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SaaS: Plugging the communications gap for small businesses

Distributed thinking

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Yahoo!’s decision last month to axe home working prompted much debate. Common reactions ranged from outrage through incredulity to the sad shaking of heads over the fact that CEO Marissa Mayer is clearly out of touch with the modern world.

Some of the reasons cited for this controversial move, however, are worth noting. The internal memo is reported to have said: "Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings.”

Whether the new policy will deliver on this expectation and work out well for Yahoo! in the parallel universe of Silicon Valley remains to be seen.

Back in the world the rest of us live in, the outcome is somewhat academic because pulling everyone together under the same roof is often simply not practical, however much you believe that re-centralising your workforce would lead to better insights and decisions.

Drifting apart

The reality is that both business operations and the talent pools you need to dip into when recruiting are frequently distributed across multiple locations and even countries.

Add to this the fact that many organisations have employees working from customer sites, satellite offices or on the road, and it is clear that we need to think about the problem of enabling natural and productive interaction a little differently.

It is therefore no coincidence that many large enterprises and public-sector institutions have invested heavily in their business communications infrastructure over the years and are continuing to do so.

Whether it is function-rich IP-based telephony, enhanced multimedia conferencing or full-blown unified comms and collaboration solutions, those with enough employees to justify the spend have been able to facilitate more effective distributed working.

The difference is that “cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings”, along with more structured forms of collaboration and interaction, take place virtually rather than physically.

Maybe that’s not quite as good as dealing with colleagues face to face, but when you don’t have that option modern solutions that enable everything from ad hoc instant messaging to full HD-quality multi-party video conferencing are not a bad substitute.

Jack of all trades

What about smaller organisations? When looking at this sector it is easy to focus on the local retailer, independent restaurant or small company operating out of an office on the trading estate, with everyone working in the same location.

But in fact in the small and medium business (SMB) space, distributed operations are the norm rather than the exception. In one Freeform Dynamics study, for example, within a balanced sample of mid-sized western European businesses (50 to 1,000 employees), more than 60 per cent said they operated across more than one site.

Beyond this, we don’t need to quote research to highlight the degree to which mobile working is relevant to smaller businesses as well as larger ones (though there’s lots of material here if you need convincing).

In fact in an SMB environment, where key people often fill several roles and don’t have the luxury of always clocking off at 5.30pm or declaring that they can’t be contacted because they are out of the office, being able to work effectively from the field or at home is arguably more valuable, even critical.

Facilitating effective distributed collaboration, however, can be a challenge when you have limited skills and resources. In another study we conducted recently, even in a self-selecting research sample (biased towards more progressive organisations) the majority of SMB respondents indicated limited or no adoption of advanced comms and collaboration capability.

This included functions such as instant messaging, various forms of conferencing and IP telephony. Furthermore, the gaps seem to persist even though the overwhelming majority declared they could do a lot better at supporting flexible and distributed working practices.

A hard sell

One of the reasons for the shortfall is because it is generally a lot harder to justify infrastructure investments in a smaller business environment. SMBs, on the whole, tend to put new IT and communications systems in place on a reactive basis, for example when something breaks or runs out of capacity or when a new business need arises.

Gaining commitment to upgrade the email server infrastructure or PBX can be challenging enough. Getting the managing director or financial controller to approve spending on a unified comms and collaboration system is an even tougher sell, especially when you include the new server hardware, network upgrade, beefed-up security tooling and professional services needed to implement and operate the system properly.

It is in areas such as this that software as a service (SaaS) comes into its own. Offerings now exist that provide a fully integrated suite of capability for allowing distributed workgroups to operate effectively.

This includes email, instant messaging, office tools, document-centric collaboration, pretty much every form of conferencing and even IP telephony in some cases.

Why is SaaS particularly relevant here? Well for one thing it overcomes the infrastructure investment hurdle. You can't forget the infrastructure completely, as you may still need to pay some attention to your comms, but you will not need to invest nearly as much as if you were putting an advanced collaboration system in place on premise.

And while some resourcing needs to be allocated to the migration of email boxes and document repositories, for example, there is a lot less to do in the way of basic systems integration, optimisation and ongoing operations.

The other attraction of this type of cloud offering is that whichever way you cut it, if you have people collaborating at a distance, then secure central storage, secure and robust comms and flexible access through web interfaces and mobile devices are all essential.

This means a lot less really hairy stuff to drag you out of bed at night

Delivering on these requirements is a core competence of SaaS providers, who have the economy of scale to throw state-of-the-art equipment, best practices and specialist skills at the problem.

This means a lot less really hairy stuff for you to worry about or to drag you out of bed at night when something goes horribly wrong.

Of course overriding all this is the question of trust. Even if you believe that the SaaS provider can hold your data securely and provide flexible access to it, you need to be comfortable with its legal and commercial terms, and, not least, its business culture and approach to support.

SaaS may not be right for everyone looking for enhanced comms and collaboration capability but for smaller businesses willing to take the plunge it does provide an opportunity to close the gap between you and your larger competitors.

Interested but still not totally sold on the idea? Well let’s finish by highlighting that you can be very selective about the way you adopt SaaS options.

If you see the attraction of hosted email but would rather your office tools stayed on the desktop, that’s not a problem. If you like the idea of cloud-based collaboration but want everything to do with email to stay where you can see it in your own computer room, that’s OK too.

Such hybrid options offer a lot of flexibility. Provided you select the right solutions, with portability and integration in mind, you are always in control of how far and how quickly you move. ®

Dale Vile is managing director of Freeform Dynamics, the UK IT analyst firm.

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