Let's get engaged... the case for collaboration

In this blog post, Let’s get Engaged – the case for Collaboration, an abridged version originally published at www.silverbug.it, I look at some of the broader issues relating to Unified Communications and Collaboration (UC&C) that should be considered when thinking about deploying a collaborative working solution.

Last year, Software Advice, a US telecommunications research company, compiled some market research concerning Unified Communications. To do this they conducted a one-day online survey of 6 questions, and gathered 2,017 responses from random small business owners and employees within the United States.

The key findings of this research are:

  • The most important UC capability for respondents is single-number identity
  • Two-thirds of respondents currently have no way to access presence information
  • Respondents say the primary benefit of UC is having a user’s communication tools located all in one place

All of which I find quite… deflating.

This isn’t to say this research is poor research – far from it as with the pedigree of being a Gartner company, Software Advice must have some pretty smart people on board.

But if, after more than a decade, the sum total of people’s expectations about Unified Communications is a single telephone number, “presence” information and “all the communications tools in one place”, then the industry has done a pretty poor job of communicating what Unified Communications is all about.

And maybe this isn’t surprising. The Wikipedia definition of Unified Communications is so long, I’m surprised if anyone ever gets to the end of it: “Unified communications (UC) is the integration of real-time, enterprise, communication services such as instant messaging (chat), presence information, voice (including IP telephony), mobility features (including extension mobility and single number reach), audio, web & video conferencing, fixed-mobile convergence (FMC), desktop sharing, data sharing (including web connected electronic interactive whiteboards), call control and speech recognition with non-real-time communication services such as unified messaging (integrated voicemail, e-mail, SMS and fax).”

See what I mean?

Surely the bar can be raised on all this? I mean if Presence information, a feature innovated in the late 1990s, is seen to be the pinnacle of technological wonderment, then what has the industry been doing for the last 15 to 20 years?

The stage is set for the Collaborative Workspace

Research conducted by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UK CES) and published in their report “The Future of Work: Jobs and Skills in 2030” in February 2014, shows that there are 13 major trends across 5 key areas that are shaping businesses today, as represented in the radar diagram below:

Source: The Future of Work, jobs & Skills in 2030, UKSES 2014

Source: The Future of Work, jobs & Skills in 2030, UKSES 2014

The specific trends that IT can help with are:

  • Converging technologies and cross disciplinary skills
  • ICT development and the age of big data
  • Digitisation of production
  • New business ecosystems
  • Shift to Asia (or any other international/national area)
  • Growing demand for better work/life balance
  • Changing work environments

Let’s examine each of these factors:

Converging technologies and cross-disciplinary skills - Voice and data technologies have been converging on IP for years, and this enables new collaboration applications to be developed. Lync (Skype for Business), Office365 and Yammer are exactly this. Fixed and mobile communications have also been converging – Skype for Business is platform and network independent and works across Windows PCs, Macs, iOS devices and Windows phone devices. This means that where ever their staff are, and whichever devices they prefer to use, they can collaborate to solve problems.

Clearly, cross-disciplinary or inter-disciplinary skills require communication between different skills. As these teams are often widely dispersed, good quality networking and multi-functional tools are essential. Ad-hoc audio and video conferencing, shared electronic whiteboards and private social networks such as Yammer, all eliminate distance and increase the effectiveness of collaboration.

ICT Development and the age of big data- There is no point in locking up all of a company’s data in silos that a few privileged ivory-tower occupying priests have access to. Innovation comes from the crunching together of unexpected ideas, so opening up data for analysis by a wider base of employees will reveal information about your customer’s business that perhaps they never knew.

Digitisation of production- Everything, from films to physical goods, is being produced digitally. Many films have been and are produced digitally, by globally disparate teams collaborating on at least one project at a time. 3D printing is in its infancy, but the quality of goods being produced is increasing all the time, even body parts are being 3D printed. Diverse skills and teams are needed ensure these complex items are designed and produced as required, along with suitable network technologies to transfer the super-large files that digital production needs. Collaborative working tools, with shared whiteboards and screen - even videos of products - is the enabler for this type of working.

