I wrote this for work to address how our antediluvian telecoms group can make itself relevant to the business. There are a lot of opportunities once you look beyond telecoms to collaboration in general. While this touches on issues and capabilities specific to my company (Secure and Easy Collaboration is the name of an ongoing internal project in this space), it should be of general interest. Credit to Kevin Werbach, whose article "Using VOIP to Compete" in HBR triggered the question.
The Telecoms Manifesto
The first problem is the title. However, if I hadn't it called it this, no telecommunications person would have ever opened the document. And they are the people this document is directed to. Because unknowingly, unwittingly, they hold in their hands the key to a very valuable capability:
High-Availability Real-Time Collaboration
To be distinguished from Secure and Easy Collaboration. Which is pretty much accomplished. Which was focused on technology, on virtual spaces shaped and guided by technology, on better file cabinets, bulletin boards, and wall calendars, to shape our virtual lifestyle. It was designed to bring us along the path to how we should collaborate. Or at least how professionals who identify themselves as "IT" professionals think we should collaborate.
But we don't collaborate that way.
In the 1990s we were fascinated by email. We had mailing lists. People emailed jokes, or chain letters, or pleas for help. They started flamewars on Usenet. We thought email would change the world, that personal and professional relationships would flourish. And for a time they did. But now for the most part we don't. And it's not that our email boxes are so filled with spam that we cannot distinguish the missives from our loved ones, or those who might make us rich. It's because email is a very weak form of collaboration. Those missives rarely come.
It turned out the early adopters corresponded to the "cheap adopters". They used email not because it was particularly effective, but because it was easy/cheap/free/simple.
When I grew up in the 1970s, little kids didn't talk on the phone. You might say hello to Grandma for 60 seconds. Long distance was expensive ($2+ minute in 2005 money). Local calling was expensive (30c/minute for metered plans). Now they make specialized phones for little kids with preprogrammed buttons so they can call their relatives and friends (and hopefully no one else).
What changed? Price. Metered local gave way to unlimited local calling (which is largely responsible for why dialup internet exploded in the United States unlike most of the rest of the world). Deregulation gave way to long distance price wars. To 25c/minute with 10c nights (1996). To 15c minute (1998). To 12c minute (1999). To 5c minute (2001). To 2.6c minute VOIP with no local line charge (2005) or $200/year for unlimited nationwide calling (2005). I knew people in 1999 who routinely paid $200/month for their phone bill.
So to summarize...my home phone bill went from $75-90/month for unlimited local and 250 minutes of long distances to $17 (metered Vonage). With the difference I bought a cellphone (where long distance is meaningless), which I use to the extent that my wife and I never exceed the 500 minute/month cap (extra minutes = 3c). I picked up another line last week just to receive faxes, which are automatically sent to my email account. Price=free -- its a come on to get me to use the 2.6c/minute outgoing VOIP. My new business cards will cost more than my fax line.
Voice is a more powerful form of collaboration than email. Our fascination with email wasn't because it was better -- it was just cheaper. And given the choice, people prefer voice. Sure, email is great across timezones, or to maintain a paper trail, or to a large group. But who has a staff meeting over email? What sane manager would fire or promote or mentor or shape an employee over email?
In person collaboration is even more powerful than voice. But the expense is great. A team must accept productivity draining travel or loss of diversity and talent through colocation. We still fly home to see our relatives at Christmas.
Video seems a good compromise. It has never caught on at Raytheon, largely due to the $15,000 units and dedicated T1 lines we declare as the minimum acceptable. A suitable minimum for talking to the CEO, overkill for engineers and middle managers.
But IT narrowly focuses at electronic methods of collaboration when we seek to improve it. That if our eRoom was a little more powerful, somehow we would be collaborating more. No doubt we could manage our data better. Better workflow is desperately needed. But these are just efficiency tools to make our actual collaboration more efficient, to minimize the phone calls and shorten the meetings.
Collaboration is more than the core methods. There are the enablers: especially the phone and VTC bridges, which allow group collaboration. There are the electronic ones: the eRooms, the docushares, the shared drives where most of our data lives. What we call collaboration, but are really our electronic storage lockers, some nicely painted with a calendar on the door to track our comings and goings. There are the bolt-ons: the Netmeetings, Sametimes, and Webexes which are useless in themselves but allow powerpoints to be finished at the last minute and be kept away from the prying (and remembering) hands of the audience. And there is even lowly email.
So when an executive surveys his $4B chunk of a Fortune 125 company, where should he turn to ensure his collaboration landscape remains neatly groomed. To analyze how his employees are working. To see whether the 10 minutes wasted at the beginning of many meetings as Sametime burps can be recovered. To figure out whether any people who don't belong are on his conference call.
They shouldn't turn to network engineers. While collaboration requires networks and servers, an enterprise collaboration infrastructure could just as easily run on a wireless system provided by a third party. A good collaboration infrastructure is networking agnostic.
