Understanding of the role communications technology can play in business has undergone a shift in recent years. A combination of mobility, multi-modal platforms and devices capable of delivering all forms of communication under a single pane of glass has led to the realisation that comms need no longer be just about keeping people in touch. UC can actually play a pivotal role in how people work together.
Enter team collaboration tools.
Collaboration platforms – software which allows users to share files over distance, to discuss and make changes in real time, to schedule and organise around a shared set of desktop tools – have been around for some time. It could be argued that video conferencing is a type of collaboration platform. Typically, these tools have been tagged on as added extras to UC suites.
But as interest in collaboration has developed, we have seen the emergence of standalone team collaboration solutions. In terms of the functions available, they are not dissimilar from standard UC suites – it’s often just a matter of emphasis. Team collaboration focuses on everyone working in the same space, with close integration of tools. They are often built around IM, as the quickest and most convenient way for dispersed groups to interact, with one-click access to voice, video, conferencing and file sharing.
Cisco Spark is a typical example, a cloud-based hosted collaboration service which ticks all of the above boxes. But with Cisco Spark, Cisco also aimed to take the concept a stage further, delving into the realm of what it calls ‘continuous workstreams’. In a nutshell, the concept is this – instead of just focusing on providing virtual shared workspaces for dispersed workforces and distant colleagues, what about enabling and enhancing physical, face-to-face collaboration, too?
The continuous workstream Cisco talks about is therefore a single unified approach which links all devices people may work on in a single cloud-based space. Whether you are working on a whiteboard in a meeting room or holding a conference call with overseas colleagues, Cisco Spark saves everything in the same place, creating easy to navigate histories and records accessible to everyone who needs them.
In this review, we will take a closer look at the potential advantages of bringing the virtual world of collaboration back to the real world. Please remember, UC Today is a completely independent service and does not endorse or promote any particular products.
What can it do
Cisco Spark is a cloud-based service built around a series of communication and collaboration apps. A key feature of the service is the deep integration of all of these tools – whether you want to make a call, send an IM, share a file or start a meeting, everything is done from the same place, with all users sharing the same interface and the same network. Cisco Spark is therefore marketed as offering a complete collaboration experience, with no need for extras or add-ons.
Cisco Spark’s various features can be grouped into three core functions:
- Meetings: Cisco Spark provides a ready-to-go platform for HD video and audio conferencing, from any device. Documents can be shared or created collaboratively, and saved with versioning history. The intention is to make it as easy as possible to organise, prepare for, host and then review contents from meetings, whether they are virtual, physical or a mix of both. Content and discussion threads can be accessed in real time to grab information from different sources during meetings, and it is equally easy to review, follow up and distribute action points afterwards
- Messaging: Cisco Spark includes an enterprise-class IM engine which supports unlimited group and private messaging, file sharing and straightforward directory search for finding contacts to message
- Voice: Cisco designed Cisco Spark to be fully compatible with Cisco Unified Communications telephony and call management solutions. Existing Unified Communications Manager, Business Edition 6000 and 7000, and Hosted Collaboration Solution customers can access all of the benefits and features of these systems while making voice calls from within Cisco Spark
All of these functions are intended to provide seamless, effortless continuity from device to device, and from physical to virtual spaces. For example, all video and audio calls can be switched from desktop to mobile and vice versa. So you might be on a call with a colleague in another office and realise you could do with involving people from your own team – one click, and the call can be paired with a conference phone.
Similarly, Cisco Spark includes a whiteboarding tool, allowing team members to sketch out ideas and make notes together in real time from any device. But this app also connects with the Cisco Spark Board, a physical whiteboard solution for meeting rooms. Any ideas sketched out here are stored in the same place as the virtual whiteboards are – again, it is all about using the cloud to create that continuous workstream.
The emphasis placed on making Cisco Spark compatible with Cisco’s office PBX and call management solutions is a further example. Cloud communications solutions rightly draw a lot of attention for their support for mobile, flexible working. In-office telephony remains the core of communications for most businesses. Close integration with office telephone therefore makes Cisco Spark better at helping teams work better.
Cisco is also very much aware that customers nowadays want tools which integrate with all of the other platforms they may use, not just other Cisco products. It therefore makes Cisco Spark APIs readily available for custom integration with other software, so end users can design their own workstreams.
What do we like?
The focus on the physical makes a refreshing change for a team collaboration solution. As collaboration fits in with the modern mobile, BYOD culture, many solutions focus purely on apps, with little consideration of hardware or devices. Cisco realises that offices tend to have a lot of good communications equipment already – IP desk phones, conference phones, other room devices. Cisco Spark sits on top of all of this, improving opportunities to collaborate and communicate more effectively for all work scenarios, not just remote and distributed.
Who is it for?
Most businesses looking to streamline how teams communicate and work together could benefit from Cisco Spark in one way or another. It is especially useful for businesses which do place a lot of emphasis on physical meetings still, and perhaps want an easy solution which can link meetings together across different locations.
What is it compatible with?
Cisco Spark integrates with Cisco’s Unified Communications Manager, Business Edition 6000 and 7000 and Hosted Collaboration Solution PBX and call management solutions. It connects to a wide variety of different endpoints, desktop and room devices, including the Cisco Spark Board. Cisco makes the Cisco Spark APIs readily available for customers to build their own plug-ins for other software platforms.
Where can you buy it?
Cisco Spark is available directly from Cisco UK as a modular subscription service, so you buy access to the apps you need. There is a free trial option for new customers.
UC Today Opinion
Too much focus in UCaaS is placed on the ability of cloud solutions to help people work together even while they are apart. While this is important – it allows business to adapt to more flexible employment and lifestyle patterns, and improves productivity by removing barriers of time and space – it is not the complete picture. If you are going to use technology to help people work together more effectively, you may as well do so in all scenarios.
This is what Cisco has struck upon with Cisco Spark. By focusing as much on what happens in the office as connections with remote colleagues, and indeed integrating both, Cisco Spark takes a holistic approach to team collaboration. It therefore goes beyond simply allowing distributed workforces to work together more effectively, and provides instead a platform for an entire business to work together more smartly and efficiently.
Do you use Cisco Spark? What do you make of it? Do you use it as much in the office as to connect to distant colleagues? Or is mobile the main benefit it gives your company? As always, we would love to hear your opinions, so please take a minute to add a comment below, and feel free to share this article on social media.
Look & Feel
Fully integrated team collaboration in and out of the office.