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Get Your Team Together, and Federate

Over the last several weeks, the Enterprise Connect program team has been hosting brainstorming sessions with the industry experts who help us craft the sessions for the event. We discussed what's top of their -- and their clients' -- minds regarding enterprise communications and collaboration, and -- no surprise to most anybody reading this article, I'm sure -- team collaboration is among the topics in virtually every conversation.

Earlier this week, for example, we chatted with Diane Myers, senior research director at IHS Markit. Myers presented the "Team Collaboration Services: Market Landscape" session at Enterprise Connect 2017 and, more recently, shared her latest industry research in the No Jitter On Air podcast episode, "UCaaS Scorecard: Rating the Market Leaders." She has a number of persistent questions about team collaboration, including:

  • How does team collaboration relate to UCaaS?
  • Do first-to-market but standalone tools such as those from Slack and Atlassian have longevity, or are they at risk as one UC/UCaaS provider after another offers up its own take on team collaboration?
  • What are the challenges for enterprises that have three, four, five different team collaboration apps in use among various constituencies?
  • How might an enterprise go about opening up team collaboration apps to customers, business partners, and other external parties as the need arises?

Kevin Kieller, founding partner at UC consulting firm EnableUC, put this latter point in perspective from his work with Skype for Business. Kieller led an Enterprise Connect 2017 session on making the right choices with Skype for Business, as well as the session, "Team Collaboration Apps: What's Under the Hood?" In addition, regular No Jitter readers will recognize him through his periodic "Success with Skype" pieces, including his latest in that series: "Success with Skype: Confronting the Monster in the Mirror." (Stay tuned for deeper technical dives from him, too, as he's currently working on the inaugural pieces of a new series, "Sophisticated Skype"). Many enterprises that have adopted the Office 365 bundle are still trying to sort out how to get the most out of all the various pieces, Skype for Business included, available in that bundle. Now that Teams is part of the equation, that challenge is greater than ever.

One sticking point is how to reconcile Teams usage with Skype for Business. Another is the issue of support for external team members, with the promised Guest Access capability yet to be delivered. Microsoft is apparently having trouble figuring out the federation model for Teams, Kieller said.

With these conversations fresh on the mind, you can understand why a Cisco Blog headlined "Universal Federation in Cisco Spark: Collaborate with Anyone" grabbed my attention when it posted earlier this week (as well as why I had to laugh when I read the opening line, "Really and seriously, and I mean it this time."

The author, Jonathan Rosenberg, Cisco Fellow, VP, and CTO for the company's Collaboration business, neatly recaps the history of federation... from no-federation to bilateral federation and on to multilateral federation via federation clearinghouses. But then along came the consumer app model of "borderless communications"... and thank goodness for that, he wrote.

You could say team collaboration in general takes a page out of the consumer world, and Cisco certainly has done so with the federation model it uses with its entry, Cisco Spark. Cisco calls its approach "universal federation," a mashup of the any-to-any communications found in consumer apps with the security and policy capabilities required for workplace tools, Rosenberg wrote. Three elements make the difference between universal federation and what's previously been available for business apps, he explained:

  1. Zero setup or configuration - The common ground is work email, Rosenberg said. "A user in Company A only needs the email address of the other user to message with them in a Cisco Spark space, or to place a call to them -- that's it."
  2. Feature transparency - With universal federation, every bit of functionality available for internal Spark users is the same for external users. "That means voice calling, video calling, spaces, content sharing, group-read notifications, message deletion, and so on," Rosenberg said.
  3. Ability to communicate with free/consumer users - Since Spark comes in a free version, anybody -- literally -- can use it. So that means universal federation will enable employees to communicate with anybody else, anywhere -- that freelancer working on a one-time project or even your granny.

My experience with Spark (free version) is limited, so I can't speak to whether Cisco really has found the magic bullet for federated team collaboration. Sure does sound easy, though -- if it works. And as Myers said, Rosenberg's post sure is timely.

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