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Simplifying collaboration in the digital workplace

Simplifying collaboration in the digital workplace

Andy Brocklehurst, Head of Collaboration, Cisco EMEAR.

The process of digital transformation is impacting every segment, in every industry, and in every country. The pace of change in connectivity is expected to be so fast across the next ten years that what we have gone through till now is only 1% of what is expected. In this new digital world, 40% of the Fortune 500 as we know them today will not exist in 2020. 75% of the S&P 500 that will be present in 2020 are not known today.

It is in this world that our everyday experience of collaborating with fellow workers is also expected to change. These changes are expected to help businesses communicate differently by enabling cross-functional and cross-cultural teams to engage with each other more readily, leading to quicker informed decision making. “Collaboration has the ability to create an environment that enables organisations and the companies that we deal with, to not be one of those 40% and to hopefully be some of those 75%,” reflects Andy Brocklehurst, Head of Collaboration, Cisco EMEAR.

One such product that has been built for the new digital ways of workforce engagement is Cisco Spark released in January this year. Brocklehurst points out that there are at least three strong drivers that have led to the development of this product. While enabling new ways of worker and team engagements and communication is the primary driver, there are at least two others. Replacing the need to travel and to be able to have effective video conferencing experiences is the second driver. The third driver is the dominance of low-tech workroom facilities by default across an organisation.

“If you look now, 95% of meeting rooms have no video capability or white boarding capability to interact with. We are looking at how can we change the low-tech meeting rooms. That is why we talk about facilities, because it is not just about being around video accomplishing or messaging or voice,” Brocklehurst explains.

As human beings, we just want to meet with each other. The increasing proliferation of platforms, environments, applications, is not helping to make this easier. “Communication in many ways is more complicated than ever. You got all these multiple different things, so actually being able to meet is harder than ever, and that is all we want to do.” Cisco Spark has been developed with the key objective of changing the present-day user experience while communicating and collaborating, into one where there is less complexity, and more ease of use. How can you create a user experience, that is intuitive and as easy as possible, and you do not have to think about it at all, is an underlying objective in the development of Cisco Spark.

Brocklehurst likens Cisco Spark to the Apple iPhone success story. He points out, there are two key fundamentals for the success of the iPhone. One is a desirable form factor and the other is that it is easy to use and the user does not have to think about how to use it. A key indication of the success of bringing in this simplicity is when an end user does not have to think about what is different, when using a web conferencing application, to using a telephone platform and then a system messaging platform, as an example. In other words, they can use different platforms without having to think about how to use them.

“How can you create a user experience, that is intuitive and as easy as possible and you do not have to think about it at all, and that is where we are trying to take it in many areas. I think, this is our single biggest talking point around the new way of communicating,” points out Brocklehurst.

Unlike its closest competitor, that has been built up as components and bolted together, Cisco Spark has been built from the ground up, according to Brocklehurst. Within the organisation, the objective is to provide an open platform that can interoperate with other business applications and provide a single dashboard for communication and collaboration. “What is different around spark is that it is built as a collaboration platform, that spans different modes of communication and gives you a single pane of glass in terms of administration and reporting. So, it will be actually a platform built for a purpose. Not something that has just been put together.”

Cisco Spark has been built on a DevOps software platform. This means it can also sit in the background, be invisible, and work with other business applications and business processes through open application interfaces. The product strategy is based around simplified user experience, being well connected and value extended. The single pane of glass approach, is consistent whether the user is using a desktop, a handset, or a video conferencing unit. Users prefer the simplicity and the integration with Android and Apple environments offered by Cisco Spark versus the more complex environments of competitors.

Another benefit inbuilt into Cisco Spark is its ability to move a complex trail of emails into a virtual meeting room, out of the train of communication. Recipients can choose to enter the meeting room based on their involvement and their stake in the email train.

“You can create this almost thunder-storm of emails and 90% you do not have to read and someone says can you take this off the email trail. You can take it to Spark room where everything is arranged to go into and it takes the thread, and takes all the participants into the room. You can opt out of that room, so you can opt out of that thread.” The benefit is to find ways in which you can convert an email conversation into a business messaging or business platform conversation and this can be done through a simple instruction and subject line in Cisco Spark.

While the basic approach of Cisco Spark is built on ease of use, interoperability, and consistent user experience, it also has a strong foundation of compliance, data security, and audit control. Cisco Spark is a hosted cloud solution, at present available from US based datacentres. The hosted cloud solution is expected to be migrated into European datacentres before moving towards the Middle East region.

The end-user data generated and saved in the cloud is protected by encryption through a Key Management System. This is not accessible by Cisco once the data administration has been handed over to the end user. “This is all around the intelligence within the key management system and who owns the data keys to unlock the encrypted data.”

