Microsoft’s collaboration story is pretty muddled. The unified communications vendor has several applications with overlapping features: Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams, Yammer, Office 365 Groups and even Outlook all handle varying degrees of collaboration. Of all these products, Skype for Business and Microsoft Teams are perhaps the two most ripe for consolidation.
Right now, the two products are separate entities that complement each other, said Irwin Lazar, an analyst with Nemertes Research, a tech advisory firm based in Mokena, Ill.
“In the longer term, I think you’ll see Teams take the place of Skype for Business,” he said. “If I were a company looking at rolling out Teams and supporting Skype for Business, I might hold off until Microsoft does the inevitable conversion of those two products.”
Skype for Business offers both on-premises and cloud products as well as a hybrid option. Microsoft Teams is a newer cloud-based, messaging-centric collaboration app. Both products are part of Office 365 and feature messaging, presence, and voice and video communications. However, Skype for Business has additional features including PSTN calling and conferencing.
Does Microsoft UC lack harmony?
Microsoft, like many other vendors, is prioritizing development of cloud services rather than focusing on premises-based products.
Additionally, team applications are becoming the next UC client, Lazar said. For example, while Cisco still supports its collaboration service Jabber, the vendor is pushing new development into its Spark product. RingCentral, too, recently revamped its UC product based on its acquisition of the team collaboration tool Glip.
When compared to Microsoft, other UC vendors — including Cisco, RingCentral, Mitel and BroadSoft — have more harmonized products that converge team messaging and UC. Microsoft is probably a year away from having that kind of harmony, Lazar said.
“They still have work to do to improve the overall user experience, and making team chat fundamental to what they’re doing,” Lazar said. “But, in the mid- to large-size market, they’re still the ones to beat.”
Looking for a clear roadmap
Meantime, UC analyst Dave Michels raised his own questions about the vision and leadership of Skype for Business. He, too, sees Teams bulking up and Skype for Business slimming or slowing down.
“It seems reasonable Microsoft might double-down on Teams as it is new, home-grown, built for Office 365 and appears to be on the fast track,” Michels wrote. “I expect Skype for Business will see a few more incremental improvements . . . but I don’t expect any big innovations in 2017.”
Michels also said the Skype for Business roadmap is unclear. After management moves at Microsoft, he also wondered who exactly is steering the Skype for Business ship. He added: “It might make sense to move Skype for Business development resources to Teams until the dust settles.”
Skype for Business did receive a couple of updates in March with the addition of auto attendant and call queues to the Skype for Business cloud PBX. Skype for Business software has also made its way into meeting rooms with the help of hardware from partner vendors Crestron, Logitech and Polycom. Microsoft also announced in March a preview release of Skype for Business Online Call Analytics, a dashboard that helps IT managers identify and address call-quality issues.
Microsoft’s current lack of a collaboration vision hasn’t exactly hurt the company. At last tally, Office 365 had more than 100 million monthly commercial active users.
These days, disruption and innovation entwine like a hashtag. As an example, Slack and other messaging platforms have ruffled the unified communications market with a new way of working and collaborating.
Several factors have sparked the success of messaging platforms and disrupted traditional UC offerings. For instance, consumer communication habits, such as texting, have bled into the business world. Younger workers, reared on the internet and mobile devices, prefer texting rather than calling. Teams are more dispersed, too, which underscores the need for new collaboration tools. And, alas, work never stops in this always-on, project-based business environment.
Aside from shifting workplace and workforce trends, the technology has also evolved to focus on cloud, software and web-based communications, which aim to ease UC deployments.
Slack and other messaging platforms — such as Bitrix24, HipChat, Redbooth and Ryver — offer variations to traditional UC. Enterprises would be well advised to track these new tools to ensure their UC services are keeping pace with this collaboration transformation and determine if messaging platforms coalesce with their communication needs, according to independent analyst Jon Arnold.
“Slack represents a new way of working,” Arnold said in a recent Ziff Davis webinar. “It’s different but not necessarily better. Slack is not the ultimate solution for all types of working.”
