looking beyond voice, an average of 19.1 billion OTT messages (almost free) were sent every day during 2012.
Networks collapse the boundaries of distance: they enable vast global supply chains, as well as productive partnerships between large enterprises and small start-ups. Today, even the smallest of companies can work with partners and suppliers on a global basis, collaborating remotely with people from different countries, language and cultural backgrounds. As multinational corporations seek additional sources of growth in the developing world, they are becoming increasingly dependent on newly-established local subsidiaries and partnerships of this kind. Globalisation relies upon networks, and in particular, the peer-to-peer networking of the Internet.
Data, like network capacity, has never been more plentiful. The amount of digital data created annually by mankind continues to explode. In 2005, by one estimate, we created 130 exabytes of data; in 2020, we will create 40,000 exabytes (around 5,200 gigabytes for every man, woman and child on the planet!).
With the increasing adoption of internet-on-the-go on smartphone devices, developing regions are quickly catching up to high-income economies. According to a World Bank report, the number of mobile-broadband subscriptions in developing countries increased more than ten times between 2007 and 2011, from 43 million to 472 million. In fact, the Africa region had the highest growth rate, where mobile-broadband subscriptions increased from 14 million in 2010 to 38 million in 2011. The report evidently states that developing economies may be “leapfrogging developed economies, combining the growing access to mobile technology with mobile-broadband Internet access to improve access to communication and information.”
Increasingly, employees are becoming knowledge workers. They are expected to use and evaluate data and information to perform their jobs faster and to make better decisions.Yet employees and enterprises are also victims of information overload. Their existing toolset doesn’t help. While enterprises don’t lack tools for communication, very often, the problem is fragmentation – at the level of the individual desktop. No single application or platform encompasses all of an information worker’s needs: search, knowledge management, workflow and collaboration. In addition, where collaboration tools exist, they frequently stand alone or are proprietary tools. To offer maximum benefit, they should be embedded within the applications that dominate an employee’s working day – whether that’s a Bloomberg terminal or the front end of an ERP platform.
Much of the data we deal with during working hours is unstructured. Most of it remains locked up in word processing documents, emails, spreadsheets, images and video that cannot easily be located or used. Increasingly, enterprises are confronted with a challenge: how can they help their employees become more productive by offering frictionless access to the right information, in the right context, at the right time?
One group of employees, in particular, stands to gain from enhanced collaboration within the enterprise as well as with external stakeholders: the so-called ‘interaction workers’, an employment category that includes (among others) lawyers, engineers, sales people and customer service representatives.
Interaction workers spend the majority of their working hours (on average, around 65% of their time) collaborating and communicating. Within this block of time, they spend 28% of their working week reading, writing or responding to email, and a further 19% searching for information.
Among interaction workers’ work-cycle, inefficiency is deeply engrained. The emails they spend so much time reading and composing are destined for one-time consumption by a small audience (very often, limited to the person the email is addressed to).Whether it involves locating a document or an excerpt, searching for information is often a deeply frustrating process.
There are at least two reasons for this. The first is a relative lack of metadata – whether that’s an absence of tags on server-based documents to facilitate automated searches, or poor visibility of internal experts within the company. Ironically, the fall-back position for many interaction workers involves voice calls and emails that often begin with the apologetic words, “I wonder if you might be able to help me. . .”
McKinsey describes interaction workers as the fastest-growing employment category in advanced economies. However, while supply chain management, robotics, e-commerce and ERP systems have made physical and transactional work more efficient in factories, warehouses and retail outlets, IT has made little progress in improving the productivity levels of interaction workers.
The need for improved collaboration inside enterprises and with customers and partners becomes clear when we start to consider what collaboration has done for consumers. During the past two decades, consumers have seized the lion’s share of the economic surplus created first by the web and e-commerce and, more recently, by social platforms.Enterprises have responded, by using social media to maintain and deepen links with their customers.
Increasingly, however, companies need to balance their outbound agility by focusing upon the need to boost collaboration within the enterprise. By doing so, enterprises will generate their own “social dividend”. The future of internal collaboration is a natural evolution of the social and mobile trends that have shaped business over the past few years.
This explains why collaboration technologies (workflow) jumped into fourth place on Gartner’s list of top 10 CIO business and technology priorities this year. This increased interest is being driven by the enterprise as a whole. According to a recent survey conducted by MIT Sloan Management Review, approximately 70% of CEOs, CIOs and CMOs agree with the suggestion that social technologies represent “an opportunity to fundamentally change the way we work”.