Cisco Spark in the cloud works by activating an end user domain, within which IT administrators can set up rules and policies. As an example, Cisco Spark allows administrators to set up policies that control which attachments can be shared and to whom. These controls and the audit trail allow end users outside the organisation to be also included in the organisation’s communication and collaboration processes. This strong foundation of compliance, data security, and policy control is a good reason to extend Cisco Spark across the organisation rather than to keep it hidden in the background.

By extending Cisco Spark across the organisation, it can begin to function as a hybrid platform. This will allow information to be shared across on-premises and cloud applications seamlessly. A vital component of any digital transformation exercise.

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Key takeaways

  • 95% of meeting rooms have no video capability or white boarding capability to interact with
  • A key indication of the success of bringing in this simplicity is when an end user does not have to think about what is different
  • Another benefit inbuilt into Cisco Spark is its ability to move a complex trail of emails into a virtual meeting room
  • Cisco Spark has been built on a DevOps software platform
  • Cisco Spark in the cloud works by activating an end-user domain, within which IT administrators can set up rules and policies
  • Communication in many ways is more complicated than ever
  • End-user data generated and saved in the cloud is protected by encryption through a Key Management System
  • How can you create a user experience that is intuitive and as easy as possible and you do not have to think about it at all
  • It can also sit in the background, be invisible, and work with other business applications and business processes
  • The product strategy is based around simplified user experience, being well connected and value extended
  • The single pane of glass approach, is consistent whether the user is using a desktop, handset, video conferencing unit
  • Within the organisation the objective is to provide an open platform that can interoperate with other business applications and provide a single dashboard

Unified communication and businesses

Digitisation is having an impact on businesses today. Nowhere is this pain felt more than in the small business environment. The desire to grow a business while reducing costs certainly is not new, but achieving both of these goals simultaneously has historically been difficult. However, digitisation has made accomplishing this a top priority as markets shift much faster than ever before. Unified communication offers the following benefits to small businesses:

Creates a competitive advantage

Competitive advantage is based on making the best decision quickly while involving the right people. Unified communication enables workers to collaborate with anyone in the extended enterprise in real time, allowing critical decisions to be made faster.

Improves worker productivity

Unified communication enables workers to be productive and get work done regardless of location, network, time of day or device.

Saves money

Unified communication saves money in a number of ways, including significantly reducing the cost of mobility and operational support as well as delivering savings on network costs.

Although unified communication offers these important benefits, it can be complicated to deploy using on-premises based technology, particularly for small businesses with limited IT resources. Because unified communications can address many of the major concerns of small businesses, it should be a top priority of every organisational owner, principal or decision maker. However, despite its strong value proposition, unified communications deployments have yet to experience accelerated growth within companies. There are many reasons for unified communications’s lack of adoption. The primary issues for small businesses are listed below:

Significant up-front investment

Although the payback occurs relatively quickly, many organisations are hesitant to make a significant capital investment in any technology given the unstable macro environment.

Long deployment times

Deploying a collaboration solution can be a lengthy process due to the amount of infrastructure that needs to be deployed, tested and optimised.

Operational and technical skill set

Managing communications used to be very simple. The systems were self-contained and relatively simple, but they offered no flexibility. Today’s systems offer significantly more power and potential, but they require a change in the operational skill set of the IT organisation.

Unified Communications as a Service can provide all the benefits of an on-premises based solution without the associated risk. Historically, some companies have shied away from cloud services because of a perceived lack of security and control. Today’s Unified Communications as a Service solutions can offer business-grade security and control, and much more. Below are the primary benefits of Unified Communications as a Service:

Lower up-front costs

Unified Communications as a Service requires no up-front capital outlay. This means an organisation can begin deployment immediately instead of having to first find a large budget to purchase infrastructure.

Faster time to market

With an on-premises solution, businesses can spend months rolling out unified communications and then several months after that tuning and tweaking the solution to run optimally. Because Unified Communications as a Service is delivered via the cloud, unified communications can be made available immediately.

Lower maintenance costs

Maintaining a unified communications system requires constant upgrades and replacement of failed hardware in addition to tackling other administrative issues. Unified Communications as a Service is maintained by the service provider, which means the administrative burden on IT has been eliminated or at least reduced to managing a minimal amount of client software.

Alignment with mobility

Delivering any application to a mobile device using premises-based infrastructure can be very challenging. Unified Communications as a Service services are ubiquitously available to any user on any network without the use of additional client software. Given the strong push toward using mobile devices within small businesses, Unified Communications as a Service is ideally suited for this new era of IT.

Lower complexity

Modern unified communications solutions require the IT department to manage several servers, the underlying network, wireless infrastructure, desktop software and other technology. Stitching all of these components together can be extremely complicated, particularly for a small business with a limited IT staff. Unified Communications as a Service moves all the complexity into the cloud so the company can focus on running the business instead of managing technology.

