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Why Collaboration Should Center Around Email

Employees have more ways to communicate, but until the mishmash of tools gets integrated, productivity will suffer.

Almost 90% of companies use some form of social networking, whether it's an internal blog, an online forum, a wiki, or a hybrid platform such as Microsoft SharePoint, the InformationWeek Analytics Social Networking in the Enterprise Survey shows. However, a paltry 10% consider that effort a success. And we know one of the big reasons.

Only 26% of our survey respondents have direct email integration with their social systems. In other words, companies expect employees to break away from their email, check the "social" system, collaborate, and then go back to their email. Fuggedaboutit.

Collaboration technology presents the ultimate irony of the modern IT age. Hundreds of apps, platforms, and devices are designed to help us work together better. They all promise to make us more productive. Yet almost none of these tools plugs easily into the others.

Vendors touting "unified communications" haven't come close to solving this problem. All present their visions of how their platforms will revolutionize the worker's life, but fail to mention what they don't provide. Microsoft Lyncs has no iPhone or Android option. Cisco's unified communications suite offers limited Exchange integration. Avaya's new Flare doesn't support Microsoft Office. And none of them has sufficient plug-ins for the growing number of software-as-a-service collaboration options, such as's Chatter.

The cloud vendors are no better, preferring to push their own visions as the only way to go. You're a big fan of Google enterprise email? Too bad, if you're a SharePoint or Notes shop. Google has integration tools for Outlook and Notes client software, but it doesn't include Notes databases or SharePoint sites.

It's time for a reset. IT organizations have 11 major choices today when it comes to technology-assisted communication and collaboration (see box, "11 Major Options"). Some are old and boring, like the phone and fax, while others -- like telepresence rooms -- make you feel like a Jetson.

11 major options

IT teams need to assess each based on whether they support six critical integration points, three interoperability benchmarks, and three user requirements (see box, below). View this as a checklist for success -- or a harbinger of the troubles ahead if they're ignored. And they all start with email.

How are internal social networking systems embedded into your email app?

Get Your Email House In Order

Email remains the dominant form of enterprise communications: 100% market acceptance, 100% user acceptance. Period.

Modern email systems provide a manageable and centralized point for four of the six integration requirements -- contacts, calendars, tasks, and actual messages. However, enterprise IT teams stink at exploiting email's potential beyond the in-box, and they pretend that personal folders and to-do lists, as well as lightly shared calendars, pass for a rich collaborative environment. We're missing a tremendous opportunity.

Sixty-one percent of companies don't integrate their email with their accounting, CRM, or ERP systems, finds our InformationWeek Analytics State of Enterprise Messaging Survey. Instead, people are left to cook up their own approaches for managing the information around projects, meetings, customer interactions, and the like. Often, they end up just stuffing emails into folders. The result is that any communication string involving more than two people -- be it with another colleague or a customer or vendor -- gets fragmented. That typically means a meeting to piece together a story and take action.

Here's an example of how integrating email and a project management system would be powerful. Chances are project managers are using some type of system to track their work -- whether it's a module inside the ERP or CRM system or a separate app, such as the cloud-based Basecamp. Email communication is crucial to any project, providing status updates, meeting notices, and follow-up notes. Project managers are well-organized data junkies who'll happily send their updates from within the project app, creating a record and resource. The rest of the project team? Forget it. They'll just use email, often forgetting to cc: the project manager. Retrain the users? No way. It's much easier to integrate email with the project management system, so sending an email with an associated project code is automatically noted in the project software.

Sound like a monster custom coding job? Not really. The best way to accomplish this integration is to leverage some rules-based logic at the server or gateway, similar to the conventional transaction logging used for compliance. Delivery into the application itself can be done via SMTP or whatever API the vendor provides. It does require your application staff to understand the message flow and development options and inject the logic to pull out email strings that contain a project identifier, match a customer name, or meet a certain rule set.

So why don't companies do this? In part it's because of the enthusiasm for new collaboration technology. Email works, so why would you spend developer time on that rather than on implementing a new collaboration tool, like telepresence? Yes, companies should think about such emerging options, but they also must consider how any new tools fit with the tried and true.

Another reason is fear -- employees don't like it when IT messes with their email. But IT teams need to remember that just because employees depend on an email front end doesn't mean a company is tied to the back-end server software. People care about the Outlook client, not Exchange on the servers. Users love (or hate) Notes, not Domino. One of the reasons Google has been able to jump-start its Gmail for the enterprise has been its Outlook integration client and back-end API. Gmail has been able to do basic email via Outlook for years, and contact and calendar integration has come more recently. When Google added a feature to sync its calendar with Outlook 2010 last year, the company described that as its "top feature request."

The lesson is there's an opportunity to build features and improve integration around the email client you have.

