For the last 20 years, I have been part of a boutique consulting firm and the last two years have seen dramatic changes. We had an office, but the objective was never to be there – as a consultant, your objective was to be at a client site, to be chargeable.
I spent time working while on planes, trains, automobiles, client sites, airports, and coffee shops. I was always challenged to stay connected with other members of our team. Phone calls, remote access, Skype, file shares, and a plethora of other tools were used to keep track of things and to share information with one another. We had email in the Office 365 cloud and some basic replication capabilities with OneDrive, but that was not scalable, nor collaborative. Collaboration was never easy and rarely authentic.
In 2017, we started looking at procuring better collaboration tools. We investigated several tools including Microsoft Teams (release March 2017), but they only had pieces of the solution we were looking for. We replaced more expensive video conferencing with Skype for Business Online, for some decent video conferencing capabilities, and added cloud-based UC from another third-party provider to improve our access to voice communications. This was better than what we started with, but not yet the solution we needed – too many point tools and not enough integration or workflow.
Second Phase: A Deeper Look
In the summer of 2018, we took a deeper look at Microsoft Teams again, including its roadmap in our evaluations. Skeptically, a few of us jumped in on a proof of concept (PoC). We pulled document management, chat, and video conferencing into one application, all in the cloud with no remote access hassles. It was better, and we could start to see that the roadmap was headed in the right direction. The rest of our team jumped in and started using Teams for internal and client projects. Consultants could collaborate on documents, chat or have ad-hoc video calls to meet and discuss various topics, and keep all files in one place with easier ability to share -- all in real time, from anywhere they could get an Internet connection. Suddenly, we did not have to be in the office but we still felt like a tightly integrated team.
We adjusted our workflow and started to see that the we could accomplish our goal of having no dependency on the brick and mortar office. We added a cloud-based CRM into the mix, which allowed us to track project status as well as opportunities. We embedded the interface right into Teams so everything was in one place.
Being in the IT consulting space, security was high on our requirements list. We added Azure Active Directory (AAD) with multi factor authentication (MFA) to the Office 365 and Teams environment to significantly improve the security of the cloud and eliminate the need for onsite authentication servers. We extended AAD authentication to our other cloud applications that we were using to simplify authentication and further improve security. As part of this process, we started to better manage device and application security using Microsoft Intune and mobile device management (MDM) with AAD.
Evolving in the Cloud
In the fall of 2018, guest user access to teams was added. For our consulting business, this might have been the single most important feature that was missing. Now we could start to collaborate easily with clients, subcontractors, and business partners in a secure and collaborative fashion.
Our accounting system was the last thing that we had onsite. We looked at our workflow and tried a variety of demos, but wound up adding a cloud-based accounting system with integrated timesheets to finish our cloud migration. In the near future, we will be embedding the timesheet capability within the Teams interface.
Most recently, we moved our phone numbers from the third-party cloud UC provider to Teams, adding voice calls to Teams when dial plans were made available in Canada, where we’re based. This enabled cost-effective, high-definition voice and better integration with our other workflows. It's not perfect, but having everything integrated into one application simplifies working from just about anywhere.
What’s on our roadmap to further improve our collaboration? The Microsoft Office 365 platform has many tools and applications that we’re evaluating how we might be able to take advantage. We have started to build workflow applications to work with Teams using Microsoft Flow, PowerApp, and PowerBI to streamline some of our consulting methodologies, including our IT Security and Operations Scorecard
. We will be looking at some of the other application integrations and project templates available in Teams to further improve consulting operations. We will also continue to improve the security of our operations using the ever-expanding Azure platform tools – including security issues detection and response capabilities.
Our journey was rocky and involved some significant trial and error. We were often left waiting for roadmap features to do things we wanted to accomplish now. Our experience was not unique; lots of organizations have gone down this path over the last three years. But as a boutique consulting firm, we can now work anywhere and have access to all of our data and applications. More importantly, we can collaborate as if were all in one office, which feels like a win to me. This experience has also added a new area of expertise to our firm, as we are helping our clients manage their similar cloud journeys.
Going through this process has simplified collaboration through application consolidation that includes communications, telephony, video, chat, document management, workflow, and application integration with many SaaS tools. The end result has been faster and higher quality collaboration. The resulting simplification has improved (shortened) calendar timeframes for team work and reduced overall costs.
"SCTC Perspectives" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communications technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.