Does your customer really need an office? Once upon a time the answer seemed obvious and the question itself rather stupid. However, as cost pressures increase along with the need for agility, more organisations are asking this very question – especially as collaborative technologies have appeared that can maintain or even improve productivity whether the team is in the field or camped out behind a desk.
Small Lewes-based manufacturer Bete has reportedly dispensed with its office entirely. It still has a warehouse for the nozzles and spray equipment it makes, but the admin staff now all work from home using a combination of IaaS, virtualisation, mobile communications and remote connectivity. This saves money, according to company PR. And why not?
Martine Dodwell-Bennett, sales and marketing director at audiovisual kit distributor Steljes, told industry delegates at a CRN roundtable on the opportunities of collaborative technology that she has seen much more customer interest in dispersed yet collaborative workplaces over the past couple of years.
“Customers are talking about collaborative technologies and the flexible workplace. The challenge now for us is understanding what that means. We know from research that people are demanding more flexible workplaces and they really want to collaborate,” she said.
Dodwell-Bennett added that cost reduction is only one factor. Customers also want to streamline their business processes, often in line with a desire for greater environmental sustainability. This means more staff being able to work efficiently wherever they are, reducing travel as well as other inefficiencies such as the need for double-handling of data.
Many implementations simply have not provided these improvements in the past.
That is not because the technology is incapable, according to Dodwell-Bennett, but because organisations are not doing the right things to ensure staff will use the technology. That goes beyond IT training to looking more closely at whether or not the kit is interfacing with actual business processes.
“We are talking [for example] about videoconferencing where the remote user does not have the means to talk back. You have voice to voice and face to face, but no collaboration,” she said.
“I think users have got frustrated with that, and want proper tools.”
She noted that Steljes has been working with interactive whiteboard maker Smart for two decades, but the touchscreens available for years are only now, with the advent of consumer gadgets such as the iPad and the iPhone, seeing wider uptake as consumers are now more familiar with the concept.
“We have a lot to thank Apple for, in some ways,” said Dodwell-Bennett.
James Bradshaw-Weaver, marketing director at visual collaboration technology specialist Involve – previously known as Martin Dawes Solutions – suggested that driving collaboration improvements is one of the biggest tasks for many businesses these days. This is not least because it is one of the more overlooked ways to lower costs, among other things, and deliver genuine competitive advantage, he agrees.
“By being able to collaborate with clients more effectively and more readily, you can retain them far longer because you are providing a greater service,” Bradshaw-Weaver said.
Collaboration improvements can be achieved, he agreed, but they must happen naturally alongside the staff priorities that already exist. “So it is about how people like to work, and how their work patterns are changing,” he said. “It’s a very exciting time; if you get this part right, you can really start to transform the business.”
“There has been a big disconnect, because nobody was asking the questions ‘how do you like to work?’, ‘what business process are you trying to support?’, and so on,” he said. “It’s all about understanding the behaviours of individuals and once you understand that, you can drive a collaborative strategy from it.”
Consult the customer
Bradshaw-Weaver said too many technology providers have simply offered customers the technology they ask for in the first instance, without asking them more deeply about their needs. This was not a recipe for success, not least because it provides no opportunity to tackle any cultural challenges surrounding the newer sets of tools. Resellers simply must be more proactive in targeting customer needs.
“Hope is no longer a strategy. For resellers to be successful, they need to adopt a more consultative approach,” he said. “They have this visual collaboration technology but they do not use it or adopt it because it is not fit for purpose in their environment, to support that particular process. And it is also cultural,” he added. “I think it comes down to people, process, culture, and [then] technology.”
Caroline Betsill, global head of workplace effectiveness at Barclays, was full of praise for the most recent collaborative technology-related implementations at the UK banking group. Having everyone who needs to work together located in one place is no longer practical for many firms, she said.
“Obviously there are challenges with working more collaboratively, especially as we are a global company with thousands of people and we want to leverage everybody’s expertise, no matter where they sit in the world,” she said. “So it is about being individually connected for us, and about how we get connected and are able to work together as if we are in the same room. And that has been a challenge for us.”
Betsill said the need to compete with other businesses has made response times and teamwork more critical than ever. Also, there is a growing need to work with other businesses as well as customers – two other areas where collaborative technologies can assist the organisation in developing and improving its relationships. “In addition, we take the green agenda very seriously at Barclays,” she added.
A holistic approach is definitely needed, Betsill agreed, to ensure that the true benefits of increased collaboration are available. That means corporate real estate and human resources – as well as IT – become critical parts of a successful collaborative technology installation, freeing up seating, for example, or ensuring better use can be made of what desks and room spaces are available.
“It is a kind of triumvirate, where we actually deliver the workplace together,” she said.
