Midmarket Companies: 8 Key Questions for your Future IT Services Provider

Recent data shows that the “great thaw” continues and the economy is coming back. Unemployment is less than 7 percent, the GDP expanded at the rate of 3.2 percent, increased IT spending is returning to pre-2008 growth rates, a plethora of new technologies, and aging hardware have led to a new dawn of opportunity. Many of America’s mid-market IT managers are now anxiously catching up to their larger competitors.

In fact, the continued economic resurgence has led to 79 percent of IT professionals suggesting that their 2014 IT budgets would either remain the same or increase over 2013, a year that enabled many mid-market IT departments to begin rebuilding.

The surge in mid-market comes as no surprise to readers of The Top 7 Communications Trends for 2014 white paper, which noted the rise of mid-market IT:

New technologies are powerful drivers of middle market empowerment. Mid-market leaders are no longer satisfied with solutions that are scaled down versions of larger systems. Instead, they want solutions designed to meet their specific business needs, as well as the ability of their IT people to manage them.

Support excellence will increasingly mean providing the right information in a tempo and volume that a smaller operation can handle, along with the tools needed to put that information to use.

Not being ready to invest in new employees, servers, appliances, and networks for many years has left many seeking outside solutions to help them catch up. That’s why 88 percent of mid-market businesses say they are planning to consult an external partner for assistance in developing and implementing their IT strategies, according to a Frost & Sullivan report.

With Gartner estimating that companies spend as much as $6,600 per year per employee in IT costs, many mid-market managers are increasing relying on enhanced support and outsourced solutions that enable adoption and support for new technologies without bearing the costs associated with technology, heavy staff training or staff resource redeployment.

The following 8 key questions can help you choose the right service partner:

  1. What capabilities & technologies are you missing from your current business communications tool box?

  2. Is your service vendor just providing scaled versions of larger solutions? One-size-fits-all solutions that are narrowed down will not necessarily meet future needs of a mid-market company. For too long, mid-market solutions were just limited solutions intended for larger enterprises. Does the partner offer customizable solutions that are tailored to your company’s needs?

  3. Does the company know your needs and your industry? Mid-market companies are often more industry specific than their enterprise counterparts.

  4. Can the service partner integrate, support, and manage disparate technologies in various locations? Having a partner that can quickly evaluate and manage all communications and collaboration resources will ensure continuity of service and ultimately, competitiveness.

  5. How deep is your service partner’s bench? Can they support your company’s headquarters on-site or halfway across the world? Mid-market does not equal single site, many mid-market companies have multiple locations that can span the globe.

  6. Are the right resources available both right now and as I scale up and business continues to expand? All business want to grow; can your service partner support you at all stages of growth?

  7. If something does go wrong, how easy is it to access the right solution? The need for support can be very variable, but when a mid-market businesses needs support, they don’t want to learn a new interface to access it. Does the service partner offer a full range of ways to access support 24×7 and enable you to use the collaboration venue that is most efficient to your IT team?

  8. When ready, can the vendor help my company take advantage of cloud offerings? Not all service partners are created equally, choosing one with cloud experience can help ease the transition to cloud for the parts of your IT infrastructure that make sense.

The expanding economy and advancing technology have created unimaginable opportunities, but with that comes considerable risk. Customized support from a valued partner can help simplify the path to deployment, empower employees and enhance your competitive edge. How mid-market companies manage investing in IT now will have profound effects in 2015 and beyond. Service partners can help smooth that revolution.

Are you planning to rely more heavily on service partners to accelerate your adoption of new IT solutions?

What challenges are you seeing at your mid-market company when it comes to growth and IT?

Follow me on Twitter @Pat_Patterson_V

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Feds Want 21st Century Collaboration Tools Despite Legacy System Limits

Newly released survey results may mean big changes are on the horizon for government agencies. The survey, conducted by the Government Business Council and underwritten by Black Box and Avaya, shows that the federal government’s outdated IT infrastructure is struggling to keep up with modern mobility and collaboration demands, and is even impeding the adoption of 21st century unified communication and collaboration tools. And, despite efforts by the White House to push agencies to modernize IT, the momentum does not seem to be translating into improved collaboration yet.

