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Amid the usual unveiling of hot phones designs, broad spectrum IoT concepts, Augmented Reality demos, self-driving car prototypes, and the rich landscape of mobile software applications, it can be hard sometimes to make sense of what the big trends at the annual Mobile World Congress in Barcelona will actually be. (Shiny is not always synonymous with lasting or transformative.)
Some years, we get lucky, and innovation takes a giant leap forward. Fresh innovation cycles make prognosticating a lot easier for analysts, but some years, when innovation settles into far less Earth-shattering incrementalism, plucking the next big trend or product from the mix can be a little nebulous. 2017 is the latter. Here’s where we are this month: On the one hand, everyone is waiting for Apple’s next iPhone unveiling (or auspiciously-timed leaks) to see where smartphone design will be headed as we inch our way towards 2020. Since Apple doesn’t unveil new products at Mobile World, we will have to wait until at least June, if not later, to have some idea of what is really coming. On the other hand, even aggressively innovative smartphone vendors like Google (with Pixel) and LG (with the LG6), who are doing some pretty exciting things with both hardware and software, aren’t putting enough pressure on Apple – at least not yet – to pry the wheel out of Tim Cook’s hands.
This leaves us in a sort of limbo this week, as we struggle to find the elusive gold seams hiding in plain sight somewhere in the meandrous halls of Barcelona’s massive Fira Gran Via. The real struggle, at least for me, lies in finding something new to talk about this year, something original. The Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality tech is easy, as are the self-flying drones, and the GPS accessories, and the sea of slick IoT eye candy. There is no shortage of that, and I could do a rundown of the “top ten hot new techs at #MWC17” if I were so inclined, but… everyone is already doing that (some even fairly well), so there is no need for me to do become another cog in the echo chamber just to be able to check off that box. What I propose instead is that we talk about something that isn’t necessarily flashy or “hot” in the trade show sense of the term, but, at least in my opinion, has the potential of being infinitely more important and significant than the flash and bling that the majority of #MWC17 articles and blog posts are focusing on. Does that sound good? Yeah, I thought it might.
Agile Collaboration is here, and it’s about time.
Our focus at Futurum is Digital Transformation. Whatever the trade show or conference or product launch, we always look for the business or transformative angles. One of the more interesting ones we’ve found permeating from a lot of booths and presentations at #MWC17 already is the shift towards agile collaboration. I want to be careful here and resist the temptation to call it mobile collaboration, because it isn’t really about mobility. It is about agility. The mobility part is just a means to an end rather than an end unto itself.
What is agile collaboration, you ask? Well, agile collaboration is collaboration that is fluid, device-agnostic (or endpoint-agnostic, if that is your preferred nomenclature), and unhindered by the limitations of burdensome business processes and outdated technologies. Agile collaboration is agile when it feels agile, when coworkers can communicate at will, regardless of where they are, and what device they are closest to at that moment. Agile collaboration allows coworkers to work together on countless specific projects without getting bogged down by endless and often disconnected email threads, and awkward searches for files and documents, and practical hurdles like scheduling meetings and waiting for someone to reply to a query. Agile collaboration allows coworkers to call a meeting or video call at the touch of a button (or at the swipe of a screen icon), share files and folders from anywhere and any device at any time, streamlines and automatically organizes discussion threads, automates tedious or otherwise time-sensitive processes, and more. In short, agile collaboration is a model that allows project teams to collaborate painlessly, naturally, and at the speed of business, no matter how fast that may be. Agile collaboration is delivers on the promise of portable, intuitive productivity and operational agility in the post-email, post-calendar, post desktop PC age.
Now, it isn’t to say that email is dead, or that desktop PCs are done, or that you will never have to schedule a meeting again. That isn’t what I am saying. There is still a need for all three of these things (although perhaps less so for the desktop PC). But if you look at the sum of your day’s interactions with your team and your partners, and whomever you collaborate with on a daily basis, micro-interactions should make up the lion’s share. What are micro-interactions? If you are using an agile collaboration tool like Slack or Cisco Spark, they are essentially the short status messages you send and receive throughout your day. “How’s the project going?” “Our video just went live. Here are the links.” “Hey, does anyone know who I should talk to in IT about getting a few extra hours of last minute dev time in case we need it?” “What time’s your flight?” “How did the meeting go?” “Hey, are you guys all available for a quick call?” “Which of these covers do you like best?”
Micro-interactions vs email: a study in effectiveness
Those are micro-interactions. They tend to be short, to the point, and focused on a particular project or task. Their natural habitat is the logical continuity of an outcome-focused discussion thread. The sum of these micro-interactions traces a relatively straight line from the start of a project to its end, and unlike emails and strategy documents, and meeting minutes, that thread lives in a single dedicated room or project file contained in an agile collaboration app that can be accessed from any device at any time. They are the natural evolution of email collaboration, which, most of you will agree, was never that effective to begin with.
