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Enterprise collaboration tools reach C level

Even CIOs and other executives are starting to put importance on their company’s collaboration technology toolset. Here’s how CIOs and other senior IT pros are thinking about enterprise collaboration today.

It was 2017, and Yan Carle, manager of IT architecture and planning at Reliance Home Comfort, was planning a collaboration technology upgrade.

Part of what prompted him was his concern about the future. New hires, Carle feared, wouldn’t chomp at the bit to work for a company that lagged in enterprise collaboration tools. Younger workers, he noted, gravitated toward tools like Snapchat and Instagram, not Microsoft Outlook.

Carle wanted to be proactive and introduce videoconferencing tools for meetings, real-time chat applications and cloud storage. An enterprise collaboration tool upgrade would position the Toronto-based Reliance Home Comfort, which sells heating, cooling, plumbing, water treatment equipment and other services, as a forward-looking workplace that encouraged a collaborative culture.

“Young people will come out of university, and have [used] certain products at school,” Carle emphasized. “If they work for Reliance, they [might say they want] videoconferencing and cloud-based storage. It’s embarrassing to say, ‘Sorry, we don’t have that’ to new hires,” he recalled.

The objective, Carle explained, is to provide workers with tools to get more done, more easily. “We want users to be more productive on a daily basis, to help them to reduce the time it takes to achieve tasks,” Carle said.

Using collaboration to keep with the pace of business

Experts agree that collaboration tools have taken on a new importance as the pace of business has sped up.

“We want to execute quicker. We want to make decisions faster,” said Alan Lepofsky, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research. “People want immediacy, and that can be a challenge in the enterprise. But [collaboration] tools are starting to find ways to embrace that.”

We want to help [users] reduce the time it takes to achieve tasks.

Yan Carle, manager of IT architecture and planning, Reliance Home Comfort

Reliance Home Comfort is hardly alone in using enterprise collaboration tools to enhance worker productivity and teamwork. Many companies now use enterprise collaboration tools to provide shared environments in which workers can chat in real time, edit files, meet via video-conference and even brainstorm on whiteboards.

Data suggests collaboration tools can boost productivity—for companies ready to embrace them. According to Dimension Data, 86% of some 900 enterprise respondents experienced an increase in worker productivity by using enterprise collaboration tools. Data also suggests that collaboration technology can jump-start product innovation, where workers can design better products when they collaborate more extensively.

At the same time, many companies are still building out their collaboration portfolio. According to the preliminary Cisco report “The Future of Work,” only 43% of 1,300-plus respondents say that they have the tools in place to enable collaboration, with about 45% saying they will have to build in these tools over the next three years.

But there’s no doubt that executives see the enormous benefits. That’s because, Lepofsky said, collaboration technology is getting easier to use.

“I can do things much more seamlessly than I could in the past,” Lepofsky said. “The user interfaces are a lot better. They aren’t as clunky and don’t require as much training.”

The user interfaces are a lot better. They aren’t as clunky and don’t require as much training.

Alan Lepofksy, vice president and principal analyst, Constellation Research

Reliance Home Comfort's CIO Celso Mello agreed that ease of use is the cornerstone of success with enterprise collaboration tools. “[More complex] tools might provide more functionality,” he said. “But if that seamless, intuitive functionality isn’t there, you might not see as much adoption.”

Connecting the dots with collaboration

For some companies, even simple chat tools help them keep pace with the new speed of business. Consider the commodities and equities market, which requires the exchange of myriad data points, including the real time, fluctuating price of goods.

Joe Held, a former CIO of Reader's Digest and Standard & Poor's and the current CIO of S&P Global, said that collaboration technology, and specifically chat, is the lifeblood for traders.

Oil commodities traders, for example, need real-time information about the production and transportation of crude oil. Once oil is produced and pumped, its price and destination can change several times, depending on factors including the price at the destination and weather. Real-time chat and collaboration tools help traders stay connected on all the factors affecting the price of oil; the trader with the best information wins.

“You can provide an estimate of what the price of oil will be at a destination—and that’s critical information for a trader,” Held said. “You’re getting information faster that can be very accurate, with some estimate on financial impact on that cargo. If you can aggregate the real-time chat information with oil production and pricing data, you can sell that to traders.”

Integration problems can stall enterprise collaboration

User adoption has improved. But what about integration among tools? According to Spiceworks, a professional network for the IT industry , more than 90% of enterprises use multiple collaboration tools or platforms. This creates a patchwork of tools, many of which serve different and sometimes overlapping functions—though the tools themselves may not integrate easily. Users want one application that can serve all their collaboration needs, and IT managers don't want to have to struggle to get multiple applications to work together. 

This became clear to Carle as he mapped out the introduction of new collaboration tools. He realized he would need to update existing technology systems first, with his upgrade expected to take about a year.

“What I’m working on right now is how we will integrate all these tools,” Carle explained. “It’s not enough to enable cloud-based drives and give access to all users. That could be a mess [unless we have] a good implementation plan, integration plan, and training plan.”