Freemium model drives rapid adoption
Ultimately, messaging platforms buck traditional UC, which has its roots in telephony. At the same time, Slack and others are morphing into more robust collaboration products as they incorporate voice and video capabilities. Slack is also rolling out an enterprise plan that touts enhanced security and administrative controls.
At last count, Slack boasted more than 4 million daily active users and 1.25 million paying users. Slack is backed by nearly $4 billion from investors.
The free version of Slack and other messaging platforms has been particularly disruptive to the UC market, Arnold said, as end users can easily download the app for free and test it without IT intervention. This freemium model also fuels rapid adoption, and users can upgrade to paid versions with more features.
“Starting out with free is a good way to make a big impression,” Arnold said of the messaging platforms.
But the freemium model also has limited features. For companies that have enterprise-grade demands, Slack and other startups might not be the best fit, Arnold said.
A different form of collaboration
Slack also excels via partnerships and integrations with other web-based applications. In particular, Slack’s integration with Google is one to watch, Arnold said. The two companies have deepened their file-sharing capabilities as Google looks to become an enterprise player and compete with Microsoft.
Other notable partnerships include integrations with SAP and IBM to build in chat bots. A Salesforce customer relationship management integration also makes Slack more valuable in the contact center.
For enterprises with roots in on-premises legacy systems, Slack and other cloud-based messaging platforms might be difficult to comprehend. As outsiders, the Slacks of the world approach collaboration differently.
“Their concept of collaboration might be very different from yours,” Arnold said. “I’m not saying one is better than the other, but they will be different.”
Although voice communications is an important driver for conventional forms of UC, mobile-centric messaging can also boost productivity and drive business value.
“This disruption is real,” Arnold said. “And you have to consider — is this disruption or innovation? Is it good or bad? Is it an opportunity or a threat? It’s a bit of both.”
Unified communications security is venturing into unknown territory with the growing trend of embedding communications into business applications. New security challenges could emerge for IT as organizations fuse their communications to business apps by using APIs and communications platform as a service (CPaaS).
For instance, if an organization has used a communications API to embed click-to-call in a sales management app and the app got hacked, the hacker could access the organization’s phone system.
“If someone figures out how to route their traffic over my CPaaS connection, it’s a new era of toll fraud,” Nemertes Research analyst Irwin Lazar said.
Most CPaaS and API providers, such as Twilio and TokBox, haven’t quite discussed their positioning around security for their APIs, Lazar said. However, the vendors do offer security features such as encryption and authentication.
If a communications API is compromised, organizations could lose business if their services are made inoperable and transaction data is stolen. Also, a provider could lose credibility if a hacker uses an API for other purposes, said WebRTC consultant and API expert Tsahi Levent-Levi.
He said hackers would likely target the point of integration between a communications API and business application. “That is where care and attention to security will be at its lowest,” he said.
However, communication APIs aren’t wholly insecure. They do include security features such as transport layer security for API calls, the ability to revoke and regenerate API keys, role-based access to an API provider’s back end and an audit log of actions performed by users and API calls, Levent-Levi said.
To protect themselves, organizations must evaluate a CPaaS or API provider’s security measures, as well as their own. These measures range from role-based management of accounts to API keys that encrypt data in transit.
Levent-Levi said organizations should select API developers who understand security and have developed cloud services in the past. An external security audit of potential providers can validate a provider’s security practices.
Organizations must take similar precautions to lock down the business apps they are using with communication APIs to prevent hackers from stealing access keys and sensitive data or intercepting communications, he said.
Digital transformation plans are becoming popular; and for some organizations, enterprise collaboration is at the heart of it all.
The days of collaborating only in the office with a set number of tools are long gone. Now, collaboration occurs between internal and external users, and employees often bypass IT to use the apps they want.
Communication tools need to adapt to these collaboration trends, said Nick Patience, an analyst at 451 Research, a tech research firm based in New York. Nearly one-third of organizations have a formal digital transformation strategy, and another one-third is in the planning stages, he said.
In a recent webinar, Patience described a hierarchy of enterprise collaboration. The largest tier in the hierarchy is the individual user who needs to collaborate seamlessly across devices.
The middle tier is teams and departments where employees want to collaborate across the organization. The smallest tier is cross-organizational where employees want to collaborate with outside users and not worry about security, Patience said.
