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Email, Collaboration and Conferencing – An Information Workers Lifeline

Email has been the single most important enterprise tool since the advent of computers. Almost everything related to information that needed some doing was done through email – communication, working together on information, delegating tasks, coordinating schedules.

But at the turn of the century, other tools for working together – document sharing, project management, intranets, shared calendars, forums etc started to gain in importance. These were popularized to a large extent by Microsoft’s “collaboration software” – SharePoint.

In the last 5 years, another team tool has become a big hit – web conferencing. Since teams are increasingly distributed, and regular in-person meetings are just not possible, web conferencing allows multiple people to get together and talk, discuss issues, and even work together remotely.

So Near, Yet so Far

Although conceptually different – business email, collaboration and web conferencing tools are closely related and need to keep interacting with each other. Email continues to be the knowledge workers’ hub, often used as a substitute document manager, when documents are sent back and forth as attachments. All collaboration systems keep workers appraised of changes with “notifications”, sent as email. Project management interacts with document management, as documents are often resources attached to tasks, or the task consists of working together on a specifications document, or a contact etc. Participants of a web conference call sometimes need to collaborate on a document while on call. Many other examples can be cited.

  Email, collaboration and conferencing are all thriving markets, but ironically, they are separate markets. In spite of the close interrelations, the three are offered as separate systems. Many companies have a separate Exchange server for messaging, a separate SharePoint server for collaboration, and a solution like WebEx for web conferencing. Three solutions to manage, thrice the cost, three consoles to visit.
 Part of the reason that they remained separate solutions is that large software vendors like Microsoft with a near monopoly on the market prefered to keep them separate – MS Exchange for messaging, SharePoint for collaboration, Communications Server for presence and IM and so on. This was evidently the more profitable approach for them, and there were’nt many competitive pressures from rival vendors or even from users for whom it was all part of the obscure world of IT and had never really been introduced to easier ways of doing things.

The Inevitable Marriage

With software moving to the cloud, and the movement of “consumerization of IT” where systems are sought to be made simple and usable, and brought out of the gilded towers of IT experts, a movement towards “unification” is inevitable. (This article talks is mainly concerned with cloud systems)

 Unification makes even more sense as these information tools become the hub of distributed workforces which barely or never get to meet in person. Switching back and forth between systems is bound to lead to inefficiency, confusion and frustration.

And this unification of collaboration suites is clearly in evidence, with Google driving the charge with Google Apps, which integrates email, document management, calendars, sites, forums, IM and other tools. Microsoft has followed suit with MS BPOS, which integrates Exchange, SharePoint and LiveMeeting, its well known communication, collaboration and conferencing tools, in an online environment. HyperOffice offers “total collaboration” tools – integrated email, collaboration, conferencing and workflow tools with a focus towards SMBs.

Interested readers may want to look at a recent study done by the SMB Group with indepth analysis on the major online collaboration suites in the market in terms of “SMB readiness” – Google Apps for Business, HyperOffice, IBM LotusLive, Microsoft BPOS, OnePlace, Salesforce Chatter, VMware Zimbra and Zoho.

Not Unified Communications – Defining this Nascent Market

Although this market “unifies” important business communication and information systems, it is not “unified communications”, a well-defined market. Although there is some overlap, “unified communications”, seeks to deliver a unified experience across communication systems – email, IM, telephony, mobility, FAX. This emphasis is also on “communication” systems.

The category of software we are talking about however, bring integrated communication AND collaboration tools, mainly in a web browser environment, thought they may interact with native software applications (Outlook, native mobile email/address books). “Total collaboration” or “unified communications and collaboration”, “integrated collaboration” or quite simply are some suggested names.

Benefits of Integrated Suites

  • Less solutions to manage – The immediate benefit is that you don’t have to manage multiple relationships with multiple vendors, or maintain multiple software tools. This saves effort.
  • Saved costs – Integrated suites are also inevitably cheaper than buying multiple tools piecemeal from different vendors.
  • Seamless exchange of data – As mentioned above, communications, collaboration and conferencing tools often need to interact with each other. Some examples – a contact management system needing to pull contacts from email, tasks involving working together on a document, meeting invites to be sent from the calendar system needing to pull contacts from the contact management system. If all these systems are separate APIs need to be created to move data between systems, or it needs to be moved manually. In an integrated system however, data in the form of documents, contacts, emails, tasks, discussions can seamlessly flow between different parts.
  • Greater innovation ability: Applying “irreducible complexity” to software – Although I am not from the anti evolution brigade, one of the arguments of its proponents is that of “irreducible complexity” – that some human organs (eye) couldn’t have evolved because it would required multiple subparts of the system to have evolved in tandem with a view to each other, and this is now how evolution works (it is incremental). Whether or not you understood the aforesaid, this can be applied to integrated suites. One part of the suite can be developed keeping the whole system and other parts in mind. This allows greater ability to innovate than in a single tool.
  • Less reliance on email and less email overload – As long as information workers continue to use email, there is a temptation to use email for everything. Sharing documents by sending emails back and forth as email attachments rather than using document management and causing document version chaos. Delegating tasks through email rather than project management. If all the tools were integrated in a single suite, there would be less temptation to use email for everything and using proper tools for each purpose. Read this article on how you can reduce email overload by using proper tools.
  • Better management of virtual teams – These days, communication and collaboration tools have become an important part of managing distributed workforces spread all over. A unified suite allows managers to delegate activities and monitor distributed subordinates, and for team members to access information and work together with others all in a single place. Read this article on how a charity used a collaboration suite to close its physical offices and make its operations “virtual”.
  • Overall increased productivity – With workers working better, managers managing better, increased productivity evidently results.

Specific examples of benefits of integrated tools

  •  Email and document management – As I have written a couple of times above, sending documents back and forth as attachments is a habit workers just cant seem to get over. One gets the “I told you so” feeling when someone loses some hair searching for a document in their inbox, or loses hours of work working on a wrong version. With integrated email and document management, documents need not be attached, but can simply point to the document lying in the document management system. With everyone working on the same copy of the document, the collaboration process will be tracked by the document management system, and everybody will always work off the latest version. Files are also easily found using search functionality rather than digging through old emails in an inbox.
  • Email and task management – Similarly, we also tend to use email to delegate tasks. As I can personally verify, this is a highly inefficient way of managing activities, as tasks often get lost and forgotten, and are only remembered when your boss breathes down your neck. HyperOffice recently released an enhancement where an email can be converted into a task and pushed into the project management system. Once in the PM system, the task can easily be traced, tracked, assigned or dealt any way a task should be.
  • Web conferencing, document management, contact management and calendars – Web conferencing participants often have to work together on files during the call. Although conferencing systems have rudimentary file sharing systems, an integrated document management system will allow conference participants to have all the benefits when they work together on a file. A contact management system integrated with web conferencing can simplify sending of meeting invites for a conference session, where invitees can simply be chosen from a drop down of contacts. Integrated calendars would allow users to compare meeting invites with their schedules from the calendar console itself, and join meetings with a simple click from the calendar, rather than having to remember “join conference” links.
  • Contact management and workflow tools – Management of contacts and workflows is closely related. Infact, this is what a CRM system largely does – a customer record evolves through different phases of a customer relationship (visitor, lead, qualified lead, trial subscriber, customer). Collaboration systems these days contain database tools which allow users to create simple workflows (CRM, order tracking). Pulling contacts from that contact management system into workflows would save the effort of manually entering data.

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