Should Collaboration Be the Holy Grail?

Jan 03, 2016

My colleague Elka Popova recently posted on the state of the unified communications and collaboration market, identifying several key reasons why UCC tools haven’t taken the enterprise by storm—despite an ever growing array of features and an awful lot of marketing muscle from industry leaders, including Avaya, Cisco, and Microsoft (to name only a few of the scores of players in the space).

Elka rightly focuses on the technology barriers to UCC—namely, that the “unified” part has never really come to fruition, and when it has it usually introduces more complexity and cost. But when it comes to UCC, there is another big elephant in the room: exactly how much do knowledge workers want, or even need, to collaborate on a regular basis?

The UCC market sprung up in parallel with the increasingly mobile and dispersed workplace most organizations have witnessed evolve over the past decade. With less than half of all knowledge workers based out of a corporate office in 2015, it seems reasonable to assume we need technology to enable the kind of cohesive, you-are-there experience we remember from the days of yore, when we all worked in the same place and finding colleagues—and the information they hold—was as easy as walking down the hall. The goal of UCC has always been to make it easier for employees to locate one another, virtually, from anywhere, on any network or device. Presence lets us see who’s available; Voice over IP and the various flavors of conferencing let us communicate as needed; and newer collaboration tools like Circuit and Spark let us work together on projects in real time and offline, sharing content and messages in a single, persistent location.

The problem is, none of that actually mimics the real world—or, rather, it mimics the things about the real world employees dislike the most. Recently, the Times has run a number of articles and op-eds about the negative (and largely unforeseen) consequences of the “open office” trend: no one can concentrate, people feel they are constantly being watched, it’s loud and distracting, and nothing gets done.

Now, an open office essentially tries to do in an actual office what UCC tools try to do for a virtual one: make it easy to see, identify, and interact with colleagues on demand. The problem is, most knowledge workers do most of their actual work alone. Sure, once written, documents and spreadsheets need to be reviewed and approved; yes, we sometimes need input from multiple departments before we can call something final; of course, we often require information that is located in someone else’s head (or digital files). But the actual work? That’s done, most of the time, by one person. Sitting at a desk. More often than not, under noise-cancelling headphones.

If you ask me, this is the main reason advanced UCC tools just haven’t caught on. Once the CIO and CFO see the cost savings from IP communications, there simply isn’t enough value to justify the rest. Why? Because they don’t enhance how most of us actually work.

That’s not to say there wouldn’t be enormous value in getting everyone within an organization to be more collaborative—there would. The problem is, that a social challenge, not a technological one. UCC tools can’t effect the change and better than open-offices can—and indeed, in some cases, they may make it worse. 

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Melanie Turek


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