In the survey, 38% of federal employees said they had little or no confidence that their agency’s existing infrastructure can support the latest advancements in collaborative technology. This low level of confidence is strongly at odds with the clear need for collaboration technology.

Nearly half (47%) said that they need to collaborate with colleagues working from different locations on a daily basis, while 72% said they need to do so on a weekly basis. Over half (52%) said that they personally have a need to work outside their office at least once a week, and 27% said they need to do so on a daily basis. Overall survey results suggest that telework in the federal workplace is evolving into a vision for a unified office that bridges traditional and remote work environments.

These results are hardly surprising: telework has been a rising trend for years—and undoubtedly is here to stay. However, despite the high demand for mobile collaboration, the flow of new collaborative technology into federal agencies seems to be lagging. Only 37% feel that their agency is prioritizing collaboration technology. And 40% are disappointed with their agency’s current level of mobility: 27% are dissatisfied, and 13% are very dissatisfied, with the ability to conduct work seamlessly across multiple devices and locations.

As the concept of the modern office continues to evolve, agencies must make sure that they are scaling with the expectations of their employees. With federal telework trends on the rise according to the latest OPM reporting, agencies need to be considering their plans for establishing a unified office sooner, rather than later. The need for unified communications is clearly already present, as seen in the survey results, so agencies that don’t have a plan to implement UC will only be postponing the benefits of bridging traditional and remote work environments.

The concept of a unified office where employees can work seamlessly across multiple devices and locations—not just through e-mail, but with teleconferencing, chatting, and screen sharing—helps to increase the rate, quality, and ease of work for federal employees. This is strongly backed by the study, with respondents reporting that the concept of a unified office increases productivity (46%), accelerates mission results (34.5%), and improves overall employee morale (35%).

As agencies assess how to best translate their modernization funds into effective, visible efficiency gains, investing in UC should be top of mind. Not only is the technology clearly in demand by federal employees, but the efficiency gains realized from investing in UC means that the technology pays for itself quickly, which helps to ease budget concerns. By implementing UC, agencies will be better positioned to meet not only future employee needs, but to achieve their missions in the 21st century.

Next-Generation IT: What Does It Really Look Like?

From mainframes to virtualization to the IoT, we’ve come a long way in a very short amount of time in terms of networking, OS and applications. All this progress has led us to an inflection point of digital business innovation; a critical time in history where, as Gartner puts it best, enterprises must “recognize, prioritize and respond at the speed of digital change.” Despite this, however, many businesses still rely on legacy systems that prevent them from growing and thriving. So, what’s the deal?

I attempted to answer this in a previous blog, where I laid out as entirely as I could the evolution of interconnectivity leading up to today. What was ultimately concluded in that blog is that we have reached a point where we can finally eliminate dependency on legacy hardware and hierarchical architecture with the use of one single, next-generation software platform. The call for organizations across all industries to migrate from legacy hardware has never been stronger, and the good news is that technology has evolved to a point where they can now effectively do so.

This concept of a “next-generation platform,” however, isn’t as simple as it sounds. Just consider its many variations among industry analysts. McKinsey & Company, for example, refers to this kind of platform as “next-generation infrastructure” (NGI). Gartner, meanwhile, describes it as the “New Digital Platform.” We’re seeing market leaders emphasizing the importance of investing in a next-generation platform, yet many businesses still wonder what the technology actually looks like.

To help make it clearer, Avaya took a comparative look at top analyst definitions and broke them down into five key areas of focus for businesses industry-wide: 

  1. Next-generation IT
  2. The Internet of Things (IoT)
  3. Artificial intelligence (AI)/automation
  4. Open ecosystem
  5. The customer/citizens experience

In a series of upcoming blogs, I’ll be walking through these five pillars of a next-generation platform, outlining what they mean and how they affect businesses across every sector. So, let’s get started with the first of these: next-generation IT.

Simplifying Next-Gen IT

As IT leaders face unrelenting pressure to elevate their infrastructure, next-generation IT has emerged as a way to enable advanced new capabilities and support ever-growing business needs. But what does it consist of? Well, many things. The way we see it, however, next-generation IT is defined by four core elements: secure mobility, any-cloud deployment (more software), omnichannel and big data analytics—all of which are supported by a next-generation platform built on open communications architecture.