Tools also need to integrate with other business applications, workflows and key processes. Otherwise, the business of communicating becomes another hurdle and time sink rather than an information enhancer.

“The real value is when you integrate [collaboration tools] and have them connect to your own business operations,” Held said.

While integration continues to bring complexity, experts see progress.

“Suites these days allow integration with other products,” Lepofsky said. “The vendors are cooperating more than they ever have in the past.”

Reducing the work of collaboration

Ultimately, users need tools that are easy to use and that enhance their processes without requiring a ton of effort. Information overload and multiple streams of information need to be resolved.

“We have too much information coming at us, and it’s coming from too many places,” Lepofsky said. “I have to now check my email, check my calendar, check my SMS, check my Webex, check my streams. The amount of channels has become a massive issue.”

New technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and digital assistants, could become immensely useful in parsing, categorizing and digesting all that information. That echoes recent Cisco data, which found that 70% of workers believe new technologies like virtual assistants could improve their work lives.

Information overload and multiple streams of information need to be resolved.

“This is one of those areas where AI can help, where Siri can tell me, ‘Alan, these are all the files that you need to have [to prepare for this meeting],'” Lepofsky said. “And I can tell my digital assistant, ‘I want all these files displayed on my screen at once.’”

If new technology is poised to make collaboration tools more effective, the human element is also essential. User training, said technologists, is key to broad-based user adoption.

“Without proper training, people tend to use the new tool the same way they used the old tool,” Reliance Comfort’s Mello said. “And that isn’t the way these tools are intended to be used.”

Accordingly, Reliance Comfort’s Carle has developed a plan to designate superusers within each department who can help train colleagues. “Make them the loud voice of what can be done—have them be the voice of functionality,” Carle emphasized.

Future capabilities in collaboration tools

The pace of business is unlikely to slow, and information overload seems destined to persist. That’s where collaboration tools could yield their greatest success: in better enabling humans to manage the data deluge this new pace of business has wrought.

Technologists and experts alike say that artificial intelligence, video capabilities and voice-activated devices will transform enterprise collaboration tools, bringing new, intuitive capabilities to existing technologies. Reliance Comfort’s Mello said that digital assistants like Siri, Cortana and Alexa could conceivably mature to be the kinds of “killer apps” that eventually put an end to email altogether.

With digital assistants, where users can speak to activate commands, “Communication becomes seamless, human, natural,” Mello said. “That’s when email could be replaced. But until then, just a new chatting tool or collaboration tool won’t replace email.”

Lepofsky agreed that digital assistants—especially those bolstered by AI—could liberate knowledge workers from routine tasks and make them far more strategic and productive.

Without proper training, people tend to use the new tool the same way they used the old tool.

Celso Mello, CIO, Reliance Home Comfort

Natural-language processing, for example, could enable us to categorize and access information without elaborate search equations. “AI could free us up from the mundane [tasks we perform each day],” Lepofsky predicted.

Security, however, may continue to be an obstacle. According to recent Cisco data, nearly 65% of workers worry that technologies such as digital assistants pose security risks.

“Security is a concern,” Held said. “Bad actors want to use data for criminal activity. And they only need a few seconds’ jump on the market to take advantage of that.”

Collaboration suites have varying levels of security, but platforms with rigorous security controls include capabilities such as enabling security settings to prevent unwanted attendees from attending a meeting, granular password control and user-identity validation.

Former CIO Held also noted that video is critical to a more collaborative future, enabling verification of information.

“With video, you can see the body language,” Held said. “When integrated with other forms of collaboration, it reinforces or invalidates what you are reading or hearing. It gives you the provenance of information in a different way. It’s another piece of information to give you an edge—and everybody is looking for an edge.”

Lepofsky said that videoconferencing is indeed critical; it is poised to become more beneficial once it’s combined with other capabilities, such as augmented reality.

“We still don’t have the haptic feedback in video meetings that we have in the real world,” Lepofsky noted. “We can high-five or hug or pass a piece of paper in the real world, but not on a videoconference. But what if we could? What if we could high-five in a meeting and feel it? What if we could have a videoconference with [some attendees appearing as holograms], like the scene from the movie Kingsman? All those things are coming.”

As new capabilities such as AI, augmented reality and digital assistants converge with collaboration tools, the possibilities of teamwork will evolve and morph. As enterprise collaboration tools continue to become easier to use and more intuitive, they promise to do more of what workers have wanted all along: to communicate and exchange ideas effectively and effortlessly. With these users on the front lines of exploration and experimentation, expect enterprise collaboration tools to push the boundaries of what we thought was possible.

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Lauren Horwitz

Lauren Horwitz is the managing editor of Cisco.com, where she covers the IT infrastructure market and develops content strategy. Previously, Horwitz was a senior executive editor in the Business Applications and Architecture group at TechTarget;, a senior editor at Cutter Consortium, an IT research firm; and an editor at the American Prospect, a political journal. She has received awards from American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), a min Best of the Web award and the Kimmerling Prize for best graduate paper for her editing work on the journal article "The Fluid Jurisprudence of Israel's Emergency Powers.”