This article was written by Al Bredenberg and published on

Collaboration technologies are allowing employees to communicate in real time and work together more easily across enterprises of all sizes. But research suggests that many companies are lagging behind in taking advantage of such tools and the potential they promise for organizational effectiveness.

Workers respond well to user experiences that replicate what they are used to in their personal lives with social media, mobile communications, video chat, text messaging and email.

Stamford, Conn.-based research firm Gartner has predicted that half of large organizations by 2016 “will have internal Facebook-like social networks, and that 30 percent of these will be considered as essential as email and telephones are today.” Unfortunately, it noted that “80 percent of social business efforts will not achieve the intended benefits due to inadequate leadership” and an “overemphasis on technology” rather than user experience.

In a report on “unified communication and collaboration” (UCC), another research firm, Frost & Sullivan, pointed out that employees have become accustomed in recent years to “the simple and user-friendly interfaces of free online communications tools, such as Gmail and Facebook, which allow them to collaborate in only a few clicks.”

Enterprise communication tools have been lagging in user experience, on the other hand, said the Mountain View, Calif.-based consultancy, as they are still “more process-oriented than people-oriented, making these solutions less appealing for end users, increasing training durations and lengthening adaptation times.”

Some of the longest-standing implementations of collaboration technologies have occurred in the context of R&D and innovation. In 2006, IBM began organizing enterprise-wide “Innovation Jams” by employing electronic collaboration tools to pull in innovative ideas from hundreds of thousands of employees across the globe.

German manufacturing firm Siemens ran similar Innovation Jams starting in 2009, modeled on IBM’s effort. These virtual events brought together employees from across the company to discuss and solve piracy issues in Siemens’ business. After receiving a positive response to the project, Siemens built a large-scale collaboration system call TechnoWeb, which uses social-media tools to allow geographically dispersed employees to locate expertise within the company and seek answers to questions or get help in solving problems.

Cloud-based services now make these kinds of solutions available and affordable for small and medium-size enterprises, as well as large companies, enabling social media collaboration with a focus on B2B communication.

Tim Banting, principal analyst for collaboration and communications at Washington, D.C.-based research firm Current Analysis, told Tech Trends Journal that he sees two principal trends in the use of collaboration technologies. “One is real-time communication across the Internet,” not just by text, but also by voice and video,” Banting noted. “The other one is enterprise social networking across the digital supply chain, without having to exchange emails all the time. It’s saving a lot of time and money and making people feel they are one community across the supply chain.”

John Parkinson, affiliate partner at Chicago-based Waterstone Management Group, an advisory firm focused on serving the technology sector, agrees that industrial firms can benefit from better supply chain communication through these collaboration technologies.

“Letting suppliers chat with each other about what is working and what isn’t, about capacity shortfalls, or about product revisions coming out, it opens up communication around the product life-cycle management piece of the supply chain,” Parkinson told Tech Trends Journal. “The manufacturer needs to know where their inventory is, how to ramp up volume, how to cycle product revisions through the supply chain. Now you have the opportunity to deploy a platform that makes all that a lot more efficient.”

Vendors are trying to overcome the gap with user expectations. Better user-experience design is important, said Parkinson, because “the trick with collaboration,” he told Tech Trends Journal, “is that if it’s harder to collaborate than not, people won’t. If it’s more like Facebook or Twitter, then people will tend to use it.”

“There’s a big push toward mobile” in the collaboration space, Banting told Tech Trends Journal, and this is even true in manufacturing workplaces. “People need to be able to work from anywhere. They’re already using scheduling applications on tablets on the plant floor. They don’t want employees to have to go up from the plant floor to the office to use a PC. Companies are looking for greater flexibility and productivity.”

Cargill, the international maker of agricultural and industrial products, began moving toward unified communications in 2008. Since then, the company has deployed Microsoft Lync for more than 65,000 employees around the world. It provides office and mobile access to instant messaging, presence, and audio and video conferencing.

Cargill also implemented Lync Federation, which extended enterprise communications to partners, customers, and vendors. The company estimates that its ROI on the implementation is $1 million annually.

Microsoft offers a cloud-based private enterprise social network solution through its Yammer subsidiary. Yammer employs a social-media-type user experience and is designed to enable open communication across the company and allow teams to share information and manage projects together.

Unify, formerly Siemens Enterprise Communications, recently launched Project Ansible, a platform that aggregates diverse enterprise collaboration and communication tools into one interface through a web browser. Project Ansible unifies email, voice, video, social, instant messaging, and other collaboration tools.

Cisco’s cloud-based Jabber collaboration solution brings together presence, instant messaging, voice, video, desktop sharing, and conferencing.

Iowa window manufacturer Pella uses Jabber’s contact center solution, but with company and team collaboration tools wrapped up in the same platform. For example, Pella members can join meetings via audio, video, or web-sharing, using either desktop or mobile devices.