One recent project was a series of pop-up demonstrations held around Barclays last Christmas that introduced some of the collaborative technologies and got more staff talking about how to employ them. The first one was “very small”, she said, with about 10 desks, a meeting pod, and some collaboration space with “a couple” of Smart boards, an Apple TV, and some other technologies. People could come in with their tablet PCs, pick up a connection and quickly collaborate with other team members.
This approach resulted in genuine employee engagement, with visualiser devices such as Elmo devices going missing as staff unplugged them and took them away to try out elsewhere, she claimed. “People loved it and used it so much,” said Betsill. “It was all very easy to use, and you did not need a handbook or an explanation. People just loved it.”
The more technologies people are involved with, the less time they have for learning about them, she noted, so intuitive functionality is really important.
One day, one of the finance executives who had been wrestling with the logistics of planning a month-long business trip around the world walked past the collaborative tech pop-up and saw the Smart board in action, Betsill recalled.
“He said: ‘Can I borrow that Smart board for a week?’ And he booked a meeting room and got everybody [from around the world] together on WebEx. There were people in airports on their iPhones or at home with their home PCs, all collaborating together. He did his around-the-world trip in a meeting room on the fifth floor at One Churchill Place, in a week,” Betsill said. “And that Smart board paid for itself probably five times over.”
One size fits none
Steve Burnley, collaboration specialist at Marlow-based reseller Softcat, reiterated that there is no such thing as one size fits all when it comes to collaborative technology. Resellers that treat requests as a product sale run the risk of being the worst kind of box-shifters – simply supplying tech regardless of whether it is what the customer really needs, and then leaving the customer to discover in their own time how unsuitable the implementation has been.
“That represents everything bad that has been said about the reseller community,” Burnley said. “Such as, for example, selling a videoconferencing solution simply because they have an office in London and an office in Manchester or something like that. When you really drill down, they might want to do desk videoconferencing, and do not want a point solution. And remote working comes into it more and more.”
He notes that they may want a room-based solution, but it might need to be supplemented by something else to be at all useful to the customer. It is critical to take the time to get to know the customer business and ask questions. Only then will the reseller be ready to actually sell them something – although it may require partnerships with other suppliers to deliver what the customer really wants, not least because what customers really want is to have staff in different locations collaborating together on completely different devices. Which is, Burnley concedes, not an easy ask.
“We need to be less scared of having difficult and long conversations with customers,” he said. “If you have that conversation, you are probably more likely to get that larger sale, better customer retention, and it will be everything they are aiming for. So be prepared to go in for the long haul,” he concluded.
Matt Wailing, director of London technological and workplace change consultancy Cordless Consultants, agreed that a more proactive, careful approach is necessary. If resellers in general
had been taking a more consultative approach – and not only when it comes to collaborative technologies and unified communications deployments – there might not be so many consultants, he quipped.
Wailing said there is no way of ignoring the role that BYOD will play in workplace collaboration either, because users are already bringing in their own devices and will demand that they work together collaboratively anyway. At the moment, company directors do not understand the risks concerning security. IT, on the other hand, does understand these risks and difficulties and as a result does not want to engage with BYOD at all.
But if organisations try to stop staff using their tablets, phones, and various USB devices such as cameras, the users will just try to circumvent the system. It is resellers and other IT suppliers who must find a way past the obstacles put forward by different stakeholders – including vendors that might be competing with each other in the space – to enable the flexibility and the inter- and intra-organisation collaboration that customers say they want, he said.
“Look at why something is being requested,” added Wailing. “Look at what the client is really trying to deliver and bring more of a broad offering.”
Dodwell-Bennett (pictured, left) reiterated that it is critical to talk to the right people and ask the right questions. And the process takes time. “It means a day of sitting in a room with C-level executives saying, ‘what do you want your workspace to look like?’; ‘What are you trying to achieve?’; and ‘what behaviours are you trying to get?’,” she agreed.
Afterwards, there will probably need to be ongoing training that goes beyond what the kit does and how to turn it on. If the customer comes in and simply wants the place to look funky, every reseller in the country can probably easily fulfil that – but that will not result in a truly collaborative flexible customer workplace.
Achieving that Holy Grail takes rather more, Dodwell-Bennett asserts. But the rewards are there, for technology providers who care to make the required effort.
“The margins are very real,” concluded Dodwell-Bennett. “There are many resellers doing it right, and those resellers doing it right are enjoying healthy margins, referral business and customers coming back.”
[asset_library_tag 5936,Download the complete Special Report as a PDF]
Commvault ousted its CEO in May and has since undergone a radical refocus
Wall Street less than impressed with Oracle's growth as cloud numbers remain hidden