Collaboration — In the UC Context

There’s been a lot of discussion of “Collaboration” lately, what with Cisco’s use of the term as another redefinition of their marketing messages and positioning, as well as with the continued advancement of collaboration platforms from IBM, Microsoft, Google, and many others.

Fortunately, we realized the importance of collaboration from the beginning at UCStrategies.com.  Our definition of UC incorporates collaborative tools, as “Communications integrated to optimize business processes.”  As you’ve heard or read, all of the collaboration offers promote the value proposition of optimizing business processes and outcomes by incorporating any number of communications methods and tools — ranging across voice conference calls, persistent chat, web-conferencing/desktop sharing, collaborative workspaces, and with video options in most of these. 

Also, our June 2007 article, “Top UC Applications Are Now Apparent,” highlighted “Collaboration Acceleration” as one of the top five UC applications.  The other four top applications focus on other parts of the enterprise value chain (both business and public sector), but certainly collaborative roles are in the spotlight. 

Here are some additional thoughts that might be helpful to expand the conversation about this interesting topic. 

First, on the definition of and applications for “collaboration”.    Definitions at Wikipedia, Mirriam-Webster, and Business Dictionary.com all point to the concept of two or more persons working towards a shared goal.  Links are: 

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collaboration

Mirriam-Webster On-Line:  http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/COLLABORATION

BusinessDictionary.com:  http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/collaboration.html

Layers of functionality are shown, from informal communications to structured communications (also known as the collaboration layer) to collaboration (and Project) management software.   In some cases, collaboration also relates to negotiation strategies, whether friendly or not.   

This leads to one observation on this point of definitions.  While possibly everyone could be included in collaboration, that is like saying everyone is water since we are all 62% made of H2O.   But, if we think of collaboration as a business activity, it’s a different story.  Depending on how you wish to count jobs and roles, only a small portion of jobs are primarily “collaborative” (research and development, marketing, university faculty, legislators, and some senior management roles, for examples).  However, many others are not primarily “collaborative”, such as retail clerks, most culinary workers, most manufacturing / logistics / transportation jobs (I would not want a collaborative airline pilot, for example –  “Hey, Joe, do you think we should follow the ATC instructions, or not?”), primary education teachers (using defined lesson plans), non-physician or non-nurse medical practitioners, etc.  

In support of those points, the experts define collaboration in three layers:

At:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collaborative_software#The_Three_levels_of_collaboration

Wikipedia contributors sort all communications into three categories:  Conversations, transactions, and collaboration.  The suggestions in the prior paragraphs reflect these distinctions. 

Then, since we are talking about communications technology applied to optimizing business processes, the industry generally categorizes Collaboration as Groupware with further distinctions between Collaborative Management Tools (including communications tools and UC types of tools as defined by Blair) and Collaborative Project Management tools.

If you look at this link:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_collaborative_software you will see there are about 50 providers of open source or free collaborative software and about 76 providers of proprietary collaborative software applications, one (1) of which is Cisco’s WebEx while there are five (5) each from Microsoft and IBM, as well as entries from Adobe, Oracle and EMC.  

So, as Cisco begins to group all communications under the Collaboration umbrella, they are heading into a crowded space in which they are far from a leadership position and will be challenged in battles with the likes of IBM and Microsoft.   Actually, IBM showed some insight with their positioning of Unified Communications and Collaboration (UC2).   That avoids the problem of all collaboration being communications.    This move may be important for Cisco as they seem to be repositioning their communications applications (for investors, customers and prospects) beyond the IP Telephony and Unified Communications markets in which Cisco now has major share, but is unlikely to become dominant in any near term.

Of course, Collaboration consumes video!!!  And video drives bandwidth.   Perhaps the many new video announcements could be called HBC – High Bandwidth Communications — just to be perfectly clear!  That the new video-equipped phones might be in a branch office and that the video might consume all the MPLS bandwidth provisioned for phone calls is just a detail that can be addressed by upgrading the network.

So, to loop back to the naming of Collaboration in context with Unified Communications, the foresight of the UCStrategies.com definition is only underlined and reinforced by Cisco’s announcement.  Our definition of UC as “Communications integrated to optimize business processes” embraces all that Cisco announced last week. 

However, this is not just about Cisco.  Many other suppliers have alternative names related to UC, as you have read here on UCStrategies.com from time to time.  And, we’ll see many more variations, since Unified Communications is now a core element of the enterprise communications market (see the 2009 Gartner Magic Quadrant for Corporate Telephony) and everyone wants to have a unique position in that growing element of the market.  

Change the name, change the slogan, change the marketing messages, even enhance the products, but the end measure of value is whether a communications-related business process has been improved (or optimized).  John Chambers emphasized that his new distributed council-based management methods are far better (optimized) than the old command and control methods and he asserts that the optimization was enabled by the integration of new (video-based) collaboration tools.   Sounds like a case study for our definition of UC, seems to me.

This has been a good opportunity to refresh the conversation on the definition of UC.  Thanks, Cisco, for the “stimulus package”.   

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