Is UC the Best Solution for Collaboration?
Waves of disruption seem to be the norm in the UC space these days, and we touched on some during our last podcast. For a while now, the UC vendors have been emphasizing collaboration, to the point where UC&C has become the moniker of choice. While the technology keeps maturing, adoption has lagged expectations, largely because the value proposition is so hard to pin down. My view is that this shift reflects the fact that collaboration outcomes now resonate more as a value driver than the impact UC has on IT and the networks they manage.
To varying degrees the UC vendors we all know have extended their platforms to address collaboration needs but is this sufficient in today’s market? Even when cloud-based, these solutions still have legacy DNA, and given how broadly collaboration can be defined, getting an exact overlap between the solution and the problem is really hard to do. Exacerbating the situation is the difficulty that business decision-makers have defining collaboration, not to mention tying it to specific outcomes so they can measure ROI.
The UC approach to collaboration
Given these challenges, most vendors have tried to address collaboration by enhancing their existing UC platforms with new capabilities rather than wiping the slate clean and building a solution from the ground up. This works to some extent and will keep a segment of the market happy, namely the fast followers and laggards who don’t really have a firm handle of what forms collaboration can take today.
Cisco and Unify are the most notable exceptions, as they have taken the ground-up approach with Spark and Circuit, and more recently, Interactive Intelligence has followed suit with PureCloud. These solutions are based on a very different premise than UC, namely being cloud-based, mobile-centric, and built around short-form communication, often text-based. While it’s not clear if there’s a viable business model here, these vendors recognize that collaboration in 2015 is different from even just a few years ago.
The appeal has always been there to have an integrated platform where all your workplace applications are in one place, accessible from any Internet connection. By supporting a rich mix of voice and text, as well as real time and near real-time, these platforms would appear to be a killer app. Google tried with Wave and did not succeed. Cisco had variations in the form of WebEx Social and Quad. More recently, Microsoft tried bringing Yammer into the Office environment to foster collaboration, but that was short lived.
Clearly, these approaches to collaboration are not working, either because the timing was off, or big vendors are simply too hamstrung by their installed base and internal culture may just not be aligned with what today’s workforce really needs. Full credit is due for what Cisco and Unify have done with standalone collaboration solutions, but these are really the exceptions among the established cadre of UC vendors.
The next wave of collaboration
By now, you should be familiar with the momentum coming from a new class of companies building purpose-built collaboration platforms. Slack is the runaway success story, but many others are growing quickly, such as Fuze, HipChat, Redbooth and Bitrix. With freemium models being common here, it’s not clear how viable these players will be, but for now, anyone looking for a collaboration solution needs to at least acknowledge this parallel universe that exists outside the UC realm. This trend could just be a blip, but I think they represent the vanguard for what collaboration is going to look like as Millennials come to dominate the workforce.
Of course, these solutions only address part of the collaboration problem set, so they really aren’t UC-killers. If anything, they should be viewed as savvy complements to UC that can be part of an overall collaboration strategy. To see that, however, both businesses and channels need to understand what they’re doing differently from UC vendors. In short, I see three things.
1. They are solving today’s problems with today’s tools. These companies exist because they got tired of the limitations of legacy applications such as email and telephony. Not only are they inefficient in terms of connecting quickly with people, but their business utility is diluted by all the personal use activity clogging up inboxes. When it comes to internal collaboration where ad hoc group work is the norm, these applications cannot compete with IM, chat, video, etc.
2. These platforms are sticky – really sticky. Slack claims users are engaged 10 hours a day, and while that sounds amped up, what drives this new form of collaboration is having persistent communication. This is the thinking behind Spark and Unify, and it’s totally native to these collaboration platforms. To collaborate effectively, the applications need to be where the people are. Some people may spend 10 hours a day on email, but you can’t collaborate there. They certainly don’t spend that much time on the phone, but their mobile devices are always on, so if all their collaboration applications are just a mouse click or a finger touch away, that’s what they’re going to use. Arguably, UC can do all this too, but mobile integration has never been a strong point to date, putting those vendors behind the curve for what these end users are gravitating to.
3. They let end users define the experience. Whereas UC vendors provide a fully integrated solution that leverages their portfolio of applications, these providers are largely a conduit for a multitude of third party applications that end users can pick and choose as their collaboration needs dictate. The list is growing constantly, and includes many of the standard applications you’ll find in any UC platform, but also many others that are specific to either a business line function or a vertical market. The key value-add is having search across all these so team members can keep track of everything and everyone they’re interacting with.
There’s more than one approach to collaboration, and collaboration itself will continue taking on new forms. Nobody has a total read on where this space is going, but it’s clear that UC is not the only model around which a collaboration solution can be built. As such, channels need to think more broadly when businesses ask about how their employees can collaborate better.
Regardless of how current businesses are on these trends, it’s not really fair to them to only offer collaboration solutions as part of a UC offering. The value-add opportunity for channels comes from knowing the broader landscape, and being able to offer options that blend the old with the new so to speak. If you don’t do that, your customers will eventually come across these other offerings, and if that does the job they’ll have less reason to do business with you.