IT decision-makers see file-sharing tools, such as Box and Dropbox, as the enterprise collaboration software that will have the most transformative effect on workflows, he said. Social networking tools, project management tools, and web and video conferencing are also expected to affect digital transformation.
Supporting enterprise collaboration with cloud infrastructure
A cloud-based infrastructure has become increasingly important to support the evolution of collaboration software.
The percentage of organizations that don’t use cloud services is declining, according to Melanie Posey, research vice president at 451 Research. Organizations are increasingly deploying software as a service, infrastructure as a service and private cloud platforms to support employee workloads and business apps. Posey said 76% of workloads are expected to run in the cloud within two years.
“This is where digital transformation comes in,” she said in a webinar. “Cloud is the foundation on which digital transformation is happening.”
Organizations seem to be split on their approach to cloud deployments. In a survey of 935 IT decision-makers, one-third reported deploying new apps they didn’t have before the cloud, one-third are modernizing their current apps by moving to hosted software and one-third are migrating existing apps to cloud infrastructure.
Hybrid cloud will come into play as organizations opt for IT environments that mix on-premises and cloud services. A second facet of hybrid will see organizations focusing on the interoperability of cloud environments, such as private and public clouds working together to deliver business apps, Posey said.
Team chat is the latest trend in unified communications as business-based messaging has capitalized on the popularity and ubiquity of consumer-based texting. Team chat ultimately aims to boost worker productivity and streamline business workflows.
The popularity of team chat apps has soared in the past year. According to a Nemertes Research study of 40 midsize to large organizations, the use of team chat apps has grown from 2% in 2015 to 33% in 2016.
But a couple analysts are divided on the staying power of team chat apps.
“There’s a lot of hype around this space,” said Frost & Sullivan analyst Rob Arnold, “but I don’t know if these tools are going to be the collaboration solution for the way people work.”
Certain platforms and apps, such as enterprise social software, have tried in the past to create a hub of communications and collaboration, Arnold said. Team chat apps now follow that tradition.
“I like the concept and premise of combining all these communication tools, but I haven’t seen it truly done yet,” he said.
Vendors are rolling out team chat apps to ward off competitors, provide tighter integration for their services or differentiate their services, Arnold said. But as vendors add more tools to their portfolios, users might become overwhelmed.
“There are so many options available,” he said. “You want to have the tools you’re comfortable and confident with.”
However, team chat apps could surpass other previous social platforms by offering better real-time collaboration, said Nemertes Research analyst Irwin Lazar.
“People hate email and have moved into a text-first environment,” he said. “If they’re going to talk to someone, they text before picking up the phone and calling.”
Team chat apps — such as Slack, Spark and the recently announced Microsoft Teams — are as easy to use as texting, but enable corporate control and context, Lazar said.
Enterprise social software, on the other hand, was a massive undertaking for organizations, Lazar said. The deployments usually required a community manager and a complex platform for complex use cases.
“Team chat apps become a hub for work, which is a model that appeals to a lot of people,” he said. “This model is very different from social software.”
Team chat keeps conversations within the context of a topic. Users can also attach files, notes and hyperlinks to a chat space. Lazar said Nemertes uses Slack for internal communication and email for external communication.
“We’ve heard for years that social is going to replace email,” he said. “Team chat has finally done it.”
End users are embracing collaboration in new ways as they use multiple devices to complete their tasks, but they expect communication to flow seamlessly through all their devices as they work.
These employee expectations reinforce the need for organizations to deploy unified communications and collaboration (UCC) technology that melds audio, video and web conferencing, messaging and presence, said Wainhouse Research analyst Bill Haskins in a recent webinar.
Organizations experience five stages of transformation as they deploy and expand UCC technology investments, Haskins said.
Stage one is the siloed organization. At this stage, organizations are still relying on analog technology, such as TDM, and have yet to transition to VoIP. Individual teams within the organization may be bringing in their own collaboration tools, but the organization has no official collaboration strategy.
Organizations that want to move to the next stage should evaluate any costly and outdated technology and identify how IP services can improve collaboration.
