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Two Paths, One Goal: Collaboration

Whether your corporate workforce is filled with young guns selling affordable home insurance or seasoned professionals plying advanced medical technologies, the ability to collaborate with ease and in real time is quickly becoming mission critical.

Two enterprise IT leaders, Heather Danielson, lead software analyst at Primerica, and Mark Winston, senior IT manager, enterprise productivity services, at Medtronic, drove that home during a panel discussion last week at Cisco Collaboration Summit. Both had rather different stories to tell, which, to me, highlight the need for customizable solutions in the world of collaboration.

Primerica, a financial services company, needed to improve the way its sales agents work while maintaining its security and compliance requirements. Heather, who is a 10-year veteran of Primerica, is the company's go-to person for implementing complex new systems. She spoke to me a bit about how she was able to play an instrumental role in helping the company meet business-driven initiatives through the implementation of new technology.

Her latest task is implementing Cisco Spark to facilitate real-time communications among more than 3,000 sales agents so they have ready access to information that can help them meet their sales goals.

After Primerica launched a beta program, it began rolling out Spark across the company, and currently has about 2,000 of its agents on-boarded. Spark is helping them keep private information, such as account numbers, out of email, Heather said. "Because Spark is encrypted from the device on up, it really helps secure that information."

Medtronic is a healthcare solutions, services, and medical technologies company with more than 85,000 employees at approximately 460 locations in 155 plus countries. With such a large and sprawling operation, you can imagine efficient collaboration is uniquely challenging. Beyond dealing with a dispersed workforce in pretty much every time zone, being in healthcare means contending with regulatory issues that differ according to region.

Mark works on developing strategies for the collaboration and productivity services and technology used across Medtronic. These cover a wide array, including conferencing, voice and telecommunications, video, messaging, streaming and digital services like video streaming and digital signage, and productivity tools like portals, social communities, and file sharing.

Medtronic uses various elements of Cisco's collaboration product/services portfolio, including WebEx, Jabber, UC and Spark, depending on the needs of divisions and business segments. The products bring Medtronic's dispersed teams together, and are especially helpful in keeping mobile field reps connected, Mark said.

The different collaboration environments at Primerica and Medtronic made for a nice contrast as Heather and Mark spoke about the unique challenges they face in collaborating effectively.

For Primerica, the focus right now is on coming up with ways to customize Spark to make it work for its different environments and compliance needs, Heather said. That has her investigating how to customize the onboarding of home office-based employees and trialing cloud solutions.

For its onboarding customization, Primerica has centralized Spark registration so sales agents don't have to register themselves, and has eliminated email verification for Spark users "because we realized it was a stopping point for us." Heather sets up all users, pre-loading them into Spark rooms matched to employee reporting structures; all a user has to do is click a "Cisco Spark" button the company has added to its Primerica mobile application, and everything is ready to go. Roughly 2,000 Primerica agents have now been using Spark for about a month, and seem happy with it so far, Heather said. Some teams are small (tens of people) while others are incredibly large, at more than 1,000 users.

"One thousand is like the magic number that rooms stop at," Heather said. "So Spark is literally the only tool we've been able to find that is able to meet that high team number. All 2,000 people in one room, no problem."

Medtronic comes from a different starting point with Cisco, having implemented its UC platform many years ago. In January of this year, Medtronic completed an acquisition of medical device maker Covidien, which nearly doubled its workforce from 45,000 to 85,000. Prior to this acquisition, Medtronic's UC solutions were about 90% Cisco gear, Mark said, but it now has to deal with more of a mixed environment. He also added that it also uses Cisco call center technology.

As Mark explained, being a medical company, Medtronic also is looking at Spark's security features to help it deal with the regulatory requirements it faces and the challenge it has had using Jabber as an IM client, since Jabber does not support encryption when conversing with non-Jabber clients. Spark will allow more external collaboration, and will enable the company to return to using persistent chat, which it got away from to avoid non-compliance with healthcare regulations.

It is running a Spark proof-of-concept test. It has been using Spark in trial mode for nearly a year now, but won't deploy officially until it gets results from a higher-level PoC, Mark said.

Selecting the right solution for your company is critical, but it can pale in comparison to the cultural challenges that can inhibit effective collaboration, Heather and Mark agreed.

As Mark said, "The technology issues we run into, we can solve." WebEx, for example, delivers on Medtronic's need for ease of use, mobility, and external collaboration -- all of which is really important to a company of its global scale, he said. "But the challenge has been that people are used to collaborating a certain way."

When a new solution requires behavioral changes, an imperative is to have a high-level executive be an evangelist, Mark said. "Without that, if you run into a challenge somewhere, they are just going to go above your head and ask for the old service back. So you need really strong sponsorship from that level."

When deploying a new solution, you'll always find some people who love it, and some who are really stuck in the old tried-and-true way of doing things, Mark said. With the latter group, you really need to work at getting them to understand the value of the new way of doing things.

At Primerica, prior to Spark, employees used a lot of different tools to collaborate, and teams weren't connected on one platform. The sales agents, who are increasingly of a younger generation, came to company leadership and said, "Hey, we want a better way, that's not email, to communicate."

Because it has a good deal of home-based workers, Heather's team was expecting employees to do more chat and file sharing and not much video.

"We were wrong. Last week alone, they did 500 video calls," Heather said, adding that these calls are both customer to field agent, and agent back to the office. The thought is that the younger sales agents are kind of helping to pull in the older agents to the use of video calls.

Medtronic also uses Cisco for its video needs, with about 200 or so high-def video room systems in place and about 15 million WebEx minutes per month.

"B2B for us is a little bit more complicated because it includes the video space as well," Mark said. "Other partners, customers -- they want to do video. And doing B2B with the old telepresence was very hard." He added that you're always going to have at least one person outside of the company, and the challenge is going to be how you bring that person into the conversation.

As these two enterprise stories tell, the path to collaboration is not set in stone.

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