They shouldn't turn to web programmers or mainframe programmers. Day to day management of the collaboration needs of 10,000 or more individuals and maintenance of 99.999% reliability is not linked to designing business applications. Many perfectly good collaboration solutions have been employed by these groups, but never do they provide dial-tone reliability.
They shouldn't turn to desktop technicians, whose wizardry keeps working the equipment on 10,000 desks, because their focus is on the thousands rather than server farms, load balancing, and continuous monitoring.
Rather they should realize that collaboration is about conversations, not workflow. Who has managed our conversations for the last 75 years? Telecommunications.
The first step is changing their name. Because telecommunications is only a small (and clearly understood) segment in achieving High-Availability Real-Time Collaboration.
Renamed "Collaboration Services", the true scope of their new task begins to come into focus. They are responsible for the corporate directory, which is how we find each other to collaborate. They are responsible for collaboration spaces (formerly conference rooms), to ensure adequate spaces are available in each physical location. They are responsible for electronic, voice, and video bridges and spaces. They are responsible for webcasts. They are responsible for surveys. And they remain responsible for our telephones and supporting infrastructure.
And their legacy skillsets begin to show their relevance to modern problems.
Telephone Operators become Collaboration Enablers. Able to look up information for far-flung employees on mobile phones. Able to intervene into Sametimes when a meeting password is forgotten. Continually monitoring the phone bridge for conferences nearing capacity. Able to solve permissions problems in eRoom. Able to track down a conference room when a last-minute conflict arises.
Telecoms Engineers become Collaboration Engineers. Their focus spreads beyond voice to the entire range of collaboration. How can we ensure every employee can get a webcast? Do we need collaboration phonebooths to allow workers without enclosed offices to participate in low-level video collaboration?
Telecoms Managers become Collaboration Managers. Is the directory accurate? Why doesn't Sametime work better? Why don't we route the voice for our Sametimes over the data network?
Long-haul telecommunications, the T1s and T3s of the world, are given to networks where they belong. Most of the hundreds of thousands we pay for long-haul voice could be gone within a year. Networkings role is to provide bandwidth of appropriate quality for text, voice, video, and beyond. The demanding performance requirements (and easy visibility of failure) force them to properly tune and engineer the network, smoothing the pathway for both collaborative and informational.
So what would I ask Collaboration Services to do in 2006? Drive collaboration. Here's how:
1) Provide VOIP capability to all workers with laptops. Abandon USB phones in favor of the bluetooth headsets increasingly becoming common. Due to unreliability of the Avaya VOIP stack and service, go to a 3rd party for a commercially proven and frequently updated VOIP stack (SJPhone works great). Consider using them for SIP gateway services as well (having a "corporate" phone # is not nearly as important as telecoms thinks). Set up direct VOIP connectivity at the audio bridge for higher performance, no phone charges (VOIP to VOIP is free) and less trunking used.
2) Provide unified ring to people who travel extensively. This feature taps into the PBX to ring a person's desk phone, cellphone, and VOIP phone simultaneously.
3) Upgrade the audio bridge to world class. For historical and cultural reasons, this is our collaboration sweet spot. They're contaminated by "be-boops" and arbitrary feature selections made years ago, while hosts have no idea how precisely the behavior can be tailored. Our most senior executives don't use ours in favor of AT&T. Why? Because they've been burned in the past by capacity restrictions and service failures. Engineer 99.99% uptime. Dedicate personnel to real-time monitoring and uncap port restrictions on directors and above. Give them the killer feature that AT&T can't deliver -- real-time viewing of conference participants. Give all users a fully automated solution to set the parameters on their bridge accounts. Setup voice recording capability so that people unable to attend important meetings can replay them online.
4) Buy our own video bridge that supports ad-hoc conferencing of low-end VTC equipment. Install $2500 VTC suites for the office of every director. Enable web-based scheduling of our video bridge.
5) Link email lists and audio. Managers should be able to send a voicemail to every one of their employees just as easily as an email. With no additional list maintenance required.
6) Fix Sametime until it provides the 99.999% reliability they demand of Voice gear.
7) Provide access to "Collaboration Enablers" at every center, not just Massachusetts ones. Freeze hiring until value can be proven in this new paradigm.
8) Install a fax to email gateway so every group of employees can have their own fax #.
And here's a few glimpses of the future:
1) Automatically install the closest printers to a user when they connect either by wire or wirelessly. Show them a map with emergency egress instructions, facilities, coffee, etc.
2) Automatically degrade conferences from video to voice to one-way voice (with IM backchannel) if there is a sudden loss of bandwidth on the network.
3) Sit down at any phone in the company, type in your directory services id and password, and receive all phone calls at that location. Enter a conference room and the screensaver on the plasma screen shows you the number of voicemail messages in your box by reading your badge with a proximity sensor.
In the 1970s, telecommunications was the experts in High-Availability Real-Time Collaboration. Then they gradually lost the bubble due to the flashy technologies of the Internet. Instead of declaring victory for the network and abandoning telecoms, we should be taking advantage of telecoms' historic skill sets to drive us forward.