Fundamental change may well be needed. As enterprises are becoming more reliant on data, demographic trends point to a looming scarcity of college-educated workers. By 2020, the McKinsey Global Institute predicts a shortfall of 18m college-educated workers in the world’s advanced economies, creating a substantial demand for “skill-saving” technologies that speed up communication and improve collaboration.
Change in the workplace is already driving adoption. According to a study of enterprise social media adoption by AIIM, the US-based professional association of information managers, 60% of enterprises are either using social technologies in an ad hoc way, have partially implemented social technologies or are working on a strategy for targeted usage. Moving forward, we expect enterprises to recognise the potential of social technologies to increase the productivity of customer and partner communication and collaboration too.
3) Communications nirvana: where we need to be
We can define the future of collaboration by focusing on what’s wrong with it today. For a majority of users, collaboration platforms are low on usability, high on awkwardness and frequently fragmented. For enterprises, collaboration platforms are typically low on customisation potential and high on cost. The result is a long way from a viable recipe for mass adoption. It says much about our situation that several decades after the birth of the internet, email and plain-vanilla telephony remain the dominant communication tools for most employees.
Nearly a century ago, the British-born economist Ronald Coase asked why advanced economies mostly consist of companies doing business with consumers and each other, rather than tens of millions of atomised self-employed individuals trading goods and services with one other. Forming companies, Coase reasoned, was simply an efficient way of acquiring the resources required for production. By keeping certain functions in-house, management and shareholders avoid a range of transaction costs associated with seeking out goods and services on the open market.
Some of the open market transaction costs avoided by companies relate to law and contracts. For example, if a CEO can rely upon an internal IT department to provide computing capacity, he or she avoids the transaction cost of policing an outsourcing contract.
However, many of the transaction costs relate to knowledge and collaboration. On the open market, transaction costs of this kind tend to be high. It can be difficult to obtain information; trust, law enforcement and trade secrets are all problematic. By contrast, information flows more smoothly inside the borders of a business. Trust levels are higher, and as a result, transaction costs are lower. Companies gain the advantage because the free internal flow of information has the potential to transform them into powerhouses of accumulated know-how.
One of the main challenges of corporate life is accessing that accumulated know-how. This can become difficult for a variety of reasons, leading to what Coase famously described as “decreasing returns to the entrepreneur function”. Put simply, this involves the tendency for overwhelmed managers (or staff) to make mistakes when it comes to resource allocation.
Ronald Coase’s theory of the firm underlines an often-forgotten truth: collaboration isn’t merely a nice-to-have cultural tendency. It’s an essential quality of all successful companies. Companies that don’t collaborate smoothly amongst themselves or with their external stakeholder groups will eventually find it hard to justify their existence.
For enterprises and small companies alike, the aim must be to reduce transaction costs by making collaboration simpler and quicker. The potential for ubiquitous real-time collaboration inside enterprises as well as with customers and partners,using voice, video calling, instant messaging and data, remains vast. Here are a few examples:
(i) Global collaboration: Collaboration platforms allow enterprises to bring together internal teamsand to work together more effectively with their partners and customers, regardless of location constraints.
(ii) Bounded co-creation:Companies can solve more challenges, and do so rapidly, by integrating trusted partners, customers, collaborators, contractors and freelance workers into tightly-knit, ad hoc, teams.
(iii) Workflow collaboration: Giving employees the ability to discover internal experts and partners who can improve their performance by sharing knowledge on the fly.
(iv) Sharing tacit strategic knowledge: By allowing access to recordings of past meetings and presentations, companies can make life easier for team-mates, new employees and newly promoted employees alike.
(v) Sharing tactical knowledge: For example, by popularising wikis containing employee-generated guidelines, workarounds, what-if scenarios, hints and tips;resources like this can liberate interaction workers: if they spend less time reinventing the wheel, they can spend more time with clients.
(vi) Recognition:Widely-used collaboration platforms can be used to recognise and thank colleagues and partners for their work
(vii) Recruitment: Social media is a great external recruitment tool. Social collaboration platforms inside the enterprise can help managers and HR executives to identify candidates for staff projects or promotion.
(viii) E-learning:In the academic world, universities are starting to capitalise on the potential of massively open online courses (MOOCs), to extend teaching activities far beyond campus-based lecture halls. Enterprises can do the same, developing their own collaborative learning courses, free from the constraints of time zone and location.
4) Drivers, barriers and platforms
Seamless communication is the missing component in many business processes. When it arrives, processes speed up and outcomes improve – often across a wide span of both internal and external activities.
