The last year has been quite interesting with a constantly shifting landscape of social media, visual collaboration and unified communications. Social collaboration, a combination of these, is becoming a significant trend and driving the behavior of key manufacturers and software companies. At the same time, businesses of all sizes are beginning to see social collaboration as a key component of their communications strategy.

Point in case, Cisco announced Cisco WebEx Social earlier this week. Originally marketed under the Cisco Quad brand, WebEx Social is an attempt at 2 key things: 1) Expand the incredibly well known Webex brand into the social enterprise space and 2) Create a “hub” for an organization’s collaboration efforts. At the same time, there are rumors of Microsoft looking to acquire Yammer, another provider of social enterprise software.

Cisco and Microsoft are following suit behind Salesforce.com’s continued expansion of their Chatter social platform, Jive Software’s IPO and popularity (another social software company), and about a dozen or so smaller companies vying for a company’s social business.

The key trend emerging is about interaction and communication. As organizations continue to explore social collaboration, they have to ask themselves a key question. What kind of interactions do we want to foster? Organizations can either focus on internal communications by making sure employees can collaborate in the most effective way possible. Or, they can expand those interactions outside the company, making collaboration with partners, vendors and customers possible.

With those questions answered, a company can look to implement the aforementioned “hub.” With this in place, employees have a single starting point for all of their interactions; they can interact with people through IM, chat, and ultimately launch a web conferencing session, voice call, or video conference. This level of integration provides a seamless way for employees to move from one form of collaboration to another. It provides a new meaning for unified communications and will help drive adoption of the technology in addition to foster a team environment.

At the end of the day, all of these technologies are pretty amazing. But, what are the true business benefits? How do employee interactions increase productivity and aid the bottom line?

For one, the cliché “two minds are better than one” holds true; employee interactions with partners, customers and other employees increase productivity through knowledge sharing. As employees interact, they share different tips, think creatively and produce ideas that can improve products or processes and ultimately drive true innovation. All of these aspects have a direct, and dramatic, impact on a firm’s bottom line.

In the coming weeks we will explore in more detail how these different types of interactions can improve an organization’s performance.  Stay tuned!

This post is part of a series covering the benefits of social collaboration within an organization.

Part Two: Unified Communications, Unified People
Part Three: The Power of Business Partnerships
Part Four: Using Collaboration to Increase Customer Lifetime Value

Would You Like Fries with Your Video Call?

Sample advertising in a Skype call

Late last week Skype announced Conversation Ads within their calling window. The ads will start appearing only in 1:1 audio calls but Skype has already mentioned additional “commercial experiences” in the future. So advertising during Skype video calls is certainly a possibility. Although, for paid customers, it appears the ads will not be present.

Skype is a fantastic application, great for linking family and friends, as well as easily pulling in remote employees into video meetings. But, do you want to build your organization’s entire strategy behind it? Improved bandwidth and cameras have helped blur the lines between Skype calls and business video calls; and at times, they can be indistinguishable.

But when Skype decides to make a big change, like building advertising into calls, it can cause all sorts of issues. Do you want the CEO of your company taking a video call with an advertisement for maple syrup?  I don’t think so!

The key to Skype, is using it to compliment your business video environment. If you have implemented Polycom, Cisco, Lifesize, Radvision, or some other technology, a cloud service can provide the link between those higher-end business calls and Skype. It is important to maintain those solutions and use them for business critical meetings. Skype should be used sparingly!

In situations where remote participants are looking to connect from a mobile device (iPad, Smartphone) or from a remote location, Skype makes perfect sense. The best way to think about these meetings is to focus on the fact that the reach of the meeting is more important than achieving the highest audio and video quality. We’ve seen clients running a fully managed meeting in their boardroom and a remote participant connecting via Skype from the Middle East. It was important for this person to be seen and heard in the call; the fact that he/she was able to connect at all was enough.

The consumerization of IT is apparent from the largest to smallest companies. As these companies embrace it and encourage employees to BYOD (bring your own device), Skype is going to continue to be more and more prevalent. Embracing it as a complimentary technology will not only make managing Skype easier, but will provide users with additional avenues to collaborate with their co-workers.

It seems like every day there are new headlines in the telecommunications industry about unified communications, the latest acquisition, release or new cloud service. The term “unified communications” has been around for a long time; but it means different things to different people – just take a look at some major software companies or hardware manufacturers.

Microsoft has taken its Office Communications Server, transformed it into Lync, and gained significant mind and market share with the product. In addition, they have worked closely with Polycom to integrate video conferencing into the Lync ecosystem. Cisco, on the other hand, has significantly invested in Jabber which has expanded the definition of UC, as well as, telepresence.

Unfortunately, there have been some roadblocks that prevent true ubiquity of UC solutions throughout enterprise organizations.