Stage two is the enhanced enterprise. Enterprises have started the transition to IP technology, and collaboration tools, such as instant messaging and presence, emerge across the organization. However, the collaboration tools lack integration.
To move to the next stage, enterprises should consider where integration makes sense and focus on teams that exhibit good collaboration habits for others to model.
Stage three is the integrated enterprise. UCC technology is becoming increasingly integrated as organizations look to introduce tools like room-based video conferencing onto users’ desktops. Organizations start to embrace more distributed teams and expand their employee recruiting efforts.
The next step for integrated enterprises is to evaluate UCC vendors to find which one could provide a platform with a consolidated and consistent user experience.
Stage four is the unified enterprise. Users have migrated to a single UCC platform for all their collaboration tools. The strategy around collaboration shifts from cost savings to productivity.
Next, an enterprise should look at workflows that can be empowered with communications. Also, look for partners that offer API expertise, line-of-business integration and the development of skill sets.
Stage five is the transformed enterprise. Organizations are transforming workflows with integrated communications. But enterprises at this stage still have work to do. They must keep up to date on UCC technology advancements. The cloud is key for enterprises, in this case, as it alleviates UCC management burdens.
There is a three-step process for organizations as they move through these stages of deploying UCC technology, said Peter Quinlan, vice president of UCC product management at Tata Communications, which sponsored the webinar.
The first step is to focus on the areas that have the greatest impact. These are areas that would make the biggest difference for your users and your business. Organizations should also address major collaboration pain points.
The second step is to plan what comes next. Users can only handle so much change, Quinlan said, so there is a lot of risk in replacing everything at once.
Step three is to ensure the success of each individual project. Organizations should make sure each collaboration project achieves ROI and delivers benefits in the form of capabilities, features, productivity and user experience. Every upgrade should build on what came before and allow for future expansion.
Organizations that want to move on from a legacy communications infrastructure and break down application silos are turning to digital transformation strategies.
According to a survey from Nemertes Research, nearly 70% of the 368 IT leaders surveyed have a digital transformation initiative even if they don’t necessarily call it that. These initiatives include leveraging communications platform as a service (CPaaS) and application program interfaces (APIs) to embed communications into business applications. Organizations are also looking to deploy cloud-based unified communications to further their digital transformation plans.
Organizations are developing digital transformation initiatives to improve business processes, customer service, speed of business and employee interactions, according to the survey. These key drivers create business value for organizations, whether it’s reduced costs or higher sales.
While many organizations are aiming for some kind of digital transformation, only a few are fully digitized, according to a study from Forrester Consulting. More than 50% of the 158 IT professionals surveyed are behind “the maturity curve,” Forrester said, but their organizations expect to have all-digital workflows within the next two years.
Organizations that struggle to support digital transformation initiatives often lack a combination of three factors: budget, expertise and leadership.
“Bolt-on digital initiatives and legacy technologies perpetuate application silos that create barriers for efficiently completing work tasks,” according to the Forrester study, which was commissioned by Alfresco Software. “IT leaders will seek technologies that eliminate these silos in order to deliver the right information within the right application environment at the right time.”
But what does an organization with a successful digital transformation initiative look like? According to the Nemertes survey, successful organizations have a budget per employee and an advisory board or CEO to spearhead the initiative. Successful digital companies also engage IT and business units and include a marketing strategy controlled by IT or corporate leaders.
“The more successful companies invest more in technology overall,” said Nemertes analyst Robin Gareiss. “IT success is greater when you have digital transformation in it.”
When planning a rollout of new unified communications and collaboration tools, organizations must view their entire workforce as virtual even if it may not necessarily be the case.
More than half of knowledge workers routinely work from a remote location, typically from home or a satellite office, rather than a corporate office, according to a Frost & Sullivan survey of 406 IT decision makers that examined the impact of a virtual workforce on their UCC tools investment priorities.
Even employees who work from a traditional corporate location are virtual workers since the people they need to work with on a daily basis may not be in the same location, said Melanie Turek, vice president of research at Frost & Sullivan, in a recent webinar that examined the survey results.
The survey found that smartphones are the most common UCC endpoints, with 75% of IT decision makers currently using smartphones for business purposes. Nearly one-quarter of IT decision makers expect to use smartphones within the next three years.
