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Making sense of unified communications and collaboration tools

The term "collaboration" has become very popular among unified communications (UC) vendors. Few distinguish between the different types of unified communications

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and collaboration tools they offer, making it difficult to identify the collaboration toolset that will best meet specific business needs. In this tip, we shed some light on how top vendors are defining collaboration based on the collaboration tools in their respective portfolio and outline three key points to help you determine which collaboration tools will best meet your communication requirements.

Unified communications and collaboration tools from top communications vendors

IBM was one of the first vendors to use the term "collaboration" almost three years ago, when "Unified Communications and Collaboration" was applied to its Lotus Sametime product line. The term "collaboration" is most notably linked to IBM Lotus Domino (email, calendar and applications platform) and IBM Quickr and IBM Lotus Connections -- IBM's collaborative workspace and social networks software packages.

Few distinguish between the different types of [UC] and collaboration tools they offer, making it difficult to identify the collaboration [tools to] best meet specific needs.

Marty Parker, UniComm Consulting

Since then, others began applying collaboration to their product lines. Cisco made a major branding shift within the past year. Cisco's Collaboration -- the company's VoIP product line -- includes Meeting Place conferencing, their video product lines and online services such as WebEx (online conferencing with voice, Web sharing, and video). Cisco also introduced the new Quad, the company's social community software product.

Avaya is also shifting toward collaboration with the Avaya Flare™ Experience, which they are now demonstrating on the Avaya Desktop Video Device (they don't call it a "tablet"). The Avaya Flare Experience is similar to Cisco Quad -- a social networking model that fetches documents as part of real-time communications. Learn more about enterprise social software in this news article.

ShoreTel, Siemens and others are also using the collaboration term, primarily to include their voice, Web and video conferencing products in customer solution planning.

Microsoft shares the lead with IBM in the Gartner Magic Quadrant for Horizontal Portals. Based on their market-leading positions with Office, SharePoint and Lync, Microsoft's emphasis is on the information worker’s productivity. Microsoft has built a foundation for collaborative workspaces, which they are now enhancing with Microsoft Lync, their latest unified communications release.

Understanding and selecting unified communications and collaboration tools

With that background, let's look at how unified communications and collaboration tools are used to communicate. Collaboration shows up in three broad categories:

1. Collaboration is considered a generic activity of information workers who interact with others to get information or resources and to discuss ideas or projects.

Communications investments in this category focus on collaboration tools that are accessible on the desktop -- both in the office and when mobile or remote. Almost always, presence technology in unified communications with instant messaging is the central collaboration tool since it enables users to see the availability of other workers and to have short interactions, even as a side bar when the other person is on the phone or in a meeting. In most cases, the instant messaging interface also allows click-to-communicate via voice, Web-document sharing or video. The instant messaging and voice options also work seamlessly from mobile devices, so the collaborative activities can proceed much more seamlessly than in the past. Some of the new device options include video options on mobile devices, but many adoption issues remain, including bandwidth and privacy.

Benefits in this category are usually not measured, but often are expressed as saving some number of minutes per day by simplifying repetitive tasks or reducing the number of wasted phone calls and voice messages.

The leading desktop solutions for these types of unified communications and collaboration tools are the Microsoft Office Communications Server (now Microsoft Lync) standard license and IBM Lotus Sametime standard license -- each of which are licensed to over 100 million enterprise users worldwide and are available as cloud-based solutions. Each of the VoIP suppliers also offers IM and presence functions with their products but with far fewer licensed users.

2. Collaboration is considered a business function relevant to various roles or jobs. In this category, the enterprise invests in collaboration tools to support group interactions for those jobs or roles.

Communications investments in this category focus on conferencing and on collaborative workspaces. All of the suppliers mentioned above, and many others, offer voice, Web and video conferencing functions. In most cases, users can dynamically select which combination of media they wish to use for their current collaborative tasks. Also, in most cases, these tools are available at the desktop as well as in conference rooms, with the desktop option growing rapidly since it removes the need for all parties to gather in a meeting room.

Collaborative workspace software is also critical for this category. Sometimes this is as simple as a shared drive (file structure) on the enterprise's network, but more often it is a portal-like workspace where key project documents are posted. Team progress and calendars can be maintained and pertinent collaboration tools such as blogs, wikis and persistent chat are provided for shared communications, and are proving much more efficient than e-mail strings.

Microsoft SharePoint and IBM Lotus Quickr are leaders in collaborative workspace software, along with dozens of other suppliers. Microsoft Lync and IBM Sametime integrate with other vendors' collaborative workspace software to provide UC tools inside the workspaces.

Benefits in this category are often measured and include faster project completion rates attributable to less lag time in group interactions, reduced travel due to conferencing and higher work quality, since consistent reference documents and records are available to all.

3. Collaboration is core to specific revenue producing and/or enterprise management business processes. In this category, the enterprise designs solutions specifically for these purposes.

Communications investments in this category are usually seen as purpose-built application packages. Salesforce.com and Siebel Sales are examples of collaboration for sales personnel where all the communications functions (voice, Web, video, recording, email, IM/chat, presence) are built directly into the application software. Similar solutions exist or are emerging across every industry, usually focused on specific job types (such as communications-enabled electronic health records in hospitals to improve care and lower costs).

Suppliers in this category are those with the best application development platforms that contain both the application interfaces and the communications functionality. IBM (connecting WebSphere with Lotus Sametime) and Microsoft (linking .NET with the Lync platform and APIs) are leading participants, especially with their large development communities. SAP, Salesforce.com, Cerner Corp., (healthcare), and many others are including communications functions in their portfolios, either directly or via partnerships and alliances. Of course, the VoIP system suppliers, often building on their call center toolsets, can also contribute to this category.

Benefits in this category are usually major improvements in business processes that also produce significant reductions in costs, labor and asset usage and/or significant increases in customer loyalty, competitive differentiation, and market share.

In all three of the categories above, enterprises are finding ways to include their customers and supply chain partners in the collaborative processes. Examples include federating or establishing secure channels between two companies' IM and presence systems (Category 1), inviting customers into conferencing sessions or into shared workspaces (Category 2) and providing customer/partner-specific portals or other interaction tools (Category 3).

In summary, collaboration is an important business process. Collaboration is a high-cost process for the enterprise since it usually involves many highly-paid information workers. Collaboration is also a high-leverage process since it impacts the speed and responsiveness of the enterprise and thus is usually a very worthwhile project for your enterprise.

Many suppliers are using the term collaboration and documenting their branding results in customer case studies, though few of them are carefully distinguishing the different types of unified communications and collaboration tools they offer based on the categories above. We encourage review of your business processes and of the jobs and roles of the people participating in those processes. From this review, you can design collaboration solutions that match your requirements and that will produce measurable benefits.

About the author: Marty Parker is the co-founder of UniComm Consulting, an independent consulting firm providing strategy, planning and implementation support for enterprises in all industry segments. Parker is also the co-founder of UCStrategies.com, a leading forum for UC information and dialogue. He is committed to the advancement of UC to produce new benefits and efficiencies in enterprise communications, and to stimulate and justify innovation in the business communications industry.

This was first published in December 2010

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