Changing work behavior and patterns are changing the way online collaboration is seen as a tool and what its purpose is meant to be. Today, with the proliferation of mobile devices and growing maturity of cloud computing, online collaboration is forced to evolve to support multiple platforms and be interoperable on existing IT networks, observers pointed out.
According to John Brand, vice president and analyst of Forrester Research's CIO group, online collaboration covers a very broad area, but a general definition would be "a unified, integrated electronic platform that supports synchronous and asynchronous communications through a variety of devices and channels". Collaboration platforms deliver a set of software services that enable individuals to find each other and the information they need, and to communicate and work together to achieve common business goals, he added in his e-mail.
The primary elements in a collaboration platform are generally messaging, such as e-mail, calendaring and contacts, team collaboration, real-time collaboration via instant messaging and conferencing, and social computing, Brand stated.
Moaiyad Taher Hoosenally, senior industry manager of Frost & Sullivan's Asia-Pacific ICT practice, noted that online collaboration has evolved "considerably and substantially" over the last few years due to the changing work environment.
Elaborating, he said project team members are usually dispersed across geographies these days. As such, they need secured tools that are easy to use and give them the flexibility to collaborate on Microsoft Word documents or PowerPoint presentations with colleagues in multiple locations, in real time.
According to findings of a Forrester study earlier this year, businesses in the Asia-Pacific region preferred document sharing as their key collaboration tool, over newer technologies such as real-time messaging and videos.
Hoosenally stressed, though, that online collaboration is different from Web conferencing and one should not be confused with the other. The former, he noted, requires team members working together at the same time and on the same document.
Microsoft took a slightly different tack in defining online collaboration, pointing out that it is not a strategy or technology. Rather, it is about removing technical barriers so people can get on with working more efficiently and effectively, saving costs and boosting output, said Alexander Oddoz-Mazet, director of business productivity solutions at Microsoft Asia-Pacific.
"The key difference between online collaboration today and older technology [such as NetMeeting] is the ability for today's services to exist on various form factors such as mobile phones, tablets, laptops and PCs through the cloud," he added in his e-mail.
For instance, Redmond's Office 365, Lync, SharePoint and Exchange come together to facilitate easier management and interoperability with existing IT systems, thereby providing the "best productivity experience across all devices" including the PC, mobile phone and browser, the executive highlighted.
Strong business case a must
Quizzed on how receptive companies are to online collaboration, Hoosenally said enterprises are looking at it "very favorably and positively" as its benefits can be immediately reaped.
That said, there needs to be a very strong business case for companies to adopt the technology, he noted. Key considerations for deployment include "security, return on investment (ROI), ease of use, integration with existing tech infrastructure, post-sales support and type of hosted or managed offerings from vendors", the analyst said.
Brand also pointed out that the main challenge for organizations is determining the right sourcing and implementation strategy for online collaboration.
According to him, companies' perceptions around Web-based collaboration are being reshaped. This is because they are discovering that hosted services can provide more effective collaboration platforms than solutions deployed and managed internally, and realizing that online collaboration needs to go beyond the company's four walls to engage with external parties such as customers, suppliers and partners, he explained.
"The technology is becoming less of an issue for organizations. It's typically more about user adoption and preferences, information security and governance now," he said.
Brand pointed out that Microsoft, IBM and Cisco Systems still have a healthy lead in the online collaboration space but Web companies such as Google and Yahoo, among others, are making "some very good inroads".
Cloud inspiring social enterprises
One vendor is placing its bets on helping companies deploy user-focused online collaboration platforms to challenge these market incumbents.
Steve McWhirter, senior vice president of enterprise sales at Salesforce.com, said the "greatest dramatic shift" over the past few years has been the uptake of personal and business collaboration on public and private social networks, which has led today's CEOs to look at collaboration on several fronts.
He shared: "These CEOs are asking me 'How do I connect better with everyone who touches my brand? How do I use social networks to engage with my customers? How do I connect with employees to increase productivity and spur innovation?"
To address this shift, McWhirter said cloud-based apps and platforms would give companies the ability to connect and engage with the people that matter to them--a vision the company calls "social enterprises".
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff had introduced the social enterprise concept early last month, saying companies ought to heed workers' needs in order to avoid an organizational social divide that could lead to leadership changes, mirroring the political turmoil experienced by countries such as Libya, Egypt and Tunisia.