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Is cloud-based collaboration a welcome reality or an albatross?

If cloud-based collaboration is still an albatross around your company’s neck, here are some tips to make the transition -- because cloud applications are here to stay.

Most companies have come to realize that managing on-premises applications doesn’t make sense. Even major traditional vendors like Microsoft, Oracle and SAP are repositioning their technologies to be hosted in the cloud. Unfortunately, recognition is only one dimension. How do firms prepare for this shift and take advantage of cloud-based collaboration and CRM technologies? There are compelling reasons to make the move. Further, it's not as hard as you might think to overcome the challenges.

Despite the perception that so many IT resources remain internal, the reality is that many organizations are already using cloud-based technologies. Consider the adoption rate of services like Microsoft's Office365, Huddle, Box, Dropbox, Central Desktop and HyperOffice – in many cases, these services have proliferated because many companies have already adopted some cloud-based software to get daily work done.

The cloud has already arrived at your company. In fact, it's probably difficult for most organizations to say that enterprise collaboration isn't already in the cloud or hosted by a third party. As a result, the real question is how to effectively make use of cloud-based services and extract the most value among cloud and on-premises solutions.

Single sign-on is critical

There has been enormous emphasis on single sign-on technologies. These tools enable users to access various sites and services without having to repeatedly provide credentials. In essence, single sign-on eliminates the need to re-identify yourself every time you want to get access to content that resides in various systems. But eliminating the sign-on prompt is really just the start. To truly capture all the collaborative work, you need a singular identity.

In the context of cloud-based collaboration, your identity connects you to your work and, by proxy, your work in the context of the larger team. Without a common identity technology, there's no real way to identify "your" work. This problem is multiplied by the number of identities your collaborators may have. For a concrete example of how a singular identity changes the nature of cross-tool collaboration, check out Microsoft’s Delve. The feature searches among tools to identify all work associated with "you." One of Delve's most compelling features is the ability to relate your work to the work of your colleagues, which opens up the concept of content discovery in interesting ways.

Put commodity applications in the cloud

There are a number of collaboration services and functions that are simply commodity applications and not worth managing in-house, such as instant messaging, email, file sharing, customer relationship management and discussions (something akin to Chatter, Yammer and Sales Cloud). While all these functions are critical to getting work done, none represent a strategic advantage and external firms like SalesForce, Oracle, Google and Microsoft are in a much better position to operate these services on your behalf.

These services need to be available, but firms shouldn't expend resources to manage them. The critical component is simple and consistent availability. Email and related applications need to be available -- if messages aren't delivered and services go down, it can effectively cripple productivity. Additionally, sharing files should just work. However, in today's world, sharing internally is no longer sufficient. Too many collaborators operate outside the four walls of your company. Some technologies enable enterprises to expose these services externally, but they can be complex at scale and companies tend to devote too few resources to supporting them, making it risky to run them without the appropriate controls.

Cloud vendors are simply better at it. Here are security and operational examples from Microsoft, Rackspace and Amazon.

Flexible governance in the cloud

Everyone likes to talk about governance, even though few organizations really commit to the concept. The challenge with most approaches to governance is that they end up feeling like a tome of rules designed to make interacting with technology difficult. In fact, one could argue that governance is one of the key reasons why end users seek out easy cloud solutions such as Dropbox, as no governance is required and the platform is easy to self-provision.

But governance shouldn’t be about creating rigid rules -- it's what will make cloud-based services effective in the long run. Instead, governance should exist to provide a flexible set of guiding principles that aim to answer the following questions:

  • Which tools are appropriate? Could you use Dropbox for all of your file-sharing needs? Yes. Is it appropriate for all circumstances? No. The Dropbox issue is a great example of a whole range of decisions that employees make constantly when trying to find the right tool for the job. Organizations need to take an active role in helping employees and external collaborators make choices based on the work, the context and the timing. For example, use Dropbox for simple file sharing (e.g., giving one or more people access to an Excel spreadsheet) and transition to SharePoint for multi-file, multi-party collaborative tasks, like creating a request for proposal (RFP).
  • Who owns the content? It may seem like a forgone conclusion, but the content creator may not be the long-term owner. A lot of content is created inside of modern enterprises and ownership is a shifting designation. For example, during the course of a project, many individuals may be involved in the development of content or information. Once the project is complete, content ownership should be transferred to the individual or group under which the project was organized. This is especially true when projects involve external collaborators who were hired to provide expertise on a project. Their work product is owned by them during the engagement and then that product is transferred to the client in the end.
  • How is content managed? One of the hardest dimensions of cloud-based collaboration is determining what to do with the output. In the example of an RFP response, there may be loads of files and/or information involved. However, the only really important file is the response to the RFP. All the other files could theoretically be disposed of immediately or shortly after the response is delivered to the requestor. The original response should be preserved either in its present storage location or a long-term archive. Following that, could there be a use for components of that response or even secondary information that could be useful in the context of a knowledge management solution? A governance plan can establish guidelines to help answer these questions.

Making cloud-based collaboration real

Using third parties to host applications isn't new. Software as a service (SaaS), infrastructure as a service (IaaS) and platform as a service (PaaS) providers are a credible part of the information technology landscape. The question is not when, but how, enterprises integrate the suite of cloud offerings into their technology strategy.

Making cloud-based alternatives real involves work. But some basic principles, such as creating a single identity, offloading commodity services and establishing a strong set of governing principles will enable firms to take advantage of the scale and favorable economics cloud vendors represent. Otherwise, competitors will.

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