Complexity versus Simplicity in Making Collaboration Work

*Posted originally on Jon Arnold’s Analyst 2.0 Blog on March 16, 2015

This is the second post in my new Collaboration Insights series, with the focus being how IT needs to balance the forces of simplicity and complexity in order to get things right with collaboration. My opening post set the stage by looking at the value of collaboration for “getting work done”, which is what employees really care the most about. They don’t care about the technology that drives UC, and that brings us to the natural tension between these two forces.

The challenge of complexity

Collaboration solutions are complex for a variety of reasons, and this creates challenges for both IT and end users. Whether called UC, collaboration or UCC, these platforms can be complex to deploy, and this will be a key consideration when choosing a collaboration vendor, especially those that do not have all the applications native to their solution. Many vendors only have some core pieces of their own, with other elements such as video or conferencing being bolted on from other vendors. 

Aside from the high possibility of having a collaboration solution with a multi-vendor makeup, you have the additional challenge of integrating this with your network environment. In principal, having all the applications that drive collaboration under one roof is attractive, but these integration issues are real, and is a key reason why some enterprises are hesitant about deploying a collaboration solution. Vendors may promise a smooth deployment, but when problems arise, it’s easy to understand why enthusiasm for these offerings wanes.

There’s actually an even bigger challenge for enterprises that eschew partnering with a collaboration vendor, and instead choose to drive collaboration with their existing framework. Clearly, some enterprises do elect to take their own path, seeing vendor-based offerings as a risk rather than an opportunity – they’re too complex, no clear ROI, fuzzy business case, etc.

This actually creates greater complexity, since core collaboration applications managed internally are usually based in silos, spread across the organization. Whether it’s telephony, conferencing, video or even fax, each application tends to be managed as a point solution with dedicated resources, performance metrics and budgets.

We all know what’s possible with an integrated collaboration solution, and those results are almost impossible to achieve with this model. Without an overarching framework to integrate these standalone pieces, there is a different kind of complexity that truly limits collaboration in today’s sense of the word.

If that’s not enough, consider the challenges facing end users. Despite all the technical expertise of most IT groups, they struggle with the complexities of collaboration, both in deploying and managing the tools. Of course, their job doesn’t end there, as IT’s success with collaboration ultimately depends on end user adoption. No matter how many problems IT had to solve to seamlessly integrate collaboration applications on the network, their hard work will be for naught if the tools are too complex for end users.

You won’t have adoption problems with super users, but by design, collaboration is for everyone, and that’s how IT has to think in terms of the end result. This doesn’t just extend to the applications themselves – it includes the rules of engagement, usage policies, management controls, number of steps needed to use applications, etc. In other words, effective collaboration is about the total user experience being simple, and that’s not easy to deliver across a large organization.

The imperative of simplicity

While the reality may be complexity, the expectation should be simplicity. All of the above challenges are addressed when simplicity becomes the reality. You may not think it’s possible, especially if your organization is entrenched with silos that don’t talk to each other. Technology has a lot to do with that, and your reality may well be one where IT simply has higher priorities and resource constraints to effectively tackle the problems.

This is certainly a common theme in my research, and is a key reason why enterprises have embraced the cloud. While this seems like a panacea for everything, cloud-based collaboration solutions make a lot of sense. First off, they take the complexity off your plate by managing all the applications on a single platform. When considering purpose-built collaboration platforms, this stops being an infrastructure issue with the cloud, and instead becomes a service you consume, often referred to as UCaaS.

Think about what happens in that scenario. When you partner with vendors that have a deep understanding of both collaboration and the cloud, your IT challenges become simpler. In turn, you can focus downstream on the real success driver – end user adoption. Ideally, collaboration tools should be dead simple to use, but even if you need to school employees on just a few basic steps, that’s a far more attractive scenario that dealing them a complex hand from the start and expecting them to catch on.

Resolving the tension

So, how can IT find a middle ground to address the inherent complexity around collaboration, along with delivering the simplicity required to make it easy for employees, not to mention managing it internally? The long answer requires more in-depth posts, and for now, my message is to start at the beginning. This means recognizing the nature of this complexity and not being resigned to accept it.

Of course, this also depends on your vision for collaboration. If you’re only concerned with maintaining the status quo, complexity won’t get in the way of doing what you’ve always done. However, employees expect more now, and their jobs demand that they have better tools to be productive. The same holds for your customers, so there’s a lot at stake here. Hopefully, this is closer to your reality, and in that case, your vision needs to be about transforming how we work instead of staying the course.

The only way you’re going to get there is by tackling complexity head-on rather than letting it get in the way of collaboration. At the heart of this, you need to find ways to break down silos and leverage the cloud, and if those aren’t top-of-mind yet for your collaboration vision, I hope they are now.

photo 002Jon Arnold is Principal of J Arnold & Associates, an independent telecom analyst and strategy consultancy based in Toronto, Ontario. The consultancy’s primary focus is providing thought leadership and go-to-market counsel regarding IP communications and disruptive technologies, such as VoIP, mobile broadband, contact centers, telepresence/video, unified communications, collaboration, SIP trunking, cloud communications, session border controllers, and social media.

He has been consulting about these technologies since 2001, and can be followed on his widely-read Analyst 2.0 Blog, along with regular commentary on Twitter and Linked in. In March 2014, Jon was named a Top 100 Tech Podcaster by, and other blog accolades can be found on his full bio on the JAA website.

Jon also contributes to other publishers and portals, such as UCStrategiesZiff Davis, ADTRANTechTargetand Internet Telephony Magazine; speaks regularly at industry events, and accepts public speaking invitations. He is frequently cited in both the trade press and mainstream business press, serves as an Advisor to several emerging tech/telecom companies, and also works with companies of all sizes to help monetize their patents and intellectual property.

About Cisco Canada

Humans, devices and things are connecting. We’re assimilating a network that is complex, awe-inspiring and powerful. And we’re doing it faster than before. Tomorrow, we’ll work, live, play and learn much differently than we do today. Tomorrow’s world will surface an exciting, dynamic and thoughtful conversation — one that will transpire in the social web among thought leaders, network architects and early adopters. Cisco, the beating heart of this transformation, has the distinct opportunity and authority to lead this conversation. And with Cisco at the heart, more things will be connected, and tomorrow will be built with our imaginations. La connexion entre humains, appareils et objets est en train de s'établir. Nous sommes en voie d'assimiler un réseau complexe, imposant et puissant. Et nous sommes en train de le réaliser beaucoup plus vite qu'avant. Demain, notre travail, nos vies, nos loisirs et nos apprentissages seront très différents d'aujourd'hui. Le monde futur émergera de dialogues dynamiques et éclairés qui surgissent des liens sociaux tissés entre des chefs de file éclairés, des architectes réseau et des pionniers dans l'adoption de technologies. Et avec Cisco au coeur du mouvement, plus de choses se feront connecter qui permettra de construire un avenir fondé sur la richesse de notre imagination.
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