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Building a strategy for intercompany collaboration

Collaboration with external users is a challenge, especially when multiple platforms are involved. Learn the three factors IT should consider to support intercompany collaboration.

When businesses decide to invest in collaboration technologies, IT decision-makers are faced with many scenarios. Primary consideration will be given to making workers productive wherever they are based, but inevitably, decision-makers must address the need to collaborate with outside parties.

External collaboration is not new, and prior to the rise of unified communications (UC), businesses used tools such as telephony, email and fax. These tools work perfectly well as standalone applications, but the workplace is more collaborative today. For technology like UC and team collaboration to deliver full value, they must support both internal and external use cases. This is easier said than done, and the following guidance will help IT decision-makers develop a more holistic collaboration strategy.

1. Accept reality -- the collaboration space is messy

In a perfect world, all businesses would use a common platform for intercompany collaboration. While these platforms provide richer capabilities for communication and workflow management, they don't cross networks and firewalls as easily as emails or phone calls. Furthermore, there is no universal standard among collaboration offerings, so the more users interact with external parties, the more complex this becomes.

Microsoft may be close to universal on the desktop, but Teams is just one of many collaboration platforms users may need to interwork with. As with many other collaboration players, Microsoft has both on-premises and cloud-based platforms, so even when collaborating externally, IT can face challenges when both parties are Microsoft shops but use different platforms.

In addition to Microsoft, the collaboration market features a mix of incumbent vendors, like Cisco and Avaya, and an ever-growing number of cloud-native platforms with similar capabilities. For businesses considering collaboration services for the first time, the decision will be made based on how employees get work done. There are different use cases for UC platforms, like Microsoft Teams or Cisco Webex, compared to team collaboration offerings, like Slack.

As such, a successful approach to external collaboration is to accept the need to work across multiple platforms, which means IT will have to give up some control. Cloud adoption is only going to increase -- and that means more collaboration platforms. IT will not be able to dictate which platforms external parties can use. If IT isn't prepared to do that, then the ability to effectively support external collaboration will be limited.

2. Prioritize tradeoffs between features and control

Collaboration is just the latest technology where interoperability among competing offerings is a challenge. For intercompany collaboration, there are two basic interworking models -- guest access and federation -- and each model comes with tradeoffs.

Guest access is invitation-based and extends to individual users on a controlled basis. This tends to be the easiest and fastest way to enable external parties to have access to an organization's platform and collaboration environment. That said, collaboration platform licenses have a limited number of guest invitations, so this is not an evergreen option. IT also has limited control over the security settings of external guest users, so there is some security risk for company data.

Federation is based on allowing disparate platforms to interwork, rather than granting platform access to individual users. Federation has different models -- primarily open and direct -- but the key takeaway is this approach usually supports a limited feature set, including presence and messaging, and may not have the richer collaboration features, like file sharing and conferencing.

Conversely, IT has more control over external users than with guest access, so it's generally a more secure approach to protect corporate data not related to collaboration activities.

IT must consider which approach best supports the use cases for external collaboration. In cases where intercompany collaboration needs are fairly simple, then federation will be a better fit. Guest access may be best for users who need to work with a small number of external partners, as it's unlikely they'll max out guest licenses.

3. Determine which applications are most important

IT needs to assess which applications will best fit user needs for external collaboration. On one end of the spectrum, there will be workers who rely on conventional applications, like email, telephony and audio conferencing. This is typical in mature, regulated businesses, especially with an older demographic.

For those workers, legacy UC platforms will probably suffice, but they don't interoperate as easily as cloud-based platforms. As such, IT may be faced with two decisions for both the type of collaboration platform and the underlying deployment model.

There are two basic platform offerings: UC and team messaging. UC platforms are built more around communications needs, with a rich set of applications and integrations. First-generation UC offerings were premises-based, and while they might be highly familiar among the user base, they don't interoperate as easily with other platforms.

If premises-based UC presents challenges for external collaboration, it might be time for a cloud migration. Team messaging platforms, like Slack, are cloud-native. Slack's latest upgrade, Connect, is built with external collaboration in mind and could solve many collaboration challenges. But IT must keep in mind how it's fundamentally different from UC.

While UC is largely built around enabling multichannel communications, team messaging platforms focus more on workflow -- and communications is just an enabler. This environment is messaging-centric and eschews email and, to a large extent, telephony. If that reflects the way workers and external partners get things done, then team messaging will be the right choice.

IT has multiple scenarios to consider, and in order to be strategic about intercompany collaboration, it won't be enough to decide based on which platform works best with the company network. IT will get much better results by understanding which applications will be used the most for external collaboration, and that should dictate the choices for both deployment model and type of platform.

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