Global collaboration: It's here, and the challenges are real

We all know that network capacity is abundant, and that data is everywhere. Today, the world's information workers can communicate across continents, collapsing barriers once imposed by time and geography.

Yet when it comes to communication, there's still work to be done. Email has replaced the telephone as the dominant tool in our working lives. In one minute, users across the globe are sending 204 million emails. This means in one hour 12,240,000,000 emails find a new recipient - a number that is hard to fathom.

But even email has its limitations. We all know the feeling of becoming overloaded with information, when all too often, the actual information you need is locked away as an attachment, inaccessible on the organisation's server.

This explains why deploying social collaboration tools is becoming an ever-more urgent priority for companies everywhere. It is now increasingly crucial to connect employees internally and to enable them to work more effectively with external stakeholders such as customers and partners.

But the challenges can be significant. It can be difficult to connect closed and proprietary social platforms with the context of everyday workflow, which is necessary if they're to become widely used. Mobile, social, gamification and video: all can become part of the social enterprise's toolkit. We're a long way from fusing all these feature sets together.

In addition, employees are increasingly becoming knowledge workers. They are expected to use and evaluate data and information to perform their jobs faster and to make better decisions. Yet employees and enterprises are also victims of information overload, with an existing toolset that doesn't help. While enterprises don't lack tools for communication, very often, the problem is fragmentation.

No single application or platform encompasses all of an information worker's needs: search, knowledge management, workflow and collaboration. In addition, where collaboration tools exist, they frequently stand alone or are proprietary tools. To really make a difference, they should be embedded within the applications that dominate an employee's working day - whether that's a Bloomberg terminal or the front end of an ERP platform.

It is still true to say that much of the data we deal with during working hours is unstructured. Most of it remains locked up in word processing documents, emails, spreadsheets, images and video that cannot easily be located or used. So businesses face a new challenge - how can they help their employees become more productive by offering frictionless access to the right information, in the right context, at the right time?

The need for improved collaboration inside enterprises and with customers and partners becomes clear when we start to consider what collaboration has done for consumers. During the past two decades, consumers have seized the lion's share of the economic surplus created first by the web and e-commerce and, more recently, by social platforms. Businesses have responded, by using social media to maintain and deepen links with their customers. The potential is vast and yet the future of these technologies and their impact is unclear.

We can define the future of collaboration by focusing on what's wrong with it today. For a majority of users, collaboration platforms are low on usability, high on awkwardness and frequently fragmented. For enterprises, collaboration platforms are typically low on customisation potential and high on cost. The result is a long way from a viable recipe for mass adoption. It says much about our situation that several decades after the birth of the internet, email and plain-vanilla telephony remain the dominant communication tools for most employees.

So what is the answer? The flexibility and interoperability of open APIs (application programming interface) address the challenges. Thanks to their accessibility, developers can customise the API-based tools they build.

This allows businesses to design and refine social tools until they are a perfect fit for the enterprise business processes and IT architecture and employees. Participation is maximised and productivity gains as workforces become geographically disparate and as businesses look to expand their customer and partner base into new markets.

Ultimately, the reality is that any organisation that becomes fully networked (in a behavioural as well as a technological sense) stands to reap rewards by opening up previously hidden, or poorly promoted, sources of internal expertise. The case for seamlessly connecting employees across the enterprise and empowering them to connect seamlessly with their key stakeholders in a way that complements their workflow is clear.

Employees are ready for it. Businesses will become more productive as a result. Customers and partners, too, will benefit from better service and enhanced collaboration.

Anthony Bartolo is senior vice president of unified communications & collaboration, Tata Communications