In particular, any enterprise that becomes fully-networked (in a behavioural as well as a technological sense) stands to reap rewards by opening up previously hidden, or poorly promoted, sources of internal expertise. In an effort to highlight this, one recent research study asked corporate information managers about their experience of installing a system that allowed employees to ask (and answer) questions of each other. After deployment, employees started asking questions using the system.
The response (summarised in Figure 4 below) strongly suggests that enabling collaboration triggers the emergence of substantial amount of previously untapped expertise. In particular, 32% of respondents noted that answers to employees’ questions were coming “equally from expected and unexpected sources”.
The view from the C-suite looks slightly different. According to MIT Sloan Management Review, 45% of enterprises with a “maturing” approach to social networks use them to “improve identification of internal talent”. A similar number use social platforms to “improve visibility into operations”, looking for process bottlenecks and opportunities to increase productivity.
All of this is good. But hard thinking is also required. Improving collaboration isn’t merely about deploying an application: it involves important decisions about culture, organisation and infrastructure. There are risks to be managed. Among them:
- The need to secure intellectual property
- The need to protect brand reputation (if it’s on an external platform)
- Potentially negative productivity effects from poorly-designed collaborative tools
- The risk of poor quality employee-generated content
- The need for enterprise-wide social media literacy
The explosion of social platforms in consumer markets has primed employees to collaborate. But in another sense, the way in which corporate collaboration tools work – potentially across the enterprise, rather than among small teams – may also cut across traditional employee loyalties to small groups. The traditional temptation to hoard information locally will remain powerful.
Some managers may find employees’ increased social reach challenging. Collaboration flattens hierarchies: just as social technologies have a tendency to collapse physical distance, they can blur traditional distinctions between managers and workers. As employees become better equipped to make decisions, power tends to flow from the centre to the edges of organisations.
This can also create risks. In response, employees need to become socially literate. But many managers, especially those who favour a command and control approach, will need to adjust to a much more fluid working environment. The same is going to be true for managers who define their value to the organisation in terms of accumulated deep knowledge of precedents and work-arounds. Arguably, the value of the social dividend is reduced if employees receive broader and faster access to internal expertise and knowledge, but still need to refer the same volume of decisions upwards for resolution. Here, an equal and opposite risk emerges, as employees become less enthusiastic about collaboration, precisely because they are not allowed to act upon the knowledge they discover.
Seamless collaboration doesn’t just descend on desktops, tablets and smartphones, fully formed and ready for action. Ideally, enterprises need to consider how they are going to make information assets discoverable.
Search is an underrated component of collaboration. If a company wants to help employees locate information more rapidly to make sales activities more effective, targeted and productive, it will need to formulate and enforce policies for metadata – the tags that allow documents, messages, images and other forms of unstructured data to be discovered and (re)used. The results shouldn’t be underestimated: McKinsey, for example, estimates that a fully searchable database of social knowledge-sharing inside any company would reduce the time employees spend looking for information internally by up to 35%.
Developing collaboration platforms involves making the right data available to employees, in the right context, at the right time. Here, context is all-important. Embedding collaborative tools within frequently-used workflow applications may well require those applications to be redesigned.
Traditionally, IT departments tend to excel at storing and protecting large volumes of data. However, relatively few CIOs can confidently say that their organisations generate significant value from data. Increasingly, IT professionals need to become accustomed to demands of this kind. Collaboration enables the creation of value from data – not just among c-level executives, but right across the organisation. IT is pivotal to delivering on the promise of the company as a storehouse of know-how, enjoying a competitive advantage against the broader market on the basis of employees’ willingness and ability to share.
5) APIs: The power of openness
The case for seamlessly connecting employees across the enterprise and empowering them to connect seamlessly with their key stakeholdersin a way that complements their workflowis clear. Employees are ready for it. Businesses will become more productive as a result. Customers and partners, too, will benefit from better service and enhanced collaboration.
There’s nothing new about this readiness. Since the mid-1990s, technologists have been working on integrating workflow with a myriad of different communications channels, including instant messaging, telephony, video conferencing, voicemail, email and text messaging. (This aspiration is often labelled Unified Communications or UC for short.)
However, 20 years later, despite some welcome advances, a majority of enterprises (and employees) still find themselves struggling with parallel and separate communication platforms. Most startling of all, integration with workflow internally and especially externally remains the exception rather than the rule.
