The rise of a third UC modality and the future of Skype for Business

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In just one year, Microsoft has raised the stakes in the fast-growing team-chat market. Since the launch of Teams in March 2017, Microsoft has evolved Teams’ chat-based communications features and announced full enterprise voice capabilities parity with Skype for Business by the end of 2018. Just last week, on the first anniversary of the Teams launch, Microsoft confirmed that 200,000 organisations in 181 markets use this SaaS-based collaboration hub with customers including A.P. Moller–Maersk, ConocoPhillips, Macy’s and General Motors. Microsoft has inserted itself as a weighty challenger against leading collaboration tools, including Slack, which touts over 1M paying customers and more than 6M million monthly active users.

Many have debated exactly what catalysed the advent of Teams. Was it the need to compete with Slack? Was it the shift in the role of communications and collaboration tools at work? Was it the imperative to finally build a legitimate front end to SharePoint? Or, was it recognition that a new workplace interaction model is surfacing with the “digital generation” (i.e. Millennials and Generation Z), who will comprise 55 per cent of the workforce by 2025 (source: Department of Labour)?

Increasingly, employees will seek a more open and flexible communication approach. This includes growing interest in leveraging the respective app stores within Teams and Slack, designed to boost various features for corporate end users. Slack is now quoting upwards of 1,000 third-party apps, Teams has more than 250 – and enterprises are starting to leverage these to curate internal app stores that provide employees with tools that improve their day-to-day work. While most IT decision-makers are not Millennials, they recognise the growing demand for products like Slack and Teams, and must balance that against the requirement to maintain conventional modes of email, file sharing and conference calls.

So, what does this mean for the millions of enterprises that have standardised their Unified Communications (UC) on Skype for Business? Historically the workplace has been divided between the asynchronous group (voicemail, email, file sharing) and the real-time group (phone, IM, meetings). With Teams, Microsoft is introducing a new UC modality governed by semi-synchronous workgroup communications. This new frontier of communication allows employees to chat and collaborate in a way that preserves ongoing context.

What were once two separate modes of communications have begun to merge into a single platform. As this evolution gains momentum, the centre of Microsoft’s UC offerings will shift away from Skype for Business toward the increasing functionality of Teams. By enabling this single hub for content and communication, Microsoft is blurring the lines between real-time and persistent communication. At the same time, Teams being a cloud-only solution is compelling enterprises to face the reality that the Microsoft UC journey inevitably leads to the cloud. This, combined with the increasing favour of text over voice communication among the emerging workforce, paints an unclear future picture for Skype for Business. Will users come to regard it as a “legacy application”?

A lesson learned

The short answer is “not for a while”. OCS 2007 represented a revolutionary step for Microsoft, extending the IM/P workload to encompass a converged conferencing and EV experience.  Since then, OCS 2007 R2, Lync 2010, Lync 2013 and Skype for Business were evolutionary iterations on that vision. Teams represents the first revolutionary step since OCS 2007 in two key ways.

First, it combines with and intertwines social networking into a corporate collaboration mega-app.  Second, it becomes a full cloud-only solution.  This one-two punch combination means we are in the early stages of enterprises embarking on their journey to Teams, in the same way that customers started their UC journey with OCS 2007. Just as legacy conferencing and PBX solutions didn’t suddenly disappear with OCS 2007, company-wide UC and file sharing solutions such as Skype for Business and SharePoint are not going to suddenly disappear as employees start using Teams. It’s more likely that in the next few years, we will see a coexistence of Teams and Skype for Business where Teams is used for inwardly facing “workgroup collaboration” and Skype for Business is use for outwardly facing “formal communication”. As more companies adopt the cloud and more workers adopt a modern “chatroom” workstyle, we will start to see a greater percentage of communication shift over to Teams. After all, the power of a social network is proportional to the number of users using it.

The lesson here is not that Skype for Business is already antiquated and fated for the scrap pile. Instead, UC managers must understand that technology and user habits are evolving more quickly than ever before and begin positioning for this change in organisational culture. IT must quickly adapt, adjusting their deployments to allow for increasing adoption of collaboration tools and apps, and embracing new modes of enterprise communications to meet user expectations. UC managers that are prepared to provide enablement and continuity for the entire breadth of evolving UC modalities will be in a powerful position to fulfil and contribute to business needs. Many enterprises view Teams migration as a multi-year project that will require an entirely new, dedicated set of resources. Rather than approaching a Teams deployment as a complete overhaul of existing UC framework, IT can incorporate it as an additional hub for end-user productivity.

Alan Shen, Consulting and Success Services, Unify Square
Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa