Next-Gen Communications Strategies

E-mail has had a good run, but many companies' systems have devolved into productivity-sapping morasses. It's time to move ahead with advanced collaboration tools.

Michael Healey

April 22, 2010

9 Min Read
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We define the next-generation communications utopia as a system that provides employees with e-mail, instant messaging, collaboration, presence, voice and video communication, and structured data integration via Web client, desktop, or mobile device. But before you get too excited, realize that most IT groups won't so much be running toward this new collaboration strategy as slinking away from siloed systems that they never quite got running correctly.

Consider these data points: Nearly half of the 479 business technology professionals responding to our InformationWeek Analytics Enterprise Messaging survey either have no e-mail archiving or let users archive as they see fit--a plan that's only marginally better than nothing. A tiny 3% have e-mail search tied into a broader enterprise search system, and synchronization with enterprise apps like ERP is faring only a bit better. When we asked about interest in combined e-mail and collaboration tools, 80% basically yawn.

"E-mail is a pain but easier to deal with than the other emerging communication technologies that are less likely to be controlled and dictated by the IT department," says one respondent, who remained anonymous--possibly so potential applicants younger than 30 won't run away screaming from his company.

Unfortunately, that respondent, while he may have a valid point, is living in denial. Not providing a service while also not having a policy banning its use is a recipe for an underground IT movement. Instant messaging is commonplace, yet only a third of respondents officially provide it. The rest should check Web and traffic logs. Users don't need third-party clients anymore; AOL, Google, Yahoo, and others have very nice Web 2.0 browser-based systems that work like champs. If you don't provide an approved system and ban and block consumer-focused clients, you have unmonitored and unlogged egress points for data.

Some organizations we spoke with did take the integration leap early, and stayed with it. "We started down the path of integrated e-mail way back in 2005," says George Hamin, director of IT for Subaru Canada. "Our teams are so geographically spread across such a large area, we wanted to begin with integrating voice." Hamin's group built on that success and jumped early to Exchange 2010, giving employees an integrated mailbox with voice, instant messaging, conferencing, and e-mail.

That's far from the norm, but even companies under financial constraints can do better with what they have now and position their communications systems for the next wave of collaborative technologies.

Original Sin: E-Mail In A Silo

Did we mention our surprise that 61% of the 479 business technology professionals responding to our survey don't integrate their e-mail systems into major enterprise applications like ERP or CRM? That's especially curious since 52% of respondents come from companies with upward of 1,000 employees--24% have more than 10,000.

It's mind-boggling that we've largely left this critical part of the information flow out of our structured data stores. Client and partner e-mails are lost in the ether, vendor notes disappear, and project details sit in one person's in-box while someone else screams for an update.

Most IT groups we work with blame a lack of resources and a fear of compliance and e-discovery issues, and of course, integration can be expensive; we discuss ROI justifications in depth in our full report. However, when CIOs don't think of their systems as an integrated whole, they tend to miss the obvious.

For example, a technology firm based in New England would regularly hound staff about updating the project management system. Supervisors held weekly meetings to check who had filled in their activity logs. People hated the meetings, hated the admin work, and as a result, a robust project management system was underused. The solution: The company added a "mail to database" function that let staff CC the database on project-related e-mails. Some business and IT managers were dead set against this development effort, sure it wouldn't work.

You can guess the results. Project updates skyrocketed, from an average of 1.2 per week per project to a whopping 12. And all it took was some application development time. A similar disconnect from the way rank-and-file employees use their e-mail systems seemed evident in our survey results. When asked about desirable features, CRM/ERP integration ranked as one of the least interesting new capabilities to add, behind integrated SMS texting. That's just shortsighted. Knowledge workers live in e-mail. Giving them an automated way to feed less-used systems like ERP with critical information should be a priority.

This past year saw a continued rise in the use of automated e-mail within billing systems, leveraging electronic delivery to save on postage. This meshing of invoicing, support, and general correspondence from customers can put a company in an awkward position, however. For example, what happens when your organization e-mails an invoice to a customer? Is it tagged to track forwards or responses back to your organization? What if a customer forwards it to a sales rep with a question? Does the system CC credit?

Worst case is if that response never reaches a human. We've heard too many service horror stories that include the phrase, "Those idiots don't even know what they e-mailed me."

This isn't just a problem with legacy applications. Even among cloud-based apps, synchronization among enterprise apps and e-mail systems is negligible. That's staggering since most cloud-based enterprise applications, especially supply chain, CRM and ERP, have e-mail integration tools built-in.

And it gets worse: Only half of our respondents let users search their own e-mail archives, and a paltry 3% have mail and archive search tied into a broader enterprise search system that helps find critical information.