Secure mobility: Most digital growth today stems from mobile usage. Just consider that mobile now represents 65% of all digital media time, with the majority of traffic for over 75% of digital content—health information, news, retail, sports—coming from mobile devices. Without question, the ability to deliver a secure mobile customer/citizen experience must be part of every organizational DNA. This means enabling customers to securely consume mobile services anytime, anywhere and however desired with no physical connectivity limitations. Whether they’re on a corporate campus connected to a dedicated WLAN, at Starbucks connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot, or on the road paired to a Bluetooth device though cellular connectivity, the connection must always be seamless and secure. Businesses must start intelligently combining carrier wireless technology with next-generation Wi-Fi infrastructure to make service consumption more secure and mobile-minded with seamless hand-off between the two technologies.

Any-cloud deployment: Consumers should be able to seamlessly deploy any application or service as part of any cloud deployment model (hybrid, public or private). To enable this, businesses must sufficiently meet today’s requirements for any-to-any communication. As I discussed in my previous blog, the days of nodal configuration and virtualization are a thing of the past; any-to-any communications have won the battle. A next-generation platform built on open communications architecture is integrated, agile, and future-proof enough to effectively and securely support a services-based ecosystem. Of course, the transition towards software services is highly desirable but remember not all hardware will disappear—although where possible it should definitely be considered. This services-based design is the underlying force of many of today’s greatest digital developments (smart cars, smart cities). It’s what allows organizations across every sector to deliver the most value possible to end-users.

Omnichannel: All communication and/or collaboration platforms must be omnichannel enabled. This is not to be confused with multi-channel. Whereas the latter represents a siloed, metric-driven approach to service, the former is inherently designed to provide a 360-degree customer view, supporting the foundation of true engagement. An omnichannel approach also supports businesses with the contextual and situational awareness needed to drive anticipatory engagement at the individual account level. This means knowing that a customer has been on your website for the last 15 minutes looking at a specific product of yours, which they inquired about during a live chat session with an agent two weeks ago. This kind of contextual data needs to be brought into the picture to add value and enhance the experience of whom you service, regardless of where the interaction first started.

Big data analytics: It’s imperative that you strategically use the contextual data within your organization to compete based on the CX. A huge part of next-generation IT involves seamlessly leveraging multiple databases and analytics capabilities to transform business outcomes (and ultimately, customers’ lives). This means finally breaking siloes to tap into the explosive amount of data—structured and unstructured, historical and real-time—at your disposal. Just as importantly, this means employees being able to openly share, track, and collect data across various teams, processes, and customer touch points. This level of data visibility means a hotel being able to see that a guest’s flight got delayed, enabling the on-duty manager to let that customer know that his or her reservation will be held. It means a bank being able to push out money management tips to a customer after seeing that the individual’s last five interactions were related to account spending.

These four components are critical to next-generation IT as part of a next-generation digital platform. Organizations must start looking at each of these components if they wish to compete based on the CX and respond at the speed of digital change. Stay tuned, next we’ll be talking about the ever-growing Internet of Things!

Less Maintenance, More Innovation: How to (Finally) Fill the IT Skills Gap

If you take a good look at how the business ecosystem is evolving, you’ll find that it’s being redefined by five key market trends:

You’d be hard pressed to find research that doesn’t indicate the takeover of these five megatrends.

Forrester, for instance, predicts that machine learning and automation will replace 7% of all U.S. jobs by 2025. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, almost 80% of companies identified digital transformation as their top strategic priority last year. Gartner believes that 70% of all newly deployed apps will run on open source databases by 2018; meanwhile, research continues to show that some 20 to 30 billion objects could be connected to the IoT by 2020.

As these technologies shape our smart digital world, so too do they raise the stakes in terms of customer expectations. Next-generation consumers demand nothing short of a sophisticated digital experience marked by greater quality, agility, speed and contextualization.

The Need to Transform NOW

Driven by these trends, organizations have no choice but to consider how they can adapt to grow and thrive. Competitors are moving at rapid new paces and blazing unforeseen trails. We’re seeing this disruption industry-wide, from companies like Uber and Lyft that have revolutionized the taxi industry (taxi trips have fallen by as much as 30% in cities like L.A.) to Airbnb, which turned the hospitality industry on its head by introducing the concept of an end-to-end digital homestay experience.

