The IT factor

European CEO discussed with Bert van der Zwan, Vice President, WebEx EMEA, ways to accelerate your business with online collaboration

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What, in your view, are the benefits of collaboration, particularly within a business environment?
Web collaboration has multiple benefits in a business environment.  Firstly, it can have a real impact on a company’s bottom line.  Web conferences, with document sharing capabilities, and other collaboration tools save time and money by allowing employees to run productive meetings from their desktops. By reducing unnecessary business travel, this has the added benefit of cutting a business’ carbon footprint.

Secondly, web collaboration is an effective way of uniting disparate teams.  It improves project work and knowledge sharing, particularly using tools such as IM and web offices.  As you can allow internal data/tools to be accessed for approved users from outside the firewall, it is also useful for managing outsourcing, flexible working and remote working.

Thirdly, you can access multiple applications through a single interface.  One service, such as a web meeting, can be adapted or used for many core business functions such as remote support, sales and lead qualification, reporting and training.

Why are organisations now embracing collaborative tools: what has brought about the step-change?
The popularity of collaborative technology has gone through the roof in the consumer space, with social networking sites like MySpace and YouTube leading the way.  Business is hot-on-the-heels of this consumer trend, and is starting to see the value of sharing and collaborating over the web through Wikis, webinars and Instant Messaging as a means to increase productivity. Following the trends in consumer IT, workers are also demanding to use these types of technologies, particularly as they allow them to work more flexibly and remotely in a simple and cost-effective way.

Business mashup technology is also coming to the fore – allowing workers to share structured and unstructured data while group collaborative sessions are underway. The ability for anyone to create their own applications quickly, cheaply and easily is extremely powerful, and is igniting a sea-change in the way that workers interact and collaborate over the web.

The SMB market in particular is reaping the productivity gains of collaborative technologies, such as web meetings as they give them the chance to operate like much larger organisations.

Business must make sure, however, that any collaborative tools they implement are secure for the business environment, with extra network security, memory, monitoring tools and policies in place.

Would you encourage ALL organisations to deploy collaborative tools – are they only suited to a particular kind of working environment in your experience?
The benefits of incorporating collaborative technology reach across industries and businesses of all sizes. Businesses that depend on working with numerous third party suppliers often reap massive productivity rewards from collaborative tools, as their communications can be streamlined and larger groups of people managed centrally at one time.

For example, management consultancy, 4Biz Group, which has 10 remote sales reps, uses WebEx’s hosted office and document and database management tools to share and update sales documents and customer databases remotely.

Disparate businesses which have a series of small offices, or regional reps often use hosted office applications for instant updating and document access, as opposed relying on email as a document managing and reporting tool.

Are there any drawbacks / issues that you would urge an organisation to consider before encouraging its employees to use collaborative tools?
The most important considerations are compliance and security.  Bear in mind that you will be dealing with sensitive company data – so ensuring you have the necessary security, privacy and tracking tools in place is paramount and should be among the top deciding factors when selecting collaboration vendors. If an agreement is confirmed via Instant Messaging, for example, and there are no archiving tools in place, how can a company prove the go-ahead or buy-in was approved?

Firewalls are the biggest technical enemy to getting many tools to work over the web. It is important you are not restricted to collaborating with people inside your network – as the benefits of deploying collaborative tools over the web lies in the ability to communicate to anyone in the world from the comfort of your desk. This is where administrative controls come in.  In a collaborative environment, previously internal applications will be exposed to external business partners, and you need to do this without posing a risk to the system.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that while web collaboration tools are extremely effective for uniting people from around the world, sometimes there are situations when you just have to have face-to-face contact.

Do you think collaborative working will change the way businesses operate fundamentally going forward, or are they just a helpful add-on?
There is already a sea change in how businesses are adopting technology to gain productivity in their workforce. Collaboration is just the next step and we are seeing movement on a large scale toward these types of tools. The potential for the future is massive. For example in the software sales industry, being able to sell, demonstrate, train and provide support online has made huge differences for our clients in this sector.

For example, compliance software vendor, Gael Quality which has over 100,000 clients in over 90 countries and operates form East Kilbride, has been able to launch new products solely using WebEx’s collaborative software. In fact, by using web-based remote access tools Gael Quality can offer two-hour response and 24-hour guaranteed resolution times to support enquiries.

In terms of sales, by using web-meetings, Gael Quality can initiate an online sales demonstration with 15 minutes of an incoming enquiry, with reps being able to hold up to five sales meeting per day from their desks, opposed to only two per day when selling face-to-face.

For most companies, collaboration provides a change in both the operating and business culture.

The current environmental crisis has also highlighted the need for more collaborative technologies. UK businesses in particular are under pressure to cut carbon emissions, and by using collaboration technology can effectively reduce much of the business travel that is one of the worse carbon offenders. This will have a fundamental affect on the way businesses operate going forward.

Who buys your technology? Is your customer base varied or dominated by two sectors?
While the early adopters of our web collaboration technology came primarily from progressive IT companies (as with most IT trends), our customers now vary widely, from Fortune 100 companies, through to family-owned French Vintners.

5.5 million people use WebEx every month, and 85,000 collaborative sessions take place every business day! 90 percent of our users consider our technologies strategic to their job.