Our industry has tended to use terms such as Unified Communications (UC) or Unified Communications and Collaboration (UC&C) to define the ways in which the modern workforce can work together and collaborate. These abbreviations are fine, save that they tend to create a focus on technology, rather than people or process; hardly surprising given that they originate from the technical hierarchy within our ICT organisations.
By using the term “better connected workforce” we seek to draw attention to the ways in which technology may be used to provide a better working environment, one in which employees may be able to communicate via different media that are appropriate to the particular purpose (instant messaging for the quick, informal query; video conferencing for the discussion that may be enhanced by some level of personal contact; telepresence for the more immersive group interaction).
In short, the better connected workforce is now one which is not only equipped with the right tools, but one that is aware of how they can be used to make communication between individuals, groups and across organisations faster, more effective and more productive. The better connected workforce is thus able to be more cost effective and better placed to attain the benefits not only of new technology but of new and more flexible working patterns and structures.
This trend is accentuated by the effects of what are becoming known as consumerisation and prosumerisation. These buzz words refer to the blurring of distinctions between consumer products and professional products. As examples, whilst the iPhone would fit into the former camp, and the Blackberry the latter, each is being used in the other’s territory. A further example is the use of social networking products within the work environment (Twitter for marketing, Facebook for group updates etc).
As a result employees now expect to be able to replicate the efficiency and ease of use of “home” apps in the workplace and to be able to move seamlessly from home to work without connecting to different systems.
As business applications become ever more web savvy and accessible via mobile browsers we are starting to see a move in IT departments towards the allocation of per capita budgets, with employees being able to provide (and support) whatever devices they choose. There is a risk that this trend creates a widening information gap between the “haves” and “have nots” (which is a challenge for all organisations and which mirrors a similar gap in society at large) but the momentum would seem to be unstoppable.
What are the business drivers?
There are a series of complementary drivers that are encouraging organisations of all sizes, both public and private, to consider how to create a better connected workforce. Firstly, there is the need for improved productivity, secondly the push for better cost effectiveness, and the third driver is the requirement to attract and retain the highest calibre staff. Common across each of these drivers is the requirement for staff to remain connected to business systems and be able to communicate effectively whether in the office, at a remote site, at home or travelling.
Work has become something we do, not somewhere we go. To create a better connected workforce, an organisation should implement flexible working methods, providing employees with the tools for the job and the support systems they need to ensure the necessary training and support is firmly in place. These tools, which will exist in an ICT infrastructure that is secure with highly available remote access, will include devices such as laptops, Blackberries and Windows mobile devices.
Additionally, there will be IP based voice and video systems and flexible applications designed to operate in a mobile environment. The support systems will provide ongoing training, access to support services and the ability for staff to communicate with one another individually or in groups, using voice, video, email and blogs.
As well as improving connectivity and flexibility, organisations are also aiming to achieve significant cost savings, either though major transformational programs, or single “point” solutions. These programs increasingly demand Software as a Service (SaaS), hosted and Cloud based solutions that are more cost effective than traditional in house options and bring increased flexibility.
By investing in hosted and Cloud based solutions and equipping employees for flexible working, businesses are able to rationalise property estates, further reducing costs. Whichever combination of hosted, Cloud based or managed service is chosen, the enterprise must be able to deliver better quality service at lower cost. However many organisations are still running costly, legacy ICT platforms, full of data that has become progressively less useful over time.
To obtain even the most basic benefits from a collaborative, better connected, workforce, these platforms need to be changed to support flexible working patters and the applications and devices used for equipping employees. Businesses running old versions of Novell, Exchange and Notes must move to a single directory environment to provide the necessary platform. There are many examples of businesses that have made an initial investment in IP Telephony, instant messaging, presence based systems and enterprise portals, but which remain at the pilot stage.
This being despite evidence from Gartner research suggesting that most organisations recognise they will benefit from equipping employees with the tools for flexible working. If these organisations were aware that, by diverting budget from redundant data storage and ageing infrastructure into new and innovative programs, they could achieve an ROI of six to nine months, they may be more willing to move from pilot to full roll out.
Any new technology must be supported by excellent staff training and support to ensure rapid end user adoption– this must take place before the change so people know what to expect, during the change so that they are hand-held throughout the deployment (and their work is not affected) and after the change so they know how to access help and support. Equipping employees with the tools to work flexibly and when on the move, requires security measures to be in place to reduce the risk of exposure to a minimum.
Employees must be trained to appreciate the physical security risks (don’t leave the laptop on the train!) and to keep locally held data to an absolute minimum. Recent heavy penalties for data breaches make this a priority, as does the need to retain customer trust. Strong authentication and policy based control over access (enforcing the use of VPNs, personal firewalls and antivirus programs) is therefore essential. Systems must be in place to ensure that remote or mobile devices are updated with the latest security and operating system patches before they access an organisation’s system.
Organisations and enterprises that are investing in new collaboration architectures are showing real initiative at a time when it would be more palatable to simply reduce cost. By investing in the systems and tools to create a better connected workforce, an organisation will be able to benefit from a reduced cost base, a more efficient, effective and flexible working environment and the enhanced ability to attract and retain the best staff.