Headsets, too, are becoming popular in organizations as more employees use conferencing tools.
“As we move forward with UCC, we’re finding more people need some way of keeping their hands free while working and participating in calls,” Turek said.
The survey found smartphones, instant messaging, headsets and conferencing services were the most important UCC tools for business productivity. This finding mirrored IT decision makers’ budget priorities. The survey found that IT leaders will prioritize smartphones, tablets, social media and collaboration technology in their 2016 and 2017 budgets.
To support the different UCC tools required for a virtual workforce, organizations are moving away from a single-vendor infrastructure. With so many tools available, Turek said, enterprises might struggle to maintain a single-vendor service that would meet everyone’s communication needs. Instead, organizations are looking to multi-vendor infrastructures that integrate the tools employees need.
But organizations planning to roll out new UCC tools must consider the business roles of their employees.
“Not everyone needs all these tools,” Turek said. Organizations should not approach UCC with company-wide deployments, but instead think about why they need a certain tool, what business goals the tools will help and who will benefit the most.
Employee collaboration habits have prompted new ways of working, and IT’s role has changed in the process.
Employees are embracing collaboration, remote working and bringing their own apps and services into workplaces and business processes. IT must get a handle on these trends or risk not only security, regulatory and cost issues, but control over the technology in an organization.
To do so, IT must evolve to focus on both the technology and business processes, said Melanie Turek, vice president of research at Frost & Sullivan, in a recent webinar that explored IT’s evolving role in UCC.
The biggest challenge facing IT, particularly in larger enterprises, is the number of collaboration apps that employees are using on their own. IT must determine which of these apps are used in the organization and how they fill a business need that IT is not addressing. Then IT must plan on how to get users off those apps and services and onto company-approved apps.
“There is a gap between what the business side wants and what IT wants,” Turek said. “The most successful companies bridge that gap.”
To bridge that gap, IT managers should team up with line-of-business (LOB) managers to understand end-user needs and create policies for the apps, services and devices allowed in an organization.
They should plan strategically about which apps employees can use. IT should whitelist approved apps, enable cloud-based access from any device with single sign-on, and establish rights based on a user’s role, location and status, Turek said.
LOB managers should help IT assess end-user needs, including where employees work and whether their work is collaborative. Assessing end-user needs helps IT determine which tools will fit those needs.
“You want to get as specific as you can,” she said. “A financial services organization is going to use something like video conferencing very differently from a healthcare organization.”
IT managers need a deeper understanding of their users’ business processes in order to support them.
“For so many years they focused on bits and bytes,” Turek said. “Now they have to learn about the business and industry, and how business processes work.”
Nemertes Research analyst Irwin Lazar said the biggest issue he’s seen with Skype for Business deployments is performance management.
“Organizations struggle with the tools to do quality management,” he said.
For organizations that deploy Skype for Business as a softphone-based application, voice quality is the main struggle, Lazar said. With softphone apps, organizations are running Skype clients on a laptop or PC and cannot manage voice traffic like they could with a traditional voice deployment. Segmenting and prioritizing voice traffic over other data traffic on the network becomes impossible.
“If you roll it out and people aren’t happy with the voice experience, the question becomes: What can you do to fix it?” Lazar said. Many organizations turn to third-party providers, like IR and Nectar, to manage voice QoS for Skype for Business.
Rely on user feedback, management tools for voice quality of service
“Quality of service is critical,” said Skip Chilcott, global head of product marketing at performance management software provider IR.
He said most organizations want to ensure they have tools that offer benchmarks to show Skype for Business performs better or the same as their previous system. Benchmarks can also help organizations automate management of Skype for Business QoS.
Chilcott said Skype for Business has seven codecs that can be used in a call. With performance management tools, like analytics and call monitoring, several codecs can be used on a call automatically based on QoS levels.
Additionally, organizations should not confuse QoS with quality of experience. For instance, a user might report a bad experience or voice quality, but the system reports good QoS, he said.
Chilcott said organizations must separate experience from service and rely on both user feedback and management tools to ensure good performance of Skype for Business.