For IT groups that don't plan to provide a framework to integrate data into critical CRM and ERP systems and don't provide search tools for users to crawl their own mailboxes and archives, consider that major customer-service issues will require bringing together every person who contacted the client to piece together the full story.

Of Clients, Vendors, And Twitter

For all the talk about social networking bringing organizations closer to the customer, we found some basic social networking tools collecting dust. Only 34% of respondents provide client and vendor access to their calendars for online scheduling, a capability that has long been available from every major player, including Cisco, Google, Lotus, and Microsoft. If you've ever used online scheduling to coordinate a meeting, you know it's a nice feature. So why hasn't it been widely adopted? Typically, because it requires a driving force and some user training on the functionality. If nobody asks, most IT groups simply don't offer.

And the core concept of social networking goes beyond simple scheduling, effectively moving the conversation out of your e-mail system and into the cloud. For those of you who bemoan the archiving and tracking requirements related to client communications now, this could be your worst nightmare. LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook have moved well beyond traditional blogging and morphed into unique communication chains that may include clients and vendors individually or within a larger group.

IT response to social networks has been varied.

A plucky 30% actively seek to wrangle this phenomenon--for now anyway--by controlling all posts centrally, while 16% don't allow any posting at all; most cite regulatory and confidentiality concerns. Only 5% are attempting to leverage the social nature of these platforms by allowing multiple individual postings while putting a centralized alerting and editing system in place.

The rest? Let's just say they range from "I don't know" to "I don't care."

If you're sitting in your cubicle quietly muttering, "Twitter is for kids," think again. Of course, your 500 or 1,000 best customers don't need to know what your CEO is thinking every minute of the day. But IT should work with business leaders to develop a policy. While there's no question that consumers dominate most of the current social networking landscape, there's a mad rush across multiple systems by all types of organizations trying to gain some type of competitive edge.

CIOs in highly regulated companies could simply blame the man and say no, but they may be missing an opportunity. Our favorite example is a mortgage company that navigated the post-meltdown world of regulations to come up with a way to provide daily rates to its clients via social networking. This initiative extends way beyond IT and requires amazingly tight control and coordination with management, but it pays off: If you've ever refinanced, you know the lottery-like anticipation of monitoring the rate and timing the decision to lock in.

Social networking has all the potential of the early Internet--and all the snake-oil hype. Evidence on the actual effectiveness is decidedly mixed. For example, a study last year by social marketing consultants HubSpot analyzed over 120,000 Facebook pages and found almost 50% have fewer than 500 fans. The popular ones are dominated by musicians, tributes, and consumer goods, but still, only 0.3% exceed 1 million fans. Put that within the context of your customer e-mail flow and gauge when and where you need to have two-way communications via social networks. Sell fizzy drinks or rock 'n' roll music, and you know your path in the social space. Supply the sugar for the drink manufacturers or logistic services for the tour bus? Skip the tweets and figure out how to make sure everyone knows where the shipments are.

Falling In Love All Over Again

This is an interesting time for e-mail systems and those who administer them. E-mail's overall effectiveness has been crimped by a huge surge in volume as well as a host of different ways to get mail. Faster, simpler options like instant messaging lure users out of their mailbox clutter to a cleaner message path. However, it simply makes the communication picture more challenging when multiple messages from the same users cross systems. The vision of bringing it all together in a universal in-box has tremendous appeal, but this is a challenging nut to crack due to limitations of interoperability and resistance to relying on one vendor for everything.

IT has been noticeably reactive over the past few years, focusing on security, archiving, and compliance rather than on utilization rates and usage patterns. E-mail was simple enough, compatible enough, and portable enough to jump-start productivity worldwide, eliminating manual and time-consuming processes. But we can't expect another such advance. The next push forward won't come from any one killer app. It will come instead from IT teams that do the hard work and build on the core tenets of e-mail and transition to a unified communications vision with a universal in-box.

Begin with some functional design changes as well as retraining of the user population. The next-generation e-mail success story is less dependent on technology--IT has proved it can build out the secure infrastructure needed for communications even when the core protocol is inherently insecure. Get ready. Vendors are stacked up outside your door, and they have stories to tell. If the overall vision for these systems isn't tied into the your policy, training, and core workflows, you may end up stacking a more complicated interface on top of your end users.

But done right, you could be a hero, something Subaru's Hamin knows well. "Until you have a full system, you don't see the true value," he says. "Once it's in, good luck taking it away."

Michael Healey is CEO of Yeoman Technology Group, an engineering and research firm.

You can write to us at [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Michael Healey

Contributing Editor InformationWeek

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