Whether or not they know the right terminology, your colleagues will know what real unified communications is. They’ll know because there is a good chance they’re using it right now. The smartphone is the ultimate unified communications device, allowing people to easily move between voice, video, instant messaging, multimedia sharing and social media.
While consumer mobile apps are not perfect, they compete for attention in an environment where only the best survive so the user experience of the successful ones tends to be pretty good. The challenge for businesses is to bring that same range of experiences into the work lives of your colleagues, both on the go and at their desks.
The biggest barrier is our tendency to settle for clunky apps and awkward integrations. IT leaders have many demands on their time and attention and it’s easy for them to get wrapped up in incremental improvements rather than a more ambitious workplace transformation. That is not to say you should embark on a huge, expensive systems integration project. That is legacy thinking, from an era of legacy technologies. With today’s cloud technologies and web APIs, we can solve problems more simply by choosing the best digital technologies and combining them in clever ways.
Moving to a more completely unified communication and collaboration platform means removing distinctions between communication, collaboration and productivity. Mobile phones won’t be the only “smart” phones; we need smart desk phones that connect naturally to workplace applications. Workplace communication and collaboration tools in the cloud will allow us to create a unified and consistent experience across multiple devices, moving businesses away from a siloed approach to communications.
One of the hottest trends in collaboration today is team messaging or “workstream communication and collaboration.” Compared with big enterprise social networking suites, workstream products tend to be much leaner and optimised for sending quick group messages.
This turns out to be the stickiest alternative to email the workplace has ever seen. For years, despite its limitations, email has beaten back all challengers as a default mode of communication within the enterprise. Yet given the option, employees are showing they will gladly channel the majority of their communication with coworkers through a team workstream rather than email. This is particularly true for tight-knit teams coordinating ongoing projects or business processes.
Once the workstream communication habit is established, it becomes much easier to layer other, richer collaboration activities on top, such as sharing files, sending tasks, calendaring events, sharing notes or launching online meetings. With the cloud these functions can be operated on multiple devices, enabling workers to access files and attend meetings through mobile apps or desktop programs.
Persistent team conversations set the context. The author of an email is supposed to establish context with the subject line, something that makes perfect sense for more formal, external communication with a customer or a partner company. Team chat excels at handling ongoing conversations about the same project or topic, where the “subject” is always the same and what’s important is the body of the message. All the files and other team artefacts, such as tasks assigned and completed, can be conserved within that same space.
Voice, video and online meetings are a natural extension. You can search the user directory for coworkers to call or video call, or you can skip the search because the people you interact with most frequently will be lined up in team chats for your projects and other work activities. With a click on a profile picture, you can go from typing messages back and forth to meeting face-to-face and sharing your screen. Again, this is not so different from the experience on your smartphone, where a messaging app includes phone and video camera icons that allow you to shift from messaging to talking when that is the more convenient way of communicating. There are now unified communications systems which include an instant messaging product, making workplace communication more seamless than ever.
The workstream model has attracted a lot of attention recently. Other unified communications providers are talking about introducing team chat to their product lines, while popular team chat products are scrambling to add voice and video communications.
One thing the new generation of solution providers have in common is that they are pursuing these goals in the cloud, which is a natural match for communication and collaboration tools designed to put remote workers on equal footing with those in the office. Web-based APIs make it far easier to integrate with other cloud apps than it ever was to work with enterprise application “connectors.”
Integration is the theme in the next generation of communication and collaboration platforms. For example, even though team messaging platforms typically include their own file sharing, they also integrate with services like Box, Dropbox, OneDrive and Google Drive, giving users more choices. Or you might want to integrate your project and API tools like Zapier, Trello, Stripe, Jira or GitHub into your communication and collaboration platform.
As a hub for integrations, a team platform can provide users with a central command center for getting work done, gathering reports from and issuing commands to other applications. For this reason, I believe workstream communication and collaboration tools are central to the future of workplace productivity. For example, an event such as a task being marked complete in a project management system can be published as a message in a team conversation. Conversely, users can invoke simple functions of other applications, such as creating a new task to be tracked, with a few keystrokes in the chat box. Over time, the currently popular slash command syntax will probably give way to something more user friendly.
What’s clear to me is that today’s incarnation of this technology is just a starting point. Going forward, there will be a lot more to unify beyond what we used to call unified communications. We should be striving to unify workplace experiences, not just technology