How to manage multiple cloud collaboration tools in a WFH world

A surge of cloud-based collaboration and conferencing platforms in the remote workplace has left organizations struggling with security, compliance, cost and integration issues. Here’s advice from experts on making it work.

One of the more prominent IT trends resulting from the pandemic and shift to a work-from-home model is a dramatic rise in the use of collaboration tools such as videoconferencing systems.

A June 2020 report from research firm Gartner said global spending on cloud-based web conferencing products will grow 24% to $4.1 billion this year, with workplace restrictions spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic expanding the user base throughout 2020.

The greater use of these systems is a positive development from a worker connectivity and productivity standpoint. Remote employees can easily stay in touch and share content with co-workers, customers, business partners, and others. Where it gets to be problematic, however, is when companies lose control over the number and types of applications and platforms in use within the organization.

Proliferation of tools brings risks and inefficiencies

Most of these offerings are cloud-based and therefore easy to deploy. Virtually any department, group, or even individual can download an online meeting application and start using it, without IT executives or business managers knowing it.

Even companies that had already set plans and policies for what videoconferencing and collaboration platforms employees should use might have suddenly found people using other tools and platforms.

“I definitely see a lot of multivendor use in organizations today,” says Rich Costello, a senior research analyst at IDC. “Business end users are naturally very consumer-oriented and prefer to leverage the collaboration tools and apps that are intuitive, easy to use, and provide a better user experience. That goes for the workplace as well.”

tony mcqueen carousel industries Carousel Industries

Tony McQueen, vice president, unified communications and collaboration, Carousel Industries

Carousel Industries, an IT and cloud services provider, sees a lot of its clients running two or three collaboration systems, says Tony McQueen, vice president, unified communications and collaboration. 

“Some organizations may have two conference rooms side by side and have completely different technologies” in place for online conferencing, McQueen says. “The inherent challenge is that all these solutions have their own security methods, reporting tools, and steps to troubleshoot. This makes it very challenging for organizations to gain a ‘single pane of glass’ to determine how their solutions are really being leveraged and if they are truly recognizing a return on investment.”

Indeed, the proliferation of multiple cloud-based tools can bring a lot of challenges for IT. “IT is hugely concerned with being able to monitor and manage these collaboration tools effectively, especially in regard to security and compliance vulnerabilities,” Costello says.

Some of the biggest problems with having multiple conferencing and collaboration tools have to do with the costs and comprehensive adoption of the systems, says Megan Fernandez, senior principal analyst at Gartner.

By using multiple offerings, an organization is paying to a certain degree for overlapping services, Fernandez says. “For example, collaboration solution one might be able to support external meetings, but not as well as solution two,” she says. “The organization is then paying for two separate solutions, which requires multiple licenses and therefore costs more money.”

megan fernandez gartner Gartner

Megan Fernandez, senior principal analyst, Gartner

If the services are extended to only a portion of workers as part of cost-saving measures, “then we also find that the organization might not receive extensive volume discounts,” Fernandez says. “An organization with 500 seats might receive a 25% discount, an organization with 1,000 seats might receive a 40% discount, an organization with more than 1,000 users might receive a 50% discount on licenses. Volume discounting offers a significant way for organizations to cut costs.”

As for comprehensive adoption, collaboration platforms work better if they are widely adopted and used, Fernandez says. “It becomes more difficult to experience the benefits of collaboration if only pockets of users within an organization are using the solution,” she says.

GetVoIP, a cloud communications advisory firm that helps businesses select videoconferencing providers and collaboration tools, has seen companies struggle with the difficulty of integrating all the different platforms they have for maximum benefit.

“Because they can't tell which platform they should prioritize and how the other tools come into play, they end up using a small percentage of each platform and not reaping all the benefits,” says Reuben Yonatan, founder and CEO of the firm.

GetVoIP recently had a client deploy separate platforms for videoconferencing, collaboration, and VoIP. The videoconferencing platform also offers VoIP, which means the client would have been fine with just two systems instead of three, Yonatan says.

Addressing the challenges

If companies find themselves in this situation, what exactly should they do? Cracking down on the rogue videoconferencing and collaboration tools that employees have started using could lead to discontent and backlash. On the other hand, taking an “anything goes” approach could lead to chaos.

“I think IT needs to have a level of flexibility in this regard today,” says IDC’s Costello. “These rogue tools are being used by end users for specific reasons, so IT and the organization must recognize that and work to understand why they are so popular with employees.”

Assuming many organizations will opt for a more flexible approach, they need to take steps to ensure success with these platforms.

Learn everything about the tools in use.

To start, IT should aim to discover which tools and platforms are being used within the organization. This could mean conducting an internal audit or even something as simple as a survey of business unit leaders to determine what collaboration and conferencing services employees are using.

rich costello idc IDC

Rich Costello, senior research analyst, IDC

As part of this effort, IT needs to identify and openly communicate with the product champions of any collaboration tools being used in the organization, Costello says. These champions can help IT understand why those collaboration tools are popular with line-of-business end users.

“The product champions within the business units can assist IT with the survey process as well, providing their own feedback and giving guidance as to whom to survey, pertinent questions to ask, etc.,” he says.

Along with the discovery process, IT needs to “identify and address any security and compliance vulnerabilities of the deployed collaboration solutions,” Costello says. It’s also important to keep the collaboration software up to date with upgrades and other releases, he adds.

Understanding the full spectrum of capabilities of the platforms already in use is also important, notes Gartner’s Fernandez.

Part of this includes acquiring a platform road map from the vendor to gain insight on future product releases. In some cases, a feature enhancement might negate the need for additional platforms to meet a specific requirement, Fernandez explains.

“For example, the growing number of concurrent users supported on a videoconferencing solution in a future release might remove the requirement to obtain a separate solution to meet large meeting use cases,” she says.

Layer on tools one at a time.

GetVoIP recommends that organizations start with one videoconferencing or collaboration tool and only add onto it after mastering the first tool. “That way, they will have an idea of everything the first tool can do, and how to integrate the second tool for maximum benefit,” Yonatan says.

Many cloud-based collaboration and conferencing vendors are working toward making it easy to integrate their platforms with other tools and platforms. As part of the learning process, companies should research the integration capabilities of systems.

“Whether a platform can easily integrate with other collaboration platforms should be one of the top considerations when selecting a tool,” Yonatan says. “It is convenient, and it saves time.”

Be flexible — but not too flexible.

Businesses should emphasize the use of company-approved platforms but also give employees a bit of leeway to explore, Yonatan says. “As they do, they might find a tool that fits better, which will benefit the company,” he says.

“However, because of security, be careful about how much leeway you give,” he adds. “If you think any of the rogue tools might compromise the security of your information, you should crack down on them.”

Set clear policies and train users.

IT and business leaders should proactively outline specific collaboration use cases and ways in which they want employees to leverage the services, Fernandez says. And they should provide training resources to promote best practices in using collaboration tools.

Monitor usage and be ready to adapt.

“Leverage analytics and dashboard tools to gain insight into how your collaboration tools are actually being used,” Fernandez says. “If certain solutions have low usage, understand why and factor this information into your ongoing planning and investment decisions.”

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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