Adding On To Email

So hopefully you're convinced that adding IM, video, texting, or full-blown collaboration systems that aren't integrated within an existing email system is just plain silly. But don't assume that vendors are going to make it easy on you.

Google is a great example of a provider that really understands some of the integration needed to succeed over the long term. However, it also falls short of the level of integration needed to expand its capabilities beyond email. Google Talk instant messaging doesn't work with Outlook or Notes, for example. Thus, it's hardly surprising that the bulk of Google enterprise app growth has been driven by email, and not by instant messaging or Docs, which have more limited integration options.

At a minimum, your integration goal must include having all contact, calendar, task, and message information integrated back into centralized repositories. A bigger undertaking is to integrate messages -- whether via chat, video, or email -- into a CRM, project management, customer support, or ERP system. Nice goal, but sadly, most enterprise applications don't even get contacts and calendars right.

Here's an example. Web conferencing is fairly commonplace. Cisco WebEx, Citrix GoToMeeting, and Microsoft Live Meeting all have integration options, but their client support is limited, and they provide only plug-ins to send appointments and invitations.

That's OK if your Web conferencing usage is 100% driven from email invitations, but if someone gets the message forwarded, or signs up online, where does that contact record go? If the event is part of customer or vendor activities, is the fact that it took place noted in the CRM or ERP system? Lastly, most of these systems can record sessions, but are the sessions stored with your other logs?

The point is, these integrations are difficult for vendors and, frankly, aren't their top priority. So when you're going to add a new tool, make sure to consider how you will integrate it with other tools.

Even when vendors make a solid effort, there can be complications. Case in point, Google Apps and Salesforce. If you've ditched your Exchange email service and internal CRM and headed for the cloud, you may be in for a nasty surprise. Both Google and Salesforce have nice options to sync with individual email clients, including Outlook. But we've seen them bomb for companies running both sync options at once on an Outlook client. Plus, neither Salesforce nor Google offers a way to integrate its respective talk and chat apps.

Even a seemingly simple integration like capturing and logging messages for security purposes can slip by existing setups. BlackBerry Enterprise Server is the standard for most companies' mobile connectivity. IT organizations usually end up enabling SMS texting after the sales team or executives deems it critical. However, many don't realize that BlackBerry's SMS text logging is turned off by default and is probably not logging the messages their users have enabled.

Three Levels Of Interoperability

When planning to integrate collaboration applications, think in terms of three levels of interoperability. The first, as we've noted, is email. The push of late to create "enterprise social networks" is making this more critical, since these social networks create a whole new silo.

And no, setting up an email alert of social networking activity isn't enough. In fact, it may even make matters worse to generate a generic message that says something like, "Bill Jones commented on your product idea. Click here." That's not integration, it's noise. If the details of Bill's message were there, and you could reply to and comment on those messages right from your in-box, that would be integration. If you could check if Bill were online and maybe chat with him right then, that would be even better. However, as we noted, only 26% of companies integrate their systems with email, and only 31% enable online presence indicators. The rest? They expect people to hop back and forth between email and social collaboration apps.

The second level of interoperability is with mobile devices. IT needs to identify the options for all devices, even those it doesn't currently support. If your company adds video capabilities, chances are employees will expect to be able to use that video from their iPhones or Android-based smartphones.

Establish a clear standard for email connections and clients for every device option. Do you expect iPhone users to use iMap, SMTP POP, or the Outlook client? And we mean every device -- Windows, Mac, Linux, desktop, laptop, tablet, stone tablet, smoke signal, you name it. Lay out the options and configuration ranges for all of 'em.

Why? Because if you don't, people will connect on their own, based on what they believe is the correct or just the easiest way. For example, iPhones have an Exchange connector that is amazingly simple to use. If you have basic remote Exchange access set up, chances are you have iPhones getting mail and you don't even know it. Help your employees, or they'll help themselves.

The third level of interoperability is with other companies--suppliers, partners, customers -- and their different collaboration software platforms. This requires a hard reality check on what will ever be a standard. We know we can send email or text, or make a phone call, to almost anyone, regardless of that person's hardware or device--that's universal interoperability.

critical elements for success

But some platform options won't be interoperable. Ever. A prime example: Hosted Web and video conferencing services like Cisco WebEx, Google Talk, ooVoo, Ojo, and others have no incentive to allow easy interoperability with their systems. The vendors' logic: A user can "just load and go," so it's no big deal for the party you're looking to collaborate with to add that vendor's software. If you go with one of these options, you'd better have high enough usage rates among your employee base to make it worthwhile, because you can't guarantee that outsiders will be able or willing to get on board.

With desktop-centric applications, Skype shows some similarities. For the most part, you've needed Skype software on your desktop to use it. The company has a few partners that offer gateway access to voice and PBX systems, but Skype has never heavily promoted this option--and that's worked out OK. Skype provides a basic set of tools to integrate with almost every mail and Web client, and thanks to a clean interface, easy chat capabilities, and pretty decent video, the company claims 125 million active users. Seventy percent are in Europe or the Middle East, and using the service has meant huge cost savings for people doing international business.

