Cloud collaboration is a newly emerging way of sharing and co-authoring computer files through the use of cloud computing, whereby documents are uploaded to a central "cloud" for storage, where they can then be accessed by others. New cloud collaboration technologies have allowed users to upload, comment and collaborate on documents and even amend the document itself, evolving the document within the cloud. Businesses in the last few years have increasingly been switching to use of cloud collaboration.
Cloud collaboration brings together new advances in cloud computing and collaboration that are becoming more and more necessary in firms operating in an increasingly globalised world. Cloud computing is a marketing term for technologies that provide software, data access, and storage services that do not require end-user knowledge of the physical location and configuration of the system that delivers the services. A parallel to this concept can be drawn with the electricity grid, where end-users consume power without needing to understand the component devices or infrastructure required to utilize the technology.
Collaboration, in this case, refers to the ability of workers in a company to work together simultaneously on a particular task. In the past, most document collaboration would have to be completed face to face. However, collaboration has become more complex, with the need to work with people all over the world in real time on a variety of different types of documents, using different devices. Popular collaboration services include Google, Microsoft, WebEx, Jive Software, eXo Platform, Synaptop and Salesforce.com. While growth in the collaboration sector is still growing rapidly, it has been noted that the uptake of cloud collaboration services has reached a point where it is less to do with the ability of current technology, and more to do with the reluctance of workers to collaborate in this way. A report by Erica Rugullies mapped out five reasons why workers are reluctant to collaborate more. These are:
- People resist sharing their knowledge.
- Users are most comfortable using e-mail as their primary electronic collaboration tool.
- People do not have incentive to change their behaviour.
- Teams that want to or are selected to use the software do not have strong team leaders who push for more collaboration.
- Senior management is not actively involved in or does not support the team collaboration initiative.
As a result, many providers of cloud collaboration tools have created solutions to these problems. These include the integration of email alerts into collaboration software and the ability to see who is viewing the document at any time. All the tools a team could need are put into one piece of software so workers no longer have to rely on email based solutions.
Before cloud file sharing and collaboration software, most collaboration was limited to more primitive and less effective methods such as email and FTP among others. These did not work particularly well, and so the need emerged for a simple to use, yet feature rich cloud collaboration solution.
Very early moves into cloud computing were made by Amazon Web Services who, in 2006, began offering IT infrastructure services to businesses in the form of web services. Cloud computing only began to come to real prominence in 2007 when Google decided to move parts of its email service to a public cloud. It was not long before IBM and Microsoft followed suit with LotusLive and Business Productivity Online Standard Suite (BPOS) respectively. With an increase in cloud computing services, cloud collaboration solutions were able to evolve. Since 2007, many new, innovative firms have entered the industry offering new features and a more complete cloud collaboration system, filling gaps in the market left by less adaptable large existing software firms.
Many analysts explain the rise of cloud collaboration by pointing to the increasing use by workers of non-authorised websites and online tools to do their jobs. This includes the use of instant messaging and social networks. In a survey taken in early 2011, 22% of workers admitted to having used one or more of these external non-authorised websites. Cloud collaboration packages provide the ability to collaborate on documents together in real time, making the use of non-authorised instant messaging redundant. IT managers can now properly regulate internet based collaboration with a system tailor made for the office.
It has also been noted that cloud collaboration has become more and more necessary for IT departments as workforces have become more mobile and now need access to important documents wherever they are, whether this is through an internet browser, or through newer technologies such as smartphones and tablet devices. Furthermore, cloud collaboration is important in a world where business has become more globalised, with offices and clients located all over the world.
The tech industry has seen several large paradigm changes over the past few decades:
- The mainframe computing era enabled business growth to be untethered from the number of employees needed to process transactions manually.
- The personal computing era empowered business users to run their businesses based on individual data and applications on their PCs.
- A decade of network computing established an unprecedented level of transparency of information across multiple groups inside a company and an amazing rate of data exchange between enterprises.
Each of these revolutions brought with it new economies of scale. The cost-per-transaction, the cost of automating office and desktop processes, and finally the cost of network bandwidth fell quickly and enabled business users to apply ICT solutions more broadly to create business value. Most analysts (Forrester, Gartner, etc.) believe that cloud computing will help unleash the next wave of tech-enabled business innovation.
During the mainframe era, client/server was initially viewed as a "toy" technology, not viable as a mainframe replacement. Yet, over time the client/server technology found its way into the enterprise. Similarly, when virtualization technology was first proposed, application compatibility concerns and potential vendor lock-in were cited as barriers to adoption. Yet underlying economics of 20 to 30 percent savings compelled CIOs to overcome these concerns, and adoption quickly accelerated.
Recently, cloud collaboration has seen rapid evolution. In the past, cloud collaboration tools have been quite basic with very limited features. Newer packages are now much more document-centric in their approach to collaboration. More sophisticated tools allow users to "tag" specific areas of a document for comments which are delivered real time to those viewing the document. In some cases, the collaboration software can even be integrated into Microsoft Office, or allow users to set up video conferences.
Furthermore, the trend now is for firms to employ a single software tool to solve all their collaboration needs, rather than having to rely on multiple different techniques. Single cloud collaboration providers are now replacing a complicated tangle of instant messengers, email and FTP.
Cloud collaboration today is promoted as a tool for collaboration internally between different departments within a firm, but also externally as a means for sharing documents with end-clients as receiving feedback. This makes cloud computing a very versatile tool for firms with many different applications in a business environment.
The best cloud collaboration tools:
- Use real-time commenting and messaging features to enhance speed of project delivery
- Leverage presence indicators to identify when others are active on documents owned by another person
- Allow users to set permissions and manage other users' activity profiles
- Allow users to set personal activity feeds and email alert profiles to keep abreast of latest activities per file or user
- Allow users to collaborate and share files with users outside the company firewall
- Comply with company security and compliance framework
- Ensure full auditability of files and documents shared within and outside the organization
- Reduce workarounds for sharing and collaboration on large files
A 2011 report by Gartner outlines a five stage model on the maturity of firms when it comes to the uptake of cloud collaboration tools. A firm in the first stage is said to be "reactive", with only email as a collaboration platform and a culture which resists information sharing. A firm in the fifth stage is called "pervasive", and has universal access to a rich collaboration toolset and a strong collaborative culture. The article argues that most firms are in the second stage, but as cloud collaboration becomes more important, most analysts expect to see the majority of firms moving up in the model.
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