Emerging technologies, like cloud computing, and the economic turmoil of the past five years have put tremendous pressure on businesses to transform their business processes to make them leaner, more efficient and more competitive. Increased collaboration between geographically dispersed workers and with business partners has become the norm. But the unwieldiness of many enterprise collaboration tools has led many workers to turn to insecure collaboration channels like email and consumer-grade file sharing services.
"Over the past 24 months, we've seen that companies are now growing again after the economic meltdown," says Fahim Siddiqui, chief product officer at IntraLinks, a provider of cloud-based enterprise collaboration tools that was born in the financial services space. "There is more and more of a need and a desire to collaborate flexibly with business partners. Companies that are growing don't rush off to hire 20 new employees. They find a partner in the value chain who can be more flexible and conduct work for them. As soon as that happens, there is a critical need to exchange information."
A Need for Enterprise Collaboration
Globally, 46 percent of companies feel a need to share critical business information with partners, including suppliers and consultants, according to a February 2012 survey of IT decision makers conducted by Harris Interactive. And yet, 68 percent of companies still use email to exchange files inside or outside the company and 59 percent of companies have experienced issues when trying to exchange large files inside or outside the company.
Many companies have collaboration tools in place—Microsoft SharePoint is the de facto standard in the U.S. But SharePoint was not designed with collaboration beyond the firewall in mind and enabling it is tricky at best.
"Every big company has a collaborative ecosystem of some form already," says Daniel Von Weihe, co-founder and vice president of product marketing at SkyDox, an enterprise-grade cloud file-sharing and collaboration platform. "Typically it's glued together by the email system. What's been happening over the past few years is that these systems just haven't kept up with the explosion of consumer-oriented collaboration technologies. The pressure is constantly mounting to take advantage of these technologies. Most of the traditional ecosystems that have been built just don't have the capability or capacity to work easily when your group works with people outside the corporate firewall. SharePoint can be set up to allow for access for people who may be part of the collaborative group but not within the firewall. But business users find that it is so difficult to get user names and passwords provisioned for people outside the firewall that they give up."
He adds, "These organizations have made a big investment in these enterprise-grade technologies with security and IP protection as their number one goal. It's very hard to open them up to others. Even remote employees find it difficult to manage the regimen you have to go through to manage documents behind the firewall."
Workers Go Around IT to Enable Collaboration
Faced with a need to collaborate with workers beyond the corporate firewall, but struggling with the enterprise collaboration tools provided by IT, employees are increasingly going around IT. Harris Interactive found that email is the most utilized tool, but FTP, consumer-focused technologies like DropBox, flash drives, DVDs and even printouts and FAXes are all common tools that workers leverage to get their work done.
"One of the things that's happening in the world today is that end users are desperate to share information with the people they need to. Sometimes they self-provision," says Whitney Tidmarsh Bouck, general manager of Box Enterprise, the enterprise-focused arm of cloud-based collaboration and file sharing service Box.
The increasing adoption of smartphones and tablets like the iPad is also playing a role. Workers want to be able to do their work with these devices and are sometimes willing to go around IT to load documents and other files onto them.
"Collaboration, cloud and mobile are in this hotbed of convergence right now," says Tidmarsh Bouck, who explains that Box Enterprise does a lot of its business with sales forces that are trading in their laptops in favor of tablets, and with workers who spend most of their time in the field, like auditors, agricultural workers, pilots and construction workers.
Do You Know Where Your Data Is?
For IT and the organizations it represents, this trend presents a host of difficulties—some of them obvious, like security, data loss prevention and compliance issues—and some of them perhaps less so, like version control.
"Where is data in a typical organization? As an individual user, we tend to store data in a lot of different locations: laptops, USB sticks, home-based laptops, home-based desktops. Data tends to be in a lot of different locations on a lot of different platforms," says Michael Osterman, principal analyst with Osterman Research. "We find that data is growing in a number of different locations. Data is not really centralized in any one organization."
It happens because of convenience, Osterman says. But what's convenient for the individual can become a massive headache for the enterprise.
"That data is now very difficult to access," Osterman says, noting the havoc that could cause in the case of eDiscovery, regulatory audits, early case assessments for wrongful termination or product liability suits and the like. "It's very difficult. Senior managers might not even know that data is there."
The problem is compounded by the fact that many organizations leave archiving and retention up to individual users, Osterman says. With more than 10,000 laws in the U.S. alone that specify retention of different kinds of records, an inability to track documents, access them, put holds on them and expire them could present an enormous risk to the enterprise.
"If we walked into your enterprise today, and we were to profile where your information is, and, more importantly, what of information this is, a small percentage is likely to be records that you must keep, maybe five percent," says Darren Lee, vice president of governance and archiving at security-as-a-service vendor Proofpoint. "A larger percentage would be documents that drive the business, like spreadsheets, maybe 15 to 20 percent. The remainder that sits out there is information that no longer contributes business value; it's no longer an asset. In the world of an information balance sheet, if it's not an asset, it can only be one other thing: a liability."
"Your own data is strung out across different systems," says SkyDox's Von Weihe. "It becomes increasingly difficult to find the latest version of a document. You lose the capacity for federated search. As a business person, your ability to recycle your own work goes down pretty dramatically when you scatter it across all these different systems."
And yet workers' willingness to turn to insecure channels to collaborate makes it clear that such collaboration must go forward. The Harris Interactive survey found that 83 percent of employees recognize that it is important to protect intellectual property and keep it secure. But even with that understanding, employees still turn to insecure channels to get their work done.
"What really shocked me a little bit is that they understand how sensitive and critical their IP is, but they're still doing it," says Anthony Piniella, global vice president of corporate communications at IntraLinks. "They just have to do what they have to do. The companies' employees are aware that they're sending stuff that's very sensitive."
"You have to consider how much money a company spends on their infrastructure and security methods behind the firewall every day," Piniella adds, "and then once an employee sends an email, you lose all those capabilities. That's the reality. You can spend billions of dollars keeping your infrastructure safe and compliant, and once an employee sends an email with a document in it, all that money and effort doesn't take into consideration where that document goes."
The vendors all have different solutions to these problems, but they do agree that IT needs to work with rather than against employees to make collaboration easier, and IT needs to help employees collaborate in the ways they want to collaborate. For instance, rather than banning the use of email to send files, provide a direct connector to Outlook—transparent to the end user—that recognizes when a sensitive document has been attached to an email and then exchanges it with the recipient securely and tracks where it goes.
"The solution is to make a cloud-enabled platform part of the internal ecosystem," says Von Weihe. "Our perspective is that the key thing here is to bring these tools and technologies into the existing participants in the ecosystem. Rather than presenting your cloud-enabled technologies as an alternative to SharePoint or Microsoft Office, build it to integrate with those tools."
Thor Olavsrud is a senior writer for CIO.com. Follow him @ThorOlavsrud.