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Phonewashing, Cloudwashing, and Collaboration

US companies lose about $110 million per day in unrealized productivity gains, according to my survey/model methodology, and not surprisingly company management is eager to identify projects that could get some of the money back. It's also not surprising that many of these projects focus on worker communications, and some on UC and UCC. But smartphones or tablets and "the cloud" are favorite paths, and it’s hard to say whether vendors are moving forward or simply "phonewashing" or "cloudwashing" to cash in on a PR trend.

Probably the most significant change in collaboration in the last decade has been the emergence of a smartphone-driven model. For half a decade, businesses have used Blackberries to provide key workers with email and texting capability while not at their desk. When the iPhone burst on the scene and applications on smartphones gained prominence in the consumer space, enterprises also wondered whether this new approach might help to improve productivity. Some envisioned applets designed to connect to meetings, respond to requests for approval of documents or the endorsement of ideas, and to access critical applications. As this list of smartphone goals developed, people also started to wonder how smartphone applications for enterprises might be linked to cloud computing. It's kind of "Mom's Apple Pie meets Little League Baseball Team" in a marketing sense.

But linking something in a real sense and simply "washing" with it are different things. I recently saw an internal presentation from a Fortune 500 financial company that envisioned a collaborative cloud to which workers linked dynamically using tablets, smartphones, and both laptop and desktop computers. The cloud would provide access to critical business applications as well as text- and video-based collaboration in both message (email/IM) and real-time (chat, videoconference) form. I was struck by the vision, and asked the developer of the pitch when this was scheduled to go into trial. He was astonished by my question; "This is just a proof of concept to stimulate planning and explore ideas! We have no commitment to even test it out right now." He paused, then added "In fact I don't think anyone who is a stakeholder here would approve any piece of it."

To a degree, this illustrates the power of both smartphones and the cloud, and the pressure on planners to conceptualize something that somehow rolls all these exciting tech developments into a cohesive strategy. It also illustrates how far most companies feel they are from actually executing on that strategy. Here's some interesting data from my survey to prove the point:

* In 2010, 88% of enterprises believed that there were major opportunities to improve productivity with smartphones, but 74% believed that their use of smartphones so far, for email in particular, was at best productivity-neutral and at worst caused productivity loss.

* Also in 2010, nearly 100% of enterprises believed that cloud applications (public, private, and hybrid) would interface with smartphone and tablet applications to enhance worker productivity. But 81% said that they had no pilot data to show that cloud computing alone, enhanced smartphone or tablet use alone, or the two in combination had any meaningful productivity benefit. Three-quarters didn’t expect to get any such data before fall of 2011 at the earliest.

* Finally, 93% of enterprises said this year that they were going to create a new program to validate the security of smartphones and tablets and to assess the steps needed to integrate both with their applications and collaboration practices. Only 17% reported any tangible progress was expected this year, and over half said that the use of smarter devices by workers was still largely ad hoc, supported on a case-by-case basis rather than through broad policies.

The root cause of these seemingly universal contradictions is the conflict between technology planners and buyers, and their vendors. The former need to harmonize technology and business trends into a single effective strategy, and vendors try to break projects into pieces so as to shave off what they can actually do, then get it approved quickly. Buyers look to vendors, or to industry consensus, to create unifying frameworks, and they're coming up empty.

More than three-quarters of enterprises tell me that they believe collaboration and technology support of workers in general needs a new framework. Most believe that principles drawn from social networking could be a guide in how to do that. But creating a glorious whole here is going to take some time, and a bunch of vendors trying to pull their own taffy out of the ball while we try to shape it isn't going to help. There is such a thing as "social-based collaboration" but we've not made much progress in describing it or relating it to specific technologies or specific benefits.

Where's the architecture? That's the question whose answer could unite the enterprise masses. Without it we can’t link a project to benefits or cost out the technology components. Vendor attempts to compartmentalize opportunity so as to facilitate making a quick buck are hurting us, and them. Somebody has to step up and provide a cohesive technology picture that doesn't reduce to a smartphone connected to a cloud. Nobody has offered that picture yet, according to my survey, and until they do all the current speculation about smartphones and clouds and collaboration is simply muddying the waters.