New business ecosystems - The internet and WWW have radically changed the way business works and the type of businesses that exist, and there’s no sign of this rate of change slowing down. Technology has been the enabler of this – “always on” connectivity, mobile phones and tablets, and now platform independent communications tools.

Anyone can set up a business today in a matter of hours, if not minutes and have all the communications and productivity tools needed for exactly the number of people needed – and as that number changes, so too to does the mix of tools change.

By “federating” instances of Skype for Business, creating “virtual directories”, organisations from primary schools to mega-corporations can create linked collaboration tools across their entire supply chain so that calls are free and secure, and collaboration can take place across the supply chain.

Shift to Asia (or other international location)- Different time zones and huge geographic diversity meant huge barriers for effective working in the past. However now that multi-party video calls with screen sharing can take place over high speed, high quality networks at the push of a button, distance has effectively been abolished. Not only can multiple teams of people see each other, but documents can be shared and worked on simultaneously and even physical goods can be inspected remotely by using inbuilt and ubiquitous video cameras.

Growing desire for better work life balance - Flexible Working Legislation 2014 - Anyone in the UK can now ask for the ability to work flexibly, employers have to have very strong reasons for denying the practice. From date of request (only one request per employee per year is allowed), employers have three months to consider the request. They can only refuse the request for flexile working on one of the following 8 grounds:

  1. Burden of additional costs
  2. Detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand
  3. Inability to re-organise work amongst existing staff
  4. Inability to recruit additional staff
  5. Detrimental impact on quality
  6. Detrimental impact on performance
  7. Insufficient work during the periods employee proposes
  8. Planned structural changes to the business

Changing working environments - Work places and working modes are under pressure to increase flexibility and to adapt to business volatility. Outsourcing and the increasing internationalisation of businesses are leading to a rise of project and teamwork with external collaborators. Additionally, continuous digital training is becoming necessary.

As staff work more flexibly, “hot desking” becomes normal. This can mean a reduction is size of office space, or more people in the same office space. This is a techniques called “overbooking”, which is the same principle that hotels use for room bookings. IT can provide the secure infrastructure and applications to support this flexible working style.

Galluping away

“The State of the Global Workplace: Employee Engagement Insights for Business Leaders Worldwide” report from Gallup, is based on their analysis of 263 research studies across 192 organizations in 49 industries and 34 countries. Researchers studied 49,928 business/work units, including nearly 1.4 million employees.

The result of all this research is staggering:

Globally, only 13% of workers are “Engaged” in their work. In the UK things are marginally better with 17% being “Engaged” in their work. This means that in the UK, the remaining 83% of the workforce is being carried by this 17%!


Gallup says that organizations with an average of 9.3 engaged employees for every actively disengaged employee in 2010-2011 experienced 147% higher Earnings per Share (EPS) compared with their competition in 2011-2012. In contrast, they say, those with an average of 2.6 engaged employees for every actively disengaged employee experienced 2% lower EPS compared with their competition during that same time period.

As a result, the conclusion they reach is that the need to build highly engaged workplaces is more important than ever. Engaged workers are the lifeblood of their organizations. Work units in the top 25% of Gallup’s Q12 Client Database have significantly higher productivity, profitability, and customer ratings, less turnover and absenteeism, and fewer safety incidents than those in the bottom 25%.

Active disengagement is an immense drain on economies throughout the world. In the United Kingdom, actively disengaged employees cost the country between £52 billion and £70 billion (US$83 billion and $112 billion) per year.

It’s elementary Watson

The Towers Watson “2O12 Global Workforce Study” which surveyed 32,000 employees from around the world, is complementary with, but separate from, the Gallup report and shows that an engaged workforce contributes significantly to the financial strength of a company:

Using the employee-level data from this study, Towers Watson also examined the relationship between sustainable engagement, productivity and retention metrics. They found that highly engaged employees have lower “presenteeism” (lost productivity at work) and less absenteeism than disengaged employees.

In addition, highly engaged employees are less likely to leave their employer than disengaged employees, so reducing the costs of staff churn.

