Up Front: IT in Canada CEO/Chief Content Officer Michael O’Neil has conducted a series of interviews with leading members of the Canadian IT industry, to discuss the opportunities and implications of unified communications in Canadian businesses.
Each interview was loosely based on a common discussion guideline. Its sections included:
- Opening Thoughts on UC: UC is an extension of the communications infrastructure, or an enhancement of business applications and processes?
- Questions on UC Attributes: What benefits and obstacles will we encounter, as we use UC to address issues like human latency, anyplace/anytime collaboration, presence, and productivity.
- UC Within the Organization: What impact does corporate structure have on UC’s potential contribution? How does UC impact an organization’s ability to engage younger workers? And how does it affect management skill requirements?
- The UC Business Case: How should UC acquisition logic be structured – what payback expectations are reasonable, what support is needed from business and IT management, where is opposition to UC deployment likely to come from, and what needs to be considered in identifying, evaluating, and/or managing suppliers?
This paper contains the results of the interview with John Reid, conducted on May 29, 2008.
When reading the following, it should be remembered that the purpose of these discussions is not to “fill in the blanks” in the outline, but rather, to explore the unique perspectives of the participant. Here, we see the unique perspective that John brings to UC, a perspective that adds to a comprehensive appreciation of what UC is, and what it means for Canadian organizations.
John Reid is one of Canada’s IT industry leaders. As President of the Canadian Advanced Technology Association, he presides over the country’s largest IT industry association. However, John’s impact on the market extends well beyond his position in CATA. He is known throughout the industry as a “doer” – someone who is constantly exploring ways in which technology can enable economic activity, particularly for Canadian entrepreneurs.
Recently, John launched a “Going Bedouin” program designed to transform CATA into a “full mobility” organization. His experiences in presiding over a dynamic organization where work is truly “not a place anymore – but a thing that you do” informs his persective on Unified Communications, and provided tremendous context for our discussion.
First Section: Opening Thoughts on UC
The “opening thoughts” section revolves around the question of whether UC is best understood as an extension of the communications infrastructure, or as an enhancement of business applications and processes. John’s belief is that it is both: that the integration of “what used to be self-standing technologies – internet, web, voice”, drives better productivity through better collaboration. The UC infrastructure enables staff to be more effective in “outreach to new and existing clients/customers” – which in turn enhances the effectiveness of most critical client-facing applications.
When asked what makes UC successful in a distributed, virtual enterprise, John is quick to note that the “secret sauce…is the simplicity equation.” Adoption, he says, will only happen if you identify and accommodate the ways in which each employee is comfortable accessing your communications and communications-dependent business systems.
The other half of this equation, of course, is the underlying infrastructure – which is not simple at all, but needs to appear so to its users. John believes that much of the impetus for adoption of new UC technology is a result of the current slowdown in the business environment. “Any time you put an economy under pressure,” he says, “you have to increase the level of sophistication” of the tools and processes used to support business processes. In this environment, the CIO can’t be “the guy managing the server room” – he/she needs to be part of the CEO’s strategic team.
Questions on UC Attributes
John’s passion for technology as a means of enabling entrepreneurial activity became apparent when we began to delve into the attributes of UC. When I asked a question about whether UC can accelerate adoption of new work patterns, he is quick to respond in the affirmative, and to expand on the point. “A very big plus” of this approach to communications, he says, is that “it becomes easier and easier to set up new enterprises.” John believes that UC will be an important enabling technology for Canadian entrepreneurs. With advanced collaboration capabilities, there is less need for bricks and mortar investment, which makes possible new types of consortiums providing sophisticated business services.
Elsewhere in this discussion, John’s remarks reflect his practical experience with deploying a distributed, collaborative workplace model. Asked about the “need to reduce human latency,” he responds by noting that technology that helps management to see time delays in the process, and to increase enterprise-wide transparency, provides an important management benefit. Later, in a discussion about presence, he points out that this is not an arcane future technology, but rather, one that can be (and inside CATA, has been) deployed with “simple, known technology.” Visibility into presence, John says, “enables (CATA) to deal with issues immediately.” As a result, John believes that his staff can act as though they are close together, even though they are physically separate. He notes that this in turn enables employees to make lifestyle choices about where they live, contributing to fundamental HR objectives like attraction, retention, and employee satisfaction.
The “UC attributes” section of the discussion guideline ends with a question about the extent to which UC is likely to drive productivity, and as a consequence, much higher returns for businesses. Here again, John is direct: “You have to look at all the collaborative media, and drop in the idea of productivity. If you can use new media to reduce cost and enhance productivity, you accelerate adoption of these technologies.” He goes on to note that since these products are often built on open environments – offering low cost and scope for additional development – they should be a boon for entrepreneurs.
UC Within the Organization
Our discussion in this area started with a question about whether one of two different organizational approaches – “command and control” vs. “sense and react” – is better suited to UC. John’s belief is that a command and control approach would constitute the top obstacle to UC – that the benefit of the technology is most apparent where responsibility and authority are distributed.
John went on to state that the second biggest obstacle to adoption would likely be a lack of in-house expertise and understanding to lead adoption. Here, he echoed an observation that I heard in an earlier interview – that an organization looking to embrace UC can’t rely on a single champion, but rather, needs multiple champions throughout the organization to set an example for adoption.
The most interesting aspect of this section of our interview concerned differences in workplace requirements between established employees, and those who are just entering the work force. The question itself was intended to look specifically at how/whether UC could be an important factor in attracting and engaging new workforce entrants, but John used this as a point of departure for a set of more general observations about younger staffers. He observes that, “it’s true when they talk about reverse mentorship.” John believes in viewing new-generation employees as a source of insight into many issues, including communications and collaboration: “they bring an openness – new media isn’t new, this is how you do things.” This eventually led us back to the notion of corporate culture, since the idea of new employees serving as role models is one that is hard to digest in many business contexts.
The UC Business Case
The last section of our interview dealt with the UC business case: how UC should be positioned, where/in what timeframe a buyer should look for payback, expectations regarding the involvement of IT and business management in the process, potential impediments to success, and several supplier-related issues.
Because CATA has recently launched its “Bedouin Office” initiative, this is a particularly current issue for John. He started by talking about the availability of low-cost tools, such as sub-$400 PCs loaded with Open Office and other open-source programs. CATA itself makes use of many publicly-available resources, including cloud-based calendaring and scheduling systems (and storage/backup), which both reduce costs and promote collaboration.
At root, though, the new technology answers to some traditional strictures. “Metrics haven’t changed that much,” John says, noting that management needs to stay focused on the issues that have always driven new technology adoption: how much does a new approach reduce the cost of doing business, increase productivity, assist in obtaining new customers or increasing the value of new customers, how much does it contribute to the process of customer retention.
New communications and collaboration tools have a place in the corporate arsenal, John believes, because they are “very powerful, but thrifty,” driving down communications and software costs while contributing value against the traditional measurements used to assess new technology investments. What makes UC unique, he believes, is the extent to which it is able to satisfy these measures: “you get transformed,” John says, mindful of the impact that UC has had on CATA, “by tools which are by nature without borders.”