A recent study from CompTia (an IT industry association) took a look at many of these topics. From an adoption perspective, respondents to the survey reported:

  • - Challenges in integrating UC tools with existing technology
    - Lack of ability to incorporate mobility, social networking, collaboration and video conferencing
    - Difficulty calculating a return on investment

The interesting thing about all of these challenges is that they can be easily solved through integrated cloud services. How so? Let’s take a look at each one individually.

Challenges in integrating UC tools with existing technology:
When organizations look to implement a UC solution; integrating the server architecture, managing operating systems, and maintaining new equipment can be extremely challenging. These problems; however, can be virtually eliminated by hosting a UC solution in the cloud.  With the cloud, comes an experienced team of professionals who manage the technology; alleviating many of the technical pressures. Organizations can then focus on integrating the technology into their existing environment; whether it is defining set processes to use the tools or driving a cultural change within the company to encourage adoption. The cloud also allows companies achieve the benefits of UC almost immediately with practically none of the frustration.

Lack of ability to incorporate mobility, social networking, collaboration and video conferencing:
Incorporating these technologies comes down to one thing – interoperability. Microsoft and Polycom have addressed this by linking their technologies to allow UC clients to participate in video conferences with enterprise systems; and Cisco has integrated video into Jabber to communicate to the rest of its portfolio. Connecting to consumer solutions (Skype, Google Talk); however, require cloud services which create “meet me” conference rooms in the cloud and can connect any video platform, application or appliance effortlessly.

Difficult calculating a return on investment:
As with any collaboration tool out there, it can be difficult to truly understand the cost savings/ROI/etc. In order to do so, organizations must assess the specific goals of a UC deployment. For example, is it about travel cost reduction or improved productivity? Many these benefits are hard savings that can be easily tracked and reported with a cloud service. By connecting travel to a video management system, organizations can easily see the trips that were replaced by video which translates into cost savings and increased productivity.

The bottom line is that cloud service providers can help an organization review their UC needs and challenges then deploy scalable services to make adoption seamless and ROI attainment clear.

“From Telemedicine to applications in government, entertainment, science and education, Polycom is fueling collaboration, knowledge and understanding around the world.”

We are very excited to hear that Polycom, a leader the visual collaboration space, launched its new brand!   Their history in developing innovative video collaboration products is impressive and an increased focus on UC and mobile technologies will continue to change the way people collaboration. 

In a mission to unite devises, operating systems and service provides; Polycom will make video ubiquitous through secure and easy to use technology that delivers a high quality experience to everyone, everywhere.  Watch their video below.

These are exciting times in the visual collaboration space and we cannot wait to see what Polycom comes up with next!

There has been significant buzz around a recent Forbes article about the death of telepresence and Cisco’s  response. One side claims that telepresence is a dying breed while the other claims it is alive and well. So who is right?

Both of them.

Yes, there are many new entrants that are disrupting the visual communications space. These companies are making video more accessible by allowing organizations who previously couldn’t afford the technology the opportunity to video conference.  Furthermore, the explosion of cloud services and mobile video is extending the reach of visual collaboration while overcoming interoperability barriers.  The market is ever growing and organizations will continue to invest in these technologies at a rapid rate.

These solutions will not replace the need for Telepresence though.

While the quality of desktop, mobile and cloud solutions are improving; they pale in comparison to a truly immersive experience.  C-Level strategy meetings are far more likely to demand the quality and lifelike experience immersive systems offer.  In fact, saying that the executives of a multi-billion dollar corporation will opt for a lower quality but cost effective video solution is like saying they will choose to drive a Pinto because it’s more cost effective than a Mercedes-Benz.  Unfortunately, the current price tag for immersive solutions is typically only justified for executives; plus, there are only so many rooms a company can dedicate to telepresence.  This creates a significantly limited market and contributes to the declining sales of telepresence systems.

Experienced audio visual integrators; however, can overcome these limitations and expand the market for telepresence.  Advanced integrators can customize solutions to create an immersive feeling using standard HD video systems for a fraction of the cost.  Additionally, elite AV integrators can modify immersive and standard systems to expand both the range of rooms and applications telepresence can work in; allowing companies to design a solution that best fits their needs.

What does the future look like then?

While there will still be a place for telepresence; the shift towards software based systems will continue at an accelerated pace.  Many organizations will begin adopting UC and cloud platforms over standards-based enterprise systems due to their user friendly, cost effective and scalable collaboration capabilities. Polycom and Cisco will need to continue to drive innovation around UC solutions to remain competitive in this space. Integrated UC solutions, with interactive document sharing, will offer far more value to organizations than stand-alone desktop video solutions.

The bottom line is this:

Telepresence systems will continue to have their place in the C-suite and for meetings where the highest audio visual quality and seamless collaboration are mission critical.  However, UC and mobile video solutions will put the future of business collaboration into the hands of every user organization-wide ushering in a new era of connected workforce.