Collaboration in the cloud – why aren’t you doing it?

Cloud computing and collaboration are a match made in heaven, yet someone must have forgotten to pay the matchmaker because the union is taking its time getting consummated. Strong web-based collaborative tools, such as SharePoint, have been around for a decade or so, but many organisations still stick with what’s comfortable and rely solely on email. Email is the go-to collaboration tool for knowledge workers, despite the fact that it is only one piece of what can be a highly efficient overall cloud strategy. Why, then, is email still the primary means of collaboration? Here are four main reasons:

  1.  It’s convenient
  2. It’s easy,
  3. Everyone uses it – all the time – and
  4. It still works.

Without taking advantage of the available cloud collaboration tools you could experience limitations such as: only one person being able to work on any given version of the document at once, or ending up with multiple, conflicting versions. In heavily regulated industries, those conflicting versions can pose problems beyond simply deciding which document version you should actually be working on.

Meanwhile, shuffling documents (or presentations, videos, etc.) back and forth undermines productivity. The workflow necessitated by this means of sharing is deterministic, allowing for only one working style. People must work in isolation, sequentially. I suppose your team can crowd around a desktop PC in someone’s cubicle, but that’s not collaboration, that’s a distraction.

The rise of cloud computing is fundamentally changing collaboration. Basic tools such as Outlook and Word are transforming into cloud-based tools. Cloud-based collaboration means that many of the initial barriers to entry for collaboration, such as expensive initial investment in infrastructure, have been removed.  Instead, it allows for pay-as-you-go usage and enables workers to keep using the tools they’re already used to, only with cloud-based features added on.

A powerful platform like SharePoint is orders of magnitude more powerful when linked to the cloud. Partners and contractors can be rolled into project workflows more easily, with more controls and fewer risks. Remote and branch offices no longer feel like they’re out of touch with headquarters, since they have the same access to the same tools at the same time.

And of course, all of these benefits are layered on top of the serious cost savings that come with cloud computing.

The changing nature of collaboration

For years, Outlook and Exchange were what we meant when we talked about online collaboration. Now, it’s important to factor in IM, Facebook, LinkedIn and plenty of other new forms of communicating.

Oh, and don’t forget mobile.

In the past, email was not a mobile tool. Workers used to only have access to corporate Outlook and Exchange on a PC in a physical office. Remote access allowed workers to VPN into a corporate network to synch a corporate Exchange account with a computer at home or while traveling.  That remote experience was tethered to PCs, though.

Now, email is available through any browser and mobile applications, making smartphones and email practically synonymous. Which brings us right back to where we started: email is the de facto mobile collaboration tool because it’s accessible across devices. Many other collaboration tools aren’t, but just as email is migrating to the cloud so too, hopefully, will collaboration.

The “app” model pundits slobber over with smartphones is really just a cloud model in small packages. With applications freed from legacy server environments, cloud-based collaboration platforms can more easily roll out mobile app versions of enterprise apps, while also adding in hooks for various types of social networking.

Whenever “cloud” and “mobile” are mentioned in the same breath, however, professional worriers automatically bring up security.

Fair enough. Security is a serious concern for any computing environment, and while it’s developing and improving for cloud and mobile computing, it is far from solved. Mobile email security is arguably ahead of device and cloud security. With protocols like Exchange ActiveSync, email on a smartphone can be made nearly as secure as the email on a PC.

Even with the cloud, security could turn into one of its main strengths – and further mobile security enhancements will almost certainly piggyback on the cloud.

After all, what is more secure, sensitive documents stored in laptops and smartphones that can be easily lost or stolen, or sensitive documents housed in the cloud behind several layers of security?

What is more of a risk, a document being passed around via email, or a document in the cloud, complete with access rights, roles and privileges layered on top of it?

Which is more of a security threat, a user uploading a document for access on the go to a webmail account or to a service like Dropbox, or a document in the cloud, accessible via a smartphone but which does not allow you to download and store data on that smartphone?

Employees who dodge corporate controls are usually just trying to be productive. However, in the process, they often put the organisation at risk. A recent study by the Ponemon Institute found that lost laptops cost organisations more than $2.1 billion each year, or $6.4 million per organization. Of course, the price of the lost hardware is the smallest cost, with the biggest ones being lost IP and the costs of complying with mandatory data breach reporting regulations.

Even CIOs who are still wary of the cloud should embrace cloud-based collaboration. It’s a low-risk, high-reward way to test drive this new method of computing. Which leads to the question: if cloud-based collaboration isn’t at the top of your to-do list, why isn’t it?

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