Why? The answer has a lot to do with expensive, proprietary, technologies, which imposed very high development costs and long deployment horizons on enterprises. Generally speaking, the results included relatively low levels of customisation for individual enterprises. The idea of iterating an application that had been developed in-house until it became a perfect fit for a specific set of employees became prohibitively expensive.
All of this may be about to change, courtesy of APIs. Their benefits for developers, enterprises and individual users includerevenue generation and driving innovation.Dion Hinchcliffe, Executive Vice President of Strategy at Dachis Group, a consultancy focusing on social technologies for businesses, has also highlighted company sustainability as a key benefit of APIs, offering the ability to “cost effectively scale a company’s businesses in many simultaneous new directions as well as tap the ingenuity of a large partner ecosystem”.While traditional business partnerships, joint ventures and product integrations are costly and complex to maintain, APIsbring “nearly effortless, asymmetric scale”.
Arguably, our browsers have become the single most important tool we use to work and interact. However, browsers remain curiously limited tools. Without plug-ins and downloads, they don’t handle peer-to-peer video or audio communication particularly well. Plug-ins and downloads may sound like a minor inconvenience, but they’re more than that. Downloading, installing and updating them can be complicated, resulting in errors, especially now with multiple mobile devices. Maintenance and troubleshooting is time-consuming. It’s frequently difficult to persuade people to install them.
Browser-based interoperability opens the door to a device-agnostic approach. Any device running a browser should be able to connect its owner to a collaboration application. On the road, in the office and at home – collaboration platforms need to be universally accessible. Open standardswill finally give employees the tools to communicate seamlessly with anyone, wherever they are, with the device of their choice, without having to disrupt their workflow – imagine it being as simple as that.
An example of an API is a bundle of technologies known as WebRTC that promises to bring key attributes of the World Wide Web into heart of the enterprise: speed, scale and interoperability.
Open sourced by Google in May 2011, WebRTC has become an ambitious industry-wide effort to transform browsers into hubs for real-time communication to connect enterprises globally.The guiding principles of the WebRTC project are that its APIs should be open source, free, standardised – and built into web browsers. Increasingly, this is happening (WebRTC is already present in the latest versions of Chrome and Firefox). Sitting in the background, working with applications, WebRTC will increasingly allow browsers to become multimedia communication hubs. For individual employees, this means access to video and voice calling, as well as instant messaging – all embedded within the browser they keep open all day long on their desktop.WebRTC remains an early stage technology, but among developers, the excitement is palpable. And it’s not just the future of collaboration that could be transformed. As Sam Dutton, a member of Google’s London-based developer relations team puts it, WebRTC has the potential to “democratise and decentralise tools for content creation and communication—for telephony, gaming, video production, music making, news gathering and many other applications”.
In an ideal world where millions of employees in many different organisations use an open API-enabled browser; collaboration within organisations and with external stakeholders will become easier, simpler and faster. Yet, if enterprises want collaboration to succeed, they need to listen to their employees and understand their needs – and to experiment persistently. Like a start-up, IT departments developing collaboration tools for the enterprise need to launch minimum viable products – and watch to see what works and what doesn’t. Increasingly, the reduced costs associated with API-based development will allow enterprises to work this way.
Open APIs such as WebRTC is a way of bringing video calling to the browser, offering millions of information workers a highly affordable, on-the-fly, alternative to traditional video conferencing and telepresence. They have disruptive potential as a platform for enterprise collaboration, one that integrates text, audio and video interaction in a way that’s highly customisable, and which integrates tightly with existing workflows.
APIs may well prove to be the missing link that allows developers of enterprise social networks to focus upon what really matters: building collaborative tools. These could have the potential to relentlessly pull new users into their orbit, extending the reach of enterprise collaboration inside enterprises and between organisations substantially.
This is a prize worth having. When researchers ask executives why they deploy collaboration tools, answers proliferate. For many, the ability to acquire knowledge and ask questions is most important. For others, it’s listening and monitoring. For yet others, the main attraction is generating ideas for new products and services (not just from customers who use Twitter, but from employees, too). Amid all of this, two main drivers stand out: increased employee productivity and better managerial insight into operational challenges.
During the past century, the transaction costs that offer the company an economically rational response to the chaos of the market have changed, but they haven’t gone away. In the 21st century, liberating knowledge and facilitating the sharing of that knowledge remains a key objective for all managers. Improved collaboration tools remain the most obvious way of enhancing productivity amongst companies, their customers and partners. In a fragmented market full of proprietary solutions, open APIs may well emerge as the best way of achieving this goal.