Now that Microsoft is buying Skype for $8.5 billion, the question becomes, What kind of priority will there be on integration? Clearly, any interoperability efforts will focus on Microsoft products first. Will Skype support competing systems from Avaya, Cisco, Google, and others? Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer went to great pains when announcing the deal to say that Microsoft would keep Skype accessible from other platforms.

But Microsoft's interoperability track record is mediocre. The company has struggled for years with its messaging and video platforms, offering poor consumer products, and a series of attempts at creating a UC platform for Exchange. The Lync rebranding effort promises new UC capabilities, but there's no native support for Apple or Android devices. That omission explains why people worry about the long-term future of Skype for the iPhone, despite Ballmer's assurance Skype will support Apple products: 45% of respondents to a recent InformationWeek survey agree with the statement that Microsoft will deprioritize Skype's multiplatform support, while 21% disagree.

IT's best hope for better interoperability lies with the bridge and gateway options noted earlier. That way, your future is at least somewhat in your own hands. But let's be clear: This strategy does require development chops, including understanding the APIs and standards used for each platform. Any talk of "universally accepted standards" must be prefaced by the same warning that comes with every spec, from virtualization to IP numbers to cloud computing. Creating standards is a painfully slow process, and the market keeps moving faster and faster.

For systems that have limited interoperability, assume that situation will continue, and then figure out if you'll get enough use by employees -- and key customers or suppliers -- to make it worth your while.

We Built It, So Where Are They?

It should be easy to figure out what users want most from collaboration, but unfortunately, IT doesn't always make the effort. We've made our case that connecting collaboration tools, with email at the center, is vital. But two other needs are high on the list. One is enabling universal search of the information generated in these collaborative apps. The other is formal training in how best to use collaborative apps. Neither area tends to get IT leaders fired up.

Enterprise search has languished as a potential business productivity breakthrough for years. There are 50+ vendors that offer software that can crawl and index an entire range of applications, including email, IM, documents, and even group collaboration systems like wikis. Granted, letting people search colleagues' in-boxes is a leap of transparency few will ever make, but the software should at least offer functions like tying results from an in-box search to documents stored on the network. Most companies leave it underused, focusing search on just one or two apps and forfeiting the benefit of giving their employees a search vision that starts with their email stores as only one of several primary sources.

Enterprise search fits neatly with this discussion--if you've forced integration and interoperability, pulling it all together with a centralized search is technically easy and provides big results. It can quickly help an employee sort out communication details, contact updates, and problem histories. Without enterprise search? Try remembering who OK'd that proposal last year, and whether the discussion was in email, IM, or a WebEx meeting, or via Salesforce.

Bringing all these communication tools together, and adding search to them, does create one very big obligation for IT: A focus on training. Yes, real training that IT customizes based on the toolset it has built and the company's culture. We're not talking about walking through the tech features and demonstrating the various pull-down menus. We're talking about best practices training. What type of communication is best for quick updates? What's the proper format for a Web conference? Heck, what's the right way to change a subject line when you respond to an email?

This level of education simply isn't done. Less than 18% of all those responding to our most recent State of Enterprise Messaging Survey say their companies provide an overall training program on how to use communication tools.

The reason? IT assumes people already know the fine points, and that using the right tool well is just common sense. Wrong. Email itself has been a mainstream communication platform for only 15 or so years, and it still isn't part of the writing curriculum taught in most U.S. schools. Video, SMS, and IM education? Doesn't happen.

Part of this training should be providing guidance on which medium a person should use and when. Left alone, people will default to the option that fits their personal behavior, not necessarily the right choice for business-level communications. IM and texting are good examples of where quick status check-ins work in a personal setting--"running late Mom, pick me up at 5, can I go to Jenny's"--but become annoying and downright intrusive when done wrong by a co-worker.

IT relies on the power of a competitive and open technology market, constantly bringing new products and ideas to the fore. Collaboration vendors are delivering those new ideas, and IT should explore what's available. However, most companies have reached a breaking point with communications and put their IT teams in a predicament--what chess players call zugzwang: They have to make a move, but any move might make things worse. As we add more options and more devices, we actually make our other systems less efficient and ultimately more confused and confusing.

However, we don't necessarily have the choice to say "no." As people accept new communication methods, businesses must adapt to stay competitive. Attempting to standardize on a single platform means making the fatal assumption that one vendor can provide and connect all needed channels, or that it's even possible to connect all relevant platforms. By focusing on email as a core starting point, companies can build on email's success to help create a cohesive plan for rolling in the rest of the communications suite.

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Michael Healey is president of Yeoman Technology Group, an engineering and research firm focused on maximizing technology investments. Write to us at

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