ZK Research makes the following recommendations to help small businesses choose the best Unified Communications as a Service providers to meet their needs and have a successful deployment:

  • Start the deployment with a small, controlled pilot group. Start small to understand the productivity benefits and cost-saving implications. The barrier to entry is low, so there’s no reason to delay deployment.
  • Consider a Unified Communications as a Service solution even if you currently have a premises-based solution. Unified Communications as a Service can complement a current on-premises deployment to reach branch offices or remote workers.
  • Choose a Unified Communications as a Service provider that can deliver a simple, secure and complete solution. The goal of unified communications is to make workers more productive at a lower cost than traditional communications.

Excerpted from, Cisco Spark Provides an All-in-One Cloud Unified Communications Solution for Small Businesses, by ZK Research.


Cisco Spark in the cloud

Cisco recently announced a new cloud-based business collaboration service called Cisco Spark. The product is designed for a cloud-centric, mobile-first world where communications must be an agile resource to enable workers to interact with others from any location, over any device. Cisco is a global vendor in unified communications that with products such as WebEx, Jabber and CallManager.

The Cisco Spark service takes collaboration to the next level by making instant communications, messaging and live meetings possible through a set of integrated collaboration tools and delivering a quality experience. Because Spark is built on the Cisco cloud, it can scale as a business grows, is easy to deploy and is optimised for a mobile-first world.

Cisco Spark is built on three core services: messaging, meetings and calls.

Messaging

Spark lets workers experience one-on-one and team messaging in virtual rooms with persistent content and context for improved team interactions.

Meetings

With Spark, workers can connect with teams, customers or others easily while sharing content before, during and after meetings. Each Spark meeting is video centric, enabling the richest possible meeting experience.

Calls

The Spark service lets businesses utilise voice and video communications through mobile and desktop phones as well as room-based systems. It includes a broad set of calling capabilities including VoIP and one-touch directory dialing as well as the ability to join meetings on any device.

However, the Cisco Spark service does not include PSTN services and customers must purchase PSTN services from a third-party provider. Regardless of whether the company has an ad hoc strategy for communications today, has outdated key systems or has already migrated to an IP solution, Cisco Spark improves communications by offering a single business collaboration service for everyone in the company.

Spark was built from the ground up to be an application-centric, mobile-first Unified Communications as a Service solution. Many competitive products were actually premises-based hardware platforms that were virtualised and then retrofitted for the cloud. This can lead to scale issues as well as long lead times for new features because the hardware platform must be updated before the cloud solution can be upgraded.

Spark is easy to use and simplifies teamwork by bringing together asynchronous and real-time communications into a single experience that can be accessed via a mobile application or web browser. The intuitive interface has been designed for easy setup with low IT overhead. The product can be self-installed and automatically upgrades itself, so businesses can deploy Spark without the concern of overwhelming the IT department with support calls and training issues.

Also, Cisco Spark enables easy intercompany collaboration. Typically, communicating with people in other organisations using anything other than voice required directory federation, dedicated lines or custom software. Spark is designed to work across any network and on any device so workers can use it to collaborate with other individuals inside or outside their company.

To help simplify the budgeting process, Cisco Spark utilises a pay as you grow pricing model so customers can pay for what they need today and then scale the deployment as required. This obviates the need to go through the complicated process of managing software licenses or predicting how many users need the product at the time of purchase. Additionally, Spark is currently available through the Cisco channel partners that businesses are already using.

Most Unified Communications as a Service, offer no security or only basic levels of encryption. Cisco Spark offers end-to-end encryption where the service encrypts messages, files and conversations on a user’s device before sending them to the cloud. The content is sent to the Cisco servers in encrypted form and is processed and stored that way until it is unencrypted on the recipient’s device. Cisco offers an extra level of security by allowing access only to authorised and authenticated recipients.

Also, the product offers user-and IT-level security features to provide additional control. For sensitive information, users can lock the conversations and moderate who can see the content and what is shared. IT individuals can enable other features that utilise existing security policies such as single sign-on.

Cisco Spark is a complete Unified Communications as a Service solution for small businesses. Many Unified Communications as a Service products are built to be voice or messaging centric, but Cisco Spark has a broad range of collaboration capabilities including the following: High-definition audio, High-definition video, Conferencing, File sharing, One-on-one messaging, Team messaging, Mobile application, Integration with desktop devices, Interoperability with room devices.

When using Spark, mobile users can connect to their calendars to view a comprehensive list of all upcoming calendar entries and can tap to move any of them into a Cisco Spark session, instantly creating an ongoing workspace with other workers.

Excerpted from, Cisco Spark Provides an All-in-One Cloud Unified Communications Solution for Small Businesses, by ZK Research.