Down To Business: Show Collaboration, Don't Just Expect It
If all these new tools are really going to improve productivity, they must become indispensable to the masses.
We're still consolidating data centers, reengineering operations, rationalizing architectures, centralizing management, and embracing all the other gerunds that impress the bean counters, but our latest marching orders are to drive revenue, not just run a tighter ship. When asked by InformationWeek Research which key priorities they will implement or support in 2006, the largest percentage of business technology executives, 67%, cited "streamlining or optimizing business processes," though "reducing the cost of IT operations," at 63%, is still a close second.
Tech vendors are now playing to the growth crowd. Application acceleration and WAN optimization, technologies that align connectivity directly with business process improvement, are the fastest-growing areas in networking. Cisco Systems isn't just in infrastructure anymore; it's pushing into unified messaging and touting "telepresence" as the next killer app. Over the next five years, Cisco CEO John Chambers maintains, as much as 50% of business productivity gains will be tied to making IP-based video conversations as rich as face-to-face ones. (If you think Chambers is just blowing smoke, consider that he and Cisco almost single-handedly made voice-data network convergence happen.)
Collaboration and productivity apps are hot again, especially Web-based tools that exploit social networking, wiki, and blogging mania. A site called iKarma, for instance, provides businesses with "reputation and customer feedback systems," serving as an exchange for evaluating the trustworthiness of potential suppliers, customers, and partners. A prospecting tool from Spoke Software, which can be integrated with Salesforce.com, culls information from the Web, third-party providers, and member contributors to arm sales and marketing people with highly targeted customer data.
All the big guns are also locked and loaded on collaboration and productivity, lumping together everything from voice over IP, E-mail, and instant messaging to Web conferencing, document sharing, and portals. IBM last week introduced software that helps customers integrate their SAP data and business processes with Lotus Notes tasks, using scorecards, dashboards, E-forms, document and content management, IM, team rooms, and presence awareness. Microsoft last week updated its Center for Information Work, a showcase of the company's productivity software advances. One product incubated there and to be commercialized next year will make use of a 360-degree camera to improve videoconferencing.
If all this activity sounds a little familiar, it should. Telepresence is the next iteration of videoconferencing. Lots of new Web productivity apps, like Google's Ajax-developed calendar, are just interesting adaptations of old features. Social networking is the latest spin on knowledge management and the intranet/extranet. For the most part, vendors are adding improved technology and a fresh coat of marketing paint to collaboration concepts that have been around for a decade or more.
Far-flung project teams already are using packaged and service-based apps to design fighter jets, develop banking software, and manage marketing programs. But if collaboration and productivity are to really take off, these apps must transcend the power user. The reason sales force automation tools still don't fly at many companies isn't because they're unsophisticated or don't work well; it's because the sales culture is to keep customer information close to the vest rather than share it with everyone. We can all listen to our E-mail messages over our car phones and alert our project teammates to our every location, but are we convinced that kind of persistent connectivity is in our best interests?
Until we show our people how collaboration and productivity tools can close more sales or help us meet more deadlines or build better products, they'll pay only lip service to this stuff. That's the challenge ahead not just for Microsoft, IBM, and Google, but for all of our companies as well.
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