Enterprises struggle with collaboration tools

While collaboration and communication technologies are widely acknowledged to be beneficial within the enterprise, surprisingly, less than half of Canadian and U.S. organizations have actually developed a strategy that they’re happy with.

The findings stem from a recent survey conducted by Coleman Parkes where CIOs and IT directors across North America and Europe were polled on their companies’ current digital collaboration strategies, in other words, how they’ve defined the use of unifying technologies to access data and people across the enterprise.

Forty-nine per cent of Canadian and 45 per cent of U.S. companies reported being currently satisfied with the impact of their collaboration and communication tools.

Traditional tools – e-mail, Web portals, video conferencing – are relatively well known and accepted within the enterprise, but not so for emerging unified communication methods, like enterprise search (archiving and accessing content across the enterprise) and presence (communicating with an individual via a single identity that’s device independent).

Although communication habits have quite successfully influenced slight variances in technology, one barrier to adoption of digital collaboration is the fact that people’s habits have yet to morph to work with new technology, said Jeff Kempiners, chief technology officer with Toronto-based IT consultancy firm Avanade Canada.

“We have not yet evolved our habits to fit the next generation of technology,” he said, adding that would include online whiteboards, workspace-based collaborative platforms, and real-time document repositories.

Kempiners notes that such tools can and do exist today, but education around the technology is sorely lacking.

However, that can change, he said, as long as the “two forces conspiring against us” are overcome.

First, changing communication habits will require the user to overcome that initial period of discomfort. Second, new features in a digital collaborative environment must be compelling enough for the user to want to overcome that learning curve.

Other challenges to adoption are the perception of exorbitant prices, and that tools are so “forward and advanced” that they’re unattainable, he said. “There is definitely a lack of understanding as to what some of the new and exciting features are and what they can bring to the business.”

If there is interest in digital collaborative tools, a company should bite the price bullet and invest in tools it knows it can manage and trust. Otherwise users will seek tools that are unsecured and unsanctioned by the enterprise, said Cheryl McKinnon, director for collaborative content management with Waterloo, Ont.-based Open Text Corp., a content management solutions provider.

“These are the sort of things that bring risk to the organization because we don’t know what kind of holes they’re leaving in the corporate network.”

And as with many new corporate initiatives, proponents almost always encounter internal pushback. “There’s always a journey management component in that people fear change,” said Kempiners.

He suggested mitigating such problems with a pilot program, whereby the tools are deployed to a small, dedicated group of users who have the potential to reap the most benefit, namely a mobile sales force, customer relation management professionals, and staff of geographically-disparate call centres.

Kempiners said digital collaborative tools are not technically difficult to introduce, but there are certain prerequisites to implementation, like “a good and comprehensive understanding of your security requirements,” although that doesn’t necessarily mean adding more security.

There should also be a good identity management system so, when searching for people, users can easily discern who they’re looking for.

The study also found, in the next two years, companies expect to broaden their repertoire of digital collaborative tools, in particular enterprise search, VoIP, videoconferencing and virtual workplaces.

According to Kempiners, as it stands, the majority of companies who adopt digital collaborative technologies do so with the mind to save money – which tools like VoIP and virtual workspaces certainly accomplish – but it’s seldom rooted in a desire to drive innovation or increase collaboration.

Some companies, however, do realize the technologies can grant them competitive differentiation by connecting users with existing and potential customers, as well as business, channel and trading partners, said Kempiners. “They’re finding synergies developed that they hadn’t necessarily imagined when they got started.”

Global, decentralized companies with distributed staff are in particular need of collaborative tools, said McKinnon. “Technology is an amazing enabler to bring people from different parts of the business, different geographies, different time zones into a cohesive workspace.”

Besides that, collaborative systems are good for ensuring intellectual property stays with the company, especially as senior staff begin retiring and taking knowledge with them, she said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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