Better collaboration tools essential for virtual team productivity

A new survey points to the need for integrated and easy-to-use collaboration tools to help a growing number of virtual teams increase productivity.

Collaboration is one of this year's hot topics -- probably next year's too. And the focus on collaboration will continue as bring your own device (BYOD) and cloud services fan the flames of virtual teamwork, where workers don't necessarily meet in physical locations to collaborate. But are collaboration tools really improving virtual productivity, or are we becoming virtual islands in a sea of collaboration tools?

A new Siemens Enterprise Communications survey highlights collaboration challenges showing 79% of respondents are part of a distributed team, but only 44% of those people find virtual teams as effective as working face to face.

Yet, most businesses haven't focused on better and more integrated collaboration tools as mobile and remote access to the corporate network increases. Sure, users can bring their own devices to work, but that doesn't mean they can suddenly share documents or have a video conference with the rest of the BYODers.

I think the problem with UC, frankly, has been that it's not unified.

Zeus Kerravalla, founder, ZK Research

Many unified communications (UC) and collaboration applications and systems exist in silos, so virtual workers rely on the tried and true technology. The vast majority of respondents to the Siemens survey said email (93%) and telephone (89%) are their most commonly used collaboration tools.

This is a pretty last-gen scenario considering how many years UC has been an acronym. Still, 54% of respondents felt those tools are sufficient. On the other hand, people work with what they know and understand. According to the 320 respondents of the Siemens survey, the majority of whom were from North America, almost half (43%) feel frustrated or overwhelmed by their collaboration tools. Translated, that probably means that they have access to applications or tools that aren't integrated into their routine work processes or that the complexity takes more time to figure out than it saves.

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If the best way for teams to work is face to face, collaboration tools should emulate that model as much as possible. This isn't one more tired argument about why people need to work in the same location; any number of studies show that remote workers are productive. But anyone can understand that productivity quickly heads south when there are 20 people on an audio conference call.

Full-fledged UC that integrates every communications application, including video, into one easy-to-use interface is still the stuff of dreams. Scrambling between applications and remembering different passwords takes more time rather than less, even though sometimes a document gets shared.

Siemens launched a campaign to promote communications solutions that can redefine the way virtual teams work -- in a good way. Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst of ZK Research, agrees with the Siemens' vision: "I think the problem with UC, frankly, has been that it's not unified.

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The best option would be to embed collaborative functionality within the applications employees already use. "The closer we can get to working at a virtual conference room table, the more effective the collaboration tools are. But today we have to adjust our work style because of the nature of the tools."

So what would make virtual teams productive? A good start, according to Jeff Vail, head of global corporate marketing for Siemens Enterprise Communications, would be an integrated UC platform that can integrate all of your communications applications, transcribe discussions, switch media instantly and offer end users a searchable portal that knows all of your passwords.

"Businesses aren't equipped to capture the best effort of virtual teams," Vail said, talking to me and one of my virtual teammates via telephone.

There's also the question of who drives this change within the business. According to the Siemens survey, only 8% of organizations have processes in place to help ensure optimal team output. The best person for the job probably has a stake in virtual team productivity. That doesn't point right at IT, but instead at someone who runs a virtual team.

There are other vendors on the right path besides Siemens, of course. Chicago-based IOCOM is a good example. Visimeet, its software-based enterprise video-conferencing and collaboration product, was first developed with Argonne National Laboratory. Although it isn't a household name, Visimeet is flexible: It can be downloaded to mobile devices and laptops, and used in a traditional client-server model or as cloud-based Software as a Service (SaaS). Kerravalla pointed to Magor, a visual collaboration company based in Ottawa that provides what is best described as a virtual workspace.

So if good collaborative products are out there, what's the problem?

Vendors in the collaboration market need to offer tools that fit into the way virtual workers actually work rather than making the worker change processes, Kerravalla said. "There's too much work on the user front-end to make these things effective. Collaboration tools need a lot more integration and automation by the vendors to make this happen," he added.

Improving virtual team productivity, of course, points to a huge opportunity for Siemens, as well as other UC and collaboration vendors. And I wish them speedy success.

This was first published in October 2012

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