Aberdeen’s rules

Aberdeen Group’s 2012 “The Rules of Employee Engagement: Communicating, Collaborating and Aligning with the Business” report says that there are three things that best-in-class companies are doing to ensure engagement through collaboration is achieved:

  • Integrated talent management to drive engagement
  • Include contingent (and flexible) labour
  • Use Social Networking

According to Aberdeen Group, social media has transformed the way organisations identify, develop and retain talent. It offers greater collaboration, communications and enhanced branding (both external AND internal) – all of which are elements that strengthen employee engagement. Private social media tools such as Yammer (like a private Facebook) are known as enterprise social tools:

CIO Technology priorities – Gartner Executive Program

The annual Gartner “CIO Agenda Report” is informed by the world’s largest annual CIO survey, which for the past 12 years has tracked how CIOs balance their business, strategic, technical and management priorities.

The results of these surveys are pretty clear – Collaboration was ranked in 2013 as the 4th most important priority and has increased in importance since 2010:

Gartner CIO priorities 2010-2013

Gartner CIO priorities 2010-2013

A second opinion

IBM’s CIO Insights study is based on 1,600 face-to-face conversations with CIOs from 70 countries and 20 industries worldwide and reflects results that are in keeping with Gartners’ and shows that Collaboration has increased in relevance and importance since 2009:

In addition, IBM’s report suggests that 82% of CIOs in outperforming enterprises aim to install social business tools to help employees and partners “pool their brains” (or collaborate, in proper English), compared with just 69% of CIOs in underperforming enterprises.

The IT Kitbag

If we think about all the tools in the IT kitbag, there is really only Unified Communications that can provide a collaboration solution. UC is often called UC&C with the second C standing for Collaboration, and several movers and shakers in the industry are now referring to the entire solution as Collaboration, as opposed to Unified Communications.

According to Information Week’s “2014 State of Unified Communications” report, 62% of companies cite “Improving employee collaboration” as the No1 business driver for deploying UC:

In the same report, “Improved employee collaboration” and “Employee productivity and job satisfaction” are ranked as the top two elements considered in ROI calculations for Unified Communications deployments.

Collaboration defined

But of course collaboration isn’t a technology, it’s a human thing. We collaborate to get stuff done, we collaborate to survive. My dictionary defines it as follows:

collaborate |kəˈlabəreɪt| verb [ no obj. ] 1) work jointly on an activity or project: he collaborated with him on numerous hotel projects. 2) cooperate traitorously with an enemy: during the last war they collaborated with the Nazis. ORIGIN late 19th cent.: from Latincollaborat- ‘worked with’, from the verb collaborare, from col- ‘together’ + laborare ‘to work’.

All that “collaboration solutions” do is to remove distance, to allow us to collaborate as if we were still in the same room.

Flexible working – it’s not just working from home

New legislation came into force on 20/6/2014 in the UK, which gave all employees with at least 26 weeks of continuous employment the right to ask for flexible working. There are 10 different categories of flexible working:

  • Part time
  • Annualised hours
  • Compressed Hours
  • Flextime
  • Home Working
  • Job-sharing
  • Self-rostering
  • Shift working
  • Staggered Hours
  • Term-time

Most of these are obvious in their meaning, however some need further explanation:

Annualised hours - an employee works a certain number of hours over the whole year, but with a certain degree of flexibility about when those hours are worked.

Compressed hours - an employee works full-time hours, but over fewer days.

Self-rostering - teams work out their own shifts in order to provide as much choice as possible to team members to meet their preferences and circumstances.

As a result of this legislation, there are multiple reference s to the benefits of flexible working, and these show that flexible working is inextricably linked to engagement and productivity. What’s more, these apply to companies of all sizes, not just the large ones. Extracts from three major studies are shown here:

  • HM Government Consultation of Flexible Working 2012
  • CIPD Flexible Working report 2012
  • CBI Employment Trends Survey 2013

Bringing it all together

There is a clear link between Flexible Working, Collaboration, Engagement and Productivity. The logic stacks up like this:

  • Why work flexibly? Because it increases engagement
  • Why does engagement matter? Because it increases productivity
  • Why should organisations work collaboratively? Because it increases engagement and enables flexible working and so increases productivity
  • Why use collaborative technology? Because it eliminates distance from your collaborative way of working and enables flexible working which in turn increases engagement

Here are a list of benefits that collaborative working provides a selected list of stakeholders:

And all this seems to me to be a far more meaningful and exciting proposition than having a single number identity.