The collaboration ‘toys’ employees don’t play with

The senior vice-president and general manager of Cisco’s Collaboration Group talks about what’s wrong with unified communications in the enterprise and how IT departments can improve it

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How many times have you been searching for a conference bridge on your mobile phone while dialing in on a landline, then trying to view a PowerPoint presentation on your PC and take notes at the same time — because if you wait for someone to email you a copy of that presentation after the call, you could be waiting a very long time?

The problem with collaboration is that it’s not designed for users, but for IT, said Rowan Trollope, the Canadian-born senior vice-president and general manager of Cisco’s Collaboration Group, during a press pre-briefing last week for Cisco Collaboration Partner Summit 2013.

“The toy industry at one point got great at selling toys to parents and you’d end up with a toy box full of toys your kids don’t play with,” said Trollope. “That’s how I feel about enterprise collaboration.”

And that’s why Cisco is striking out on a new course for collaboration. In today’s world, collaborating on your mobile phone and collaborating in the boardroom are two separate worlds — and Cisco is attempting to tie those two worlds together with a slew of announcements being made this week.

The consumerization of IT is demanding change in the technology stack for collaboration in the workplace, said Trollope. Technology factors — such as mobility and cloud — are both driving and enabling that change. And at its core is the user.

I don’t think anyone would disagree that all the technology in the world isn’t going to do any good if employees aren’t actually using it — which is why a user-centric approach makes sense.

But where does this leave the IT department? Do they just throw in the towel and give users whatever they want? Or do they lock down the environment, while trying to control “rogue” applications?

Cisco’s new approach to collaboration involves finding a middle ground between empowering employees, while giving IT the control they need (oftentimes for compliance and regulatory reasons).

But, according to Cisco, this isn’t a rip-and-replace scenario — it’ about extending your current environment.

So you’re taking a user-centric approach, with IT in mind — but how does that work? Here’s what Cisco is doing as part of its “from the browser to the boardroom” strategy: It’s taking a “mobile first” approach, deploying through the cloud wherever possible, and deploying collaboration as a service wherever possible.

So, for example, an employee could go out, buy a mobile device and log in to the network and — voila! — they’re connected. The IT person doesn’t have to touch the device or fiddle around with any settings.

But, ultimately, the IT person makes the decision about whether or not to open up the environment — and to whom, when and where. While this means extending the network, it also means revamping corporate policies around collaboration infrastructure.

This starts with Cisco’s Collaboration Edge Architecture, designed for mobility and cloud, which will open up your network to the outside world and make it easy for anyone to connect in using the latest technologies while maintaining enterprise security (so, for example, a user could join a telepresence call over any network).

A few other products of note: Cisco Expressway is a collaboration gateway for “any-to-any collaboration,” which simplifies mobile, teleworker and customer collaboration. Cisco Prime Collaboration is a unified console for all collaboration management, while Cisco Intelligent Proximity will bridge personal devices with collaboration endpoints, making the phone a central part of the collaboration experience. And Jabber Guest will provide voice, video and data sharing beyond corporate boundaries; it can be directly embedded into a company’s mobile or web interface.

Employees don’t see all the separate entities that make up UC — they see one user experience. Whether they want to contact someone through voice, text or video, share their screen, or talk to more than one person at a time, they just want to be able to do it, without a hassle, from wherever they happen to be.

And that’s one step closer to putting the “unified” in unified communications.

Get a close-up look at Allstream’s Hosted Collaboration Solution.

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