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2018 Outlook: The Shape of Collaboration

I saw "The Shape of Water" over the holiday break, and couldn't help but see some parallels with the collaboration space as we head into 2018. The title of the film is bit of an oxymoron, much like the term "team collaboration" -- as if there's any other mode for collaborating. By nature, all forms of collaboration are team-based, and the fact this term exists says a lot about how hard describing the UCC space actually is.

Along the same lines, water is "shaped" by whatever form contains it, whether that be a land mass to form a lake, or as in the film, a bathtub or -- spoiler alert -- the bathroom itself. Likewise, collaboration will occur with -- or be shaped by -- whatever tools are available. Workers can get great collaboration results using just one application, or by using many -- with or without a platform like UC. Bottom line: There's no fixed way to collaborate, just like there's no fixed shape for water.

Another parallel worth noting is in terms of binary scenarios that are equally possible. Just as water is essential for life, it can also take life under a variety of unfortunate circumstances. Similarly, when collaboration tools are properly used, businesses can get great productivity results. However, the opposite can occur when those same tools are poorly used, or the tools are simply inadequate for the needs at hand.

IT Needs to Think Differently About Collaboration

When I start to think about collaboration the way that movie made me think about water, what becomes clear is that, well, nothing is clear. A recurring theme in my writing is that IT decision-makers must think differently about collaboration than they do about conventional communications applications like telephony, video, or conferencing. All of these have clearly-defined use cases and value propositions, and perhaps more importantly, end users intuitively know how to use them.

Building a fence around "collaboration" is much harder, and requires a different mindset. With so many applications now being user-defined, IT has to move on from the command-and-control model that has worked so well for legacy technology. Furthermore, the thinking has to shift from point solutions like IP phones to platforms or frameworks that support a rich mix of applications available for workers to use cafeteria-style as needs dictate.

For all of these reasons, the fragmentation in the UCC space, with a range of offerings supporting a dizzying array of collaboration scenarios, will only intensify in 2018. One would think that with all the consolidation we saw in 2017, things would start to standardize now that there'll be fewer players. At the top end, the playing field seems set, but if anything, the overall pie is only getting bigger.

There's no shortage of new cloud-based entries chasing the lower end of the market, but it's important to be mindful of why things are consolidating. Naturally, the Tier 1 players need to bulk up to protect their bases and ensure the smaller players don't dilute their market power too much. That said, I would argue a more important driver for them is to prepare for the inevitable entry of outsiders that are even bigger than they. Not even the Great Wall of China will keep out the likes of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, and the encroachment is already well underway.

Massive size aside, these particular companies have long eyed the enterprise market for growth, and it looks like 2018 will be the year they really make their marks. Another common thread, of course, is that none of them are native to UCC, and have no legacy baggage. They're free to shape collaboration in their images, and however they go to market, the approaches will be different from what you know. In this context, these players will be both innovative and disruptive, with each force having a different impact on the shape of collaboration.

They bring innovation by taking fresh approaches to the problem set, along with their own developer ecosystems to ensure continuous enhancements for richer user experiences. They also bring disruption, notably in two forms. First, since collaboration isn't core to their businesses, revenues are secondary to adoption, and since free/near-free beats paid every time, they have natural advantages for gaining early traction.

Secondly, they bring disruption by developing offerings that are totally digital and cloud-based from the bottom-up. They already excel at ease of use and have strong consumer brands, both of which can feed their artificial intelligence (AI) efforts to take collaboration to another level. Rather than build around communications the way conventional UC has done, they're embedding communications into platforms that leverage AI to automate tasks and processes -- and this in turn will help end users collaborate more effectively. That's a big product promise, and it goes well beyond the conventional model you may associate with UC.

How Will You Shape Collaboration in 2018?

That's really the question I'm asking here, and it's very open-ended. The starting point is to think about collaboration as a fluid concept, and one that you're free to define. However, IT shouldn't have the last word, as your success ultimately depends on end-user adoption, so end users need to be part of your thought process.

However, IT shouldn't have the last word, as your success ultimately depends on adoption, both from end users and lines of business (LOB). Without broad end-user adoption, your collaboration deployment will not gain traction, and if you can't meet their needs, LOB have the means to make their own plans by going direct to a cloud-based provider. As such, both type of stakeholders need to be part of your thought process around collaboration.

  Learn more about Unified Communications & Collaboration -- and Team Collaboration -- at Enterprise Connect 2018, March 12 to 15, in Orlando, Fla. Register now using the code NOJITTER to save an additional $200 off the Advance Rate or get a free Expo Plus pass.

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