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Collaboration vs Communication: Only One is Really Hard

In her post about Cisco Live and C-Scape, Blair notes that there is a difference between communication and collaboration, and that while you can have the first without the second, it doesn't work the other way around. She's right, of course, and this is a point I often make to clients, not just around collaboration, but also about CEBP and other hot-button topics of the day: Without basic communication capabilities, no one can do much of anything. And when you peel back the covers of IT at most organizations, it's surprising how many still have basic communications upgrades ahead of them--to IPT, for some, but also to presence, chat, conferencing, FMC, and some coherent, standard mobility plan.

But Blair also wonders why Cisco is ignoring unified communications these days, and she worries that the company does so at its own--and its SMB customers'--peril. The answer, I would argue, is marketing.

Unified communications is obviously where all enterprise communications are headed, eventually. Vendors needed to create UC in order to up-sell customers on new technology, and new licenses (prior to UC, enterprise communications was a mature market, IP telephony notwithstanding; conferencing and IM were the domains of smaller vendors and service providers); and the consumer word is leading us in that direction (see Skype, Google, et. al.). The trouble is, it's hard to show hard ROI in UC. While conferencing, IM and other "advanced" communications applications/services have clear hard-dollar benefits, the integration behind unified communications does not. So many companies have settled into a rational approach to deployment, which usually involves taking a "stepped" implementation of enterprise communications upgrades and new deployments. That's good for them--and the market overall, long term--but it does little to drive all-out UC spending in the near term.

And so, about a year ago, vendors started focusing on "collaboration" to convince IT buyers they need to install the latest and greatest technology right now. But when you look at what that technology is...well, it's usually the same apps that would be part of a complete UC solution: conferencing, chat, presence, and maybe integration with consumer social media like Twitter and Facebook, as well as enterprise social software for secure discussions. All that’s changed is the name.

But despite the vendors' best efforts, the move to "collaboration" won't help sell any more software than the move to "UC." Companies deploy technology when the ROI is clear, regardless of how sellers label it. And with collaboration, that ROI is even harder to prove, since it relies upon the difficult work of changing not just technology, but user behavior and corporate culture, too.