Look around and you’ll see just how much your own industry is changing. Do you realize how much new ground is ready to be broken? How much unexplored territory there is to seize? The organizations that thrive will be the first to not only see the possibilities, but successfully execute them. To do so, however, companies must undergo some level of transformation—and IT must be a central part of that transformation.

Elevating IT to Accelerate Business

To enable business to move at a pace that maintains a competitive edge, leaders must ask themselves how they’re empowering their IT staff. As it currently stands, something needs to be done about today’s IT skills gap. What we’re seeing is too many departments tied down to costly, archaic systems that hinder performance and productivity. There are too many people doing the same things and expecting different results. In a world where IT maintenance and innovation must be expertly balanced, teams are working to keep the lights on and not spending enough time learning new technologies and strategies or becoming part of the solution. This has been an ongoing problem that needs to be talked about less and acted on more.

The bottom line is that organizations will only truly accelerate in the digital era if IT spends enough time on strategic initiatives. Consider that 60% of top-performing companies engage IT to gather ideas for innovation, and 49% collect ideas through business unit workshops facilitated by IT. Without question, IT should be factored as a critical part of business innovation.

So, how can businesses free their IT teams to begin innovating? The right technology here is key—specifically, it has to be a combination of business process automation over an automated, end-to-end, meshed networking architecture. Let’s first focus on networking—this open, agile and integrated platform liberates IT by substantially reducing the level of complexity associated with traditional network maintenance, allowing teams to spend more time on high-level strategic initiatives. I’d like to take a look at how such a platform helps fill the IT skills gap from a traditional networking standpoint and outline some of the security benefits this architecture can bring.

Networking

Traditional legacy architecture, often referred to as “client-server” is becoming near obsolete thanks to the proliferation of automation and M2M. But before we jump too quickly, you may remember the resistance from peer-to-peer communication where IT in fact won the battle and for the most part didn’t allow it—simply put, the legacy architecture couldn’t sustain it. As manual processes continue to be replaced by smarter, automated processes, it’s imperative that organizations start thinking differently in terms of networking.

This may mean, for example, seamlessly integrating AI and machine learning into their communications strategy to engage customers with flexible new touch points. This will also likely require the integration of services from several vendors with different capabilities, versus one single provider, hence the importance of having an open ecosystem with standards as much as possible.

Regardless of how organizations go about it, the fact is that they must begin moving their networks in a new direction if they wish to progress at the pace their business needs to. Fully-meshed, end-to-end architecture offers an open ecosystem in which businesses can begin freely automating, integrating and reinventing traditional processes without a high level of complexity. This time freedom enables IT to begin reimagining business outcomes. The use of open, integrated, future-proof technology opens new doors of opportunity to do so.

Security

With billions of IoT devices directly communicating and sharing data, organizations are now operating in an essentially borderless network—or as I like to call it, the everywhere perimeter. While this everywhere perimeter enables organizations to operate with unmatched agility and ease, it can also destroy companies if left unprotected. As one can imagine, the strategy and technology needed to protect a virtually borderless network look drastically different than those protected by a traditional firewall or legacy network architecture (Static VLANs, ACLs). This is exactly why IT needs to flex its strategic muscles and identify a stronger security approach, one that safeguards the organization with a near impenetrable network that significantly minimizes security risks and reduces exposure.

An end-to-end meshed networking architecture lets organizations quickly and securely enable services across the network anywhere they are consumed (i.e., personal mobile device, Wi-Fi hotspot, corporate campus). This is done through end-to-end network segmentation, which is widely considered to be the holy grail of network security today. Comprised of three core components—hyper-segmentation, native stealth and automated elasticity—this solution ensures organizations have the necessary framework for next-generation cybersecurity defense. By minimizing security risks in this way, organizations can ensure they are maximizing the value of IT. Lay the foundation right first, then focus on business process workflow automation. Doing the opposite or simply ignoring the foundation will cause pain and slow down your business transformation while making it extremely difficult to maximize the benefits of, for example, IOT.

In the end, every important business initiative requires time. Organizations won’t be able to reinvent themselves if their IT department has none to spare.