At a technology level, there seems little to stop widely dispersed workers from collaborating in real time on many projects. But there are problems. According to a recent white paper from the Sand Hill Group and Citrix, the key to collaborative work is communications skills and supportive tools.

While technology can do little to improve communication skills, it is the core technology that enables dispersed teams to operate, without which the whole concept of business collaboration and social business is just a lot of hot air. But many enterprises are not sure what tools they should be using.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the most effective collaboration tools are currently in the cloud, which has enabled small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) to lead the charge on this, but it is a move that is being followed in large enterprises, particularly at departmental level.

Cloud Collaboration Is Catching

Current cloud-based applications that enable collaboration include things such as high-definition video built around high-bandwidth Internet networks, while most applications at this point are accessible almost anywhere through mobile devices, and are nearly instantaneously scalable.

The white paper, entitled Business Collaboration in the Cloud, argues that a perfect storm is forming to push cloud computing forward. There are three elements to this:

  1. Technologies such as virtualization, open-source, massive-scale automation, and multi-tenancy have enabled mass adoption.
  2. Positive experiences of the cloud have far outnumbered negative experiences and stories around this are filtering across the marketplace.
  3. The recession is pushing many CIOs to look for other ways to save money.

A study by the Sand Hill Group across 511 technology decision makers -- the findings of which were published in their Leaders in the Cloud report -- showed that already, at that stage, 60% of participants had implemented cloud solutions, with a notable portion of SMBs running over 80% of their business from the cloud.

Cloud Collaboration Challenges

If it were that easy, then why isn’t everyone going there? The answer is also simple: There are a number of challenges, which Citrix and Sand Hill have broken down into three elements:

1. Poor Meeting Management and Collaboration

Distributed environments need some investment. It is often the case that, to get a collaborative environment running, it needs support from a number of different departments around the enterprise.

Common communication tools such as email, telephone and instant messaging only go so far and they don’t provide the rich communication medium required by people to work collaboratively on presentations, documents or designs.

The cost behind complex collaboration products and low employee adoption, according to the paper, has put many firms off investing.

Lacking effective solutions, companies just throw the towel in and pay for their employees to travel.

2. Lost Productivity Due to Downtime

IT teams in distributed environments are obliged to provide support to all employees distributed across the globe. The paper argues that it can take up to 45 minutes with a technician to regulate even the simplest problem when the worker is remote.

When the technicians are unable to get physical access to the machine in question, it can take an average of 40% to 50% longer. Moreover, remote workers have a wide collection of routers and firewalls that require more work to troubleshoot. This challenge has a ripple effect on productivity:

  • Increased travel and shipping costs
  • Lower customer satisfaction
  • Multiple calls to resolve the issue
  • Increased overall incident-handling times

3. Lack of Timely Access to Information

When workers can only contact thier colleagues and clients from their desktop, there are a number of business implications:

  • Lost business opportunities
  • Reduced customer satisfaction
  • Lowered productivity

It is on the back of this, Citrix says, that enterprises are turning to the cloud. Companies are turning to cloud solutions to overcome the productivity and continuity challenges of distributed workforces.
In particular, SaaS applications that are hosted by the vendor and provided as a service to the end user have made the virtual workplace a reality.

Collaboration Requirements

Among users, there are a number of things that are being used on a consistent basis to make virtual collaboration a reality. While there are clearly many more than the following list of three, these ones, according to the paper, have proved to be the most popular:

  • Technologies that enable workers to conduct face-to-face meetings in real time and collaborate on those projects, also in real time. This often involves video, but not necessarily. They should also offer access to documents or other content remotely.
  • Users can gain access to their PCs, Macs, documents, presentations and spreadsheets remotely from any location.
  • Technologies that allow IT services can remotely investigate with user’s laptops, desktops and mobile devices remotely.

SaaS Collaboration

There is evidence that the move to the cloud for many companies, especially larger companies, will be a slow process. In the intervening period, to provide the functionality outlined, many are turning to SaaS models, which provide considerably more agility and cost savings than the on-premise model.

Advantages of SaaS business problems can include:

  • Capital costs: The capital costs can be considerably less as companies don’t have to invest in a large amount of hardware. Neither do they generally have to pay considerable upfront license fees or maintenance fees for software. Typically, enterprises pay for what they use and on a per-user license fee.
  • Accessibility: Generally, access anywhere and at any time can be used by individual or geographically dispersed teams.
  • Maintenance: SaaS applications are ready to use. SaaS vendors develop applications that are cheaper, easier-to-use, easy to configure, and can be integrated generally with legacy systems.
  • Secure: Although many companies are still concerned about security, many of them have already deployed applications that range from email and collaboration products to business systems and Web 2.0 products. Multi-tenant technologies have enabled economies of scale, the segmentation of customers and other operational efficiencies.
  • Upgrades: SaaS applications provide easy upgrades with additional features with no extra costs.

Vendor Checklist

For all this to work, enterprises need to consider a number of things before going with one vendor or another. The first thing in all IT investment is planning. Different vendors will provide different lists of priorities, but according to the paper, there is a functionality list that all should be able to provide. For those looking for collaboration capabilities, these include:

  • Virtual meetings: Obviously easy communication is essential, but in an ideal world they should also be able to provide document sharing during those meetings, whether those documents are simple documents or complex presentations.
  • Downtime: Enterprises need to be shown that downtime is at an absolute minimum. This should be accompanied with guaranteed IT assistance in the event of a "down" event.
  • Information access: Companies need to enable remote workers to securely and quickly connect with desktops, data silos and any IT resource needed to make enable workers accomplish tasks remotely.

This is only an outline, but covers the main points. However, the key to all IT is planning and without that all IT projects are bound to failure.