I should note that one of the benefits of micro-interactions is that, unlike emails, which can be long to read and even longer to reply to, and often snowball into endless threads that slow projects down rather than accelerate their pace, micro-interactions are not nearly as interruptive. Reading a single email and responding to it, then waiting for the next response, and so on, will take up at least ten to twenty minutes of your workday. If that time isn’t spent reading and drafting your response, that time is spent recovering from the interruption before being able to fully immerse yourself into what you were working on before turning your attention to that email. Micro-interactions only require a very small degree of attention and focus, and allow you to interact with coworkers in a flash, then immediately get back to work. From a biological standpoint, they are vastly preferable to email threads, and allow teams to stay connected without slowing them down or hindering their productivity.
What does this have to do with #MWC17?
Agile collaboration doesn’t work very well without mobility. The basis for its device-agnosticism isn’t just that it must work on all devices but that at least some of these devices must be portable. Otherwise, what we are talking about isn’t so much agility as it is simplicity. (Communications are shortened and more organized, but they aren’t entirely agile.) Smartphone and tablets must be part of that ecosystem in order to achieve its fullest potential. It doesn’t mean that agile collaboration has to necessarily follow a mobile-first design strategy, but it must incorporate mobility into its core architecture, not only from a software perspective, but from an operational one: Introducing agile collaboration tools into a work ecosystem when the workforce isn’t equipped to be properly mobile is putting the cart ahead of the horse. Given that mobility is at the heart of agile collaboration, it makes sense for us to connect the dots between #MWC17 and new agile collaboration tools making their way into collaborative ecosystems and Digital Transformation initiatives.
Look, we can talk about the cloud all day long, and mobile, and SaaS, and AI, but ultimately, when it comes to business improvement, these tools have to drive something. That general something is better outcomes: Increased productivity, more sales, faster innovation cycles, better employee retention, stronger data security, making better decisions, reducing risk, higher profitability, increased market share… the list goes on and on. Technology adoption has to serve a purpose.
The question is always this: How can I use these technologies to improve business outcomes? More often than not, the answer to that question comes from a confluence of technologies designed outside your company and processes either developed or implemented inside your company. It’s a little like playing with LEGO blocks, except in this case, the blocks are a lot more complex (and their value abstract until you have connected them with other blocks). Agile collaboration isn’t a tool. It is a confluence of technologies and processes, and mobility is one of its core practical elements.
Who are the most innovative players in the agile collaboration space?
Many companies already offer cloud-based project management and collaboration software, but several jump out at us this year for having moved beyond basic project management and into true agile collaboration. They are, in no particular order, Slack, Cisco Spark, Facebook Workplace, and Microsoft Teams. Of these, Cisco Spark seems to us the most robust and fully fleshed out, as it provides impressive end-to-end encryption, slick integration with its impressive new Spark Board all-in-one video conferencing and digital whiteboard product, and appears to achieve the most impressive of feats as far as I am concerned: being equally well suited to the SMB space as it is to the enterprise space.
I also want to briefly mention Skype and the freshly launched Amazon Chime, which, while in a separate category altogether, could very well find their way to the world of agile collaboration in the next year or so.
One more footnote: This sort of product is what Google Plus should have morphed into instead of trying to compete with Facebook. I preached this until I was blue in the face, but unfortunately, my argument fell on deaf ears, and Google Plus ultimately floundered. Think about it though: Video conferencing, messaging, email, documents, presence… it was all there. Google could have been Slack before Slack was Slack. Water under the bridge now, but we expect Google to come back to agile collaboration and business-specific video conferencing, especially given that the market for both is expected to exceed $60B or more by 2025. That’s a big tent sort of opportunity, and I would be very surprised if Google opted not to be a part of it now that the tent is in everyone’s line of sight.
All in all though, the company to beat right now is Cisco. By combining slick new collaboration software, a robust end-to-end encryption framework, and a very well-thought-out business-friendly Unified Communications strategy, it has managed to create a complete, single-source, plug-and-play agile collaboration ecosystem. Shiny new phones are the low hanging fruit of shows like #MWC17, but the real juice is here, with this. Shiny new things come and go, but agile collaboration’s impact on business is going to be one of the most critical catalysts of Digital Transformation over the course of the next few years.
Also look for an update of AI technologies at #MWC17, but for now, take a few minutes to digest this and click on the links I provided for you. If you weren’t familiar with some of these tools ten minutes ago, this is as good a time as any to get caught up. While you’re at it, I also suggest taking a quick tour of our Research section. Some of our reports on emerging technologies, trends, and Digital Transformation best practices are bound to be of great interest to you or your organization.
Olivier Blanchard has extensive experience managing product innovation, technology adoption, digital integration, and change management for industry leaders in the B2B, B2C, B2G sectors, and the IT channel. His passion is helping decision-makers and their organizations understand the many risks and opportunities of technology-driven disruption, and leverage innovation to build stronger, better, more competitive companies. Read Full Bio.