Best Practices for Cloud-Based Collaboration

eWEEK COLLABORATION PERSPECTIVE: Customer sessions at WebexOne event provides some badly needed advice for effective collaboration.

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Earlier this month, collaboration market leader Cisco Systems held its first-ever WebexOne virtual conference, an event filled with product news as Cisco announced a veritable cornucopia of new features—many of which enabled by artificial intelligence.

During his keynote, Cisco’s new SVP of Applications and Security, Jeetu Patel, presented the company strategy for collaboration, which is making virtual meetings 10x better than in-person ones. This is what’s driving much of the innovation at Cisco in its Webex product. 

Effective collaboration requires the right tools and best practices 

However, cool whiz-bang features such as noise reduction, translation and gestures are great and improve meetings, but businesses need to understand how to collaborate as well. During the event, Cisco held two sessions where Webex customers outlined strategies and best practices for how to best use cloud-based collaboration tools. Two of the speakers, T-Mobile’s Vice President of Product and Technology Craig Thomas and Amgen’s Chief Enterprise Architect Gary Hagen, shared how their organizations addressed work-from-home challenges during the pandemic.

In another presentation, a panel of Cisco customers—including Royal Caribbean, Rent-a-Center and the School District of Pickens County, South Carolina—talked about large-scale implementations of Webex. According to Barbara Nesbitt, assistant superintendent for technology services at Pickens County schools, one unintentional positive that has resulted from COVID-19 is more flexibility in how people work, learn and communicate. 

Organizations have had to transition from face-to-face to virtual in a short period of time, creating unprecedented demand for collaboration tools like Webex, Zoom, Skype, RingCentral and others. Now nearly a year into the pandemic, organizations have firsthand experience using these tools and are ready to share lessons they’ve learned along the way. Below is a summary of the session, highlighting the top five best practices. 

Best Practice #1: Choose a platform that integrates with existing tech.

A collaboration platform that integrates with existing IT systems makes the transition easier and more cost-effective. For T-Mobile, that meant not buying as much new equipment, because its conference rooms and facilities were already set up to support collaboration, Thomas said.

Amgen wanted a platform that encompassed its network security, routers and infrastructure to deliver all the collaboration capabilities and apps. The biopharmaceutical giant initially planned to roll out Webex over the course of six months starting in 2020. Once COVID-19 hit, however, the entire organization successfully transitioned to Webex over a three-week period. 

Best Practice #2: Have a holistic view of services, apps, devices, users.

The ability to manage all workloads from a single pane of glass is an efficiency driver for T-Mobile, Thomas said, in reference to its collaboration platform’s control hub. The control hub gives administrators a holistic view of T-Mobile’s services and users. It also allows administrators to provision devices, administer security policies and produce reports for regulatory purposes. Troubleshooting of high-priority issues can be done directly in the platform, so administrators don’t have to deal with the complexity of using different tools.

Rent-a-Center’s CIO Mike Santimaw recommended selecting a platform that provides the most quality across the organization. “It’s about driving the art of the possible. We're continually innovating, continually trying to change the way we operate,” Santimaw said. 

Best Practice #3: Future-proof your system by working with a trusted partner.

Amgen implemented a strategy where its seven manufacturing plants must continue operating independently—producing, labeling, and shipping products—in the event of a cyber-attack or a natural disaster. Amgen has never had a product shortage, which Hagen attributes to a combination of cloud capabilities, on-premise capabilities, robust network infrastructure and vendor support.

The key to staying relevant and at the forefront of one’s industry is tapping into the expertise of trusted partners, according to Hagen. Such partners are needed to deliver cloud solutions that encompass networking, security, analytics and management, so organizations can focus on the business side of things. “There are risks with the cloud, but you can be smart about it,” said Hagen. “For us, the benefits far outweigh the risks.”

Best Practice #4: Maintain continuity throughout the collaboration experience.

Royal Caribbean ensures that its users get a continuous collaboration experience “from desktop to pocket to boardroom,” said Kelly Boyer, the cruise line’s director of IT infrastructure, operations and innovation. Within Royal Caribbean’s collaboration user base, there are its 12,000 employees and then everyone else the company interacts with externally. That amounts to approximately 240,000 participants and 50,000 meetings a month.

Similarly, T-Mobile has an enterprise-grade cloud calling and team collaboration solution that provides users with continuity. Employees are spread out across field sites and call centers, so they’re able to connect from any device at hand using a single smartphone app. The initial driver for T-Mobile was video, allowing employees to communicate more naturally as they would in person, said Thomas. Now T-Mobile is utilizing more of the interoperability features, such as connections to calendaring, voice activation and meeting room monitoring (to limit people capacity in a room).

Best Practice #5: Take collaboration to the next level.

In a post-COVID-19 world, it’s important to look beyond collaboration and gain a better understanding of the social networks that exist within organizations. What do the collaboration networks look like as more people connect to people, how are these networks built, and how can they help run the business more efficiently? These are some of the questions the WebexOne panelists have been asking themselves as they navigate around new work-from-home structures at their organizations.

More organizations are turning to data mining and sentiment analysis for answers. Sentiment analysis is an especially valuable tool for gaining wider public opinion and positive, negative or neutral feedback. It’s difficult to gauge how team members are “feeling” about projects or tasks when they aren’t physically present in a room. That’s one downside of remote work. But with sentiment analysis, team leaders can make better decisions if they know the emotional output of their team members.

The right platform makes adjusting to new norms easy 

Virtual working is here to stay and cloud collaboration tools such as Webex make this possible. There are many, many choices for businesses when it comes to collaboration and organizations need to do their home to make the best possible decision. This involves following a set of best practices, like the ones outlined above, that address the needs of today but also looks ahead into the future. This helps companies prepare for a world where the only known norm is the unknown. 

Zeus Kerravala is an eWEEK regular contributor and the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. He spent 10 years at Yankee Group and prior to that held a number of corporate IT positions.