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Cultivating a collaborative Spark

Cultivating a collaborative Spark 

Cisco’s answer to the need to build and promote collaboration within the professional environment is with a platform known as Spark. Originally launched under the Project Squared branding in November 2014, Spark helps enterprises share files, ideas and content easily, hold team meetings from anywhere in the world, and create “rooms” to help accelerate the completion of group projects.

Available for both desktop computers and as a mobile app, many would assume that a service like Spark would be fairly expensive to set up, especially if multiple people are using it. However, the interesting this about Spark is that it is a free download, which is what sets it apart from most other collaboration platforms.

Spark is a key catalyst in the creation of a collaborative revolution, especially as more businesses integrate agility into their daily operations. IT in Canada spoke to Ian Gallagher, general manager of collaboration architecture for Cisco Canada, to gain insight into Spark and the rise of collaboration in our lives.

IT in Canada: What led to the development of Spark?
We have been watching the changing nature of communication, (and) I think it’s undeniable that younger generations are absolutely embracing messaging in general. Spark is a mobile and messaging-centric application that resembles many of the famous consumer-style apps that have come out, most notably WhatsApp, which has (more than) 700 million clients. It surpassed global SMS messaging around January 2014, and grew by another 30 per cent by April 2014. It’s one of 10 or 20 consumer messaging apps that are redefining communication from a consumer perspective.

At Cisco, we are very business-focused, and using a tool like that without policy control, security mechanisms for administration or enforcement isn’t an endorsable solution. Despite that, you can’t deny that every business user carrying a cell phone probably has consumer applications on their device. Our business customers are asking for enterprise-grade versions of modern communication tools and global single-instance public cloud services that has enterprise-level capabilities around security, file storage and sharing. In the future, we will add room-based video systems dialing into what started as a consumer messaging app.

We are responding to the demands of younger generations and integrating it with a lot of our other strength points. These include real-time video immersion, which ensures that video is not a special event, but inherently part of every collaboration interaction that we have. All of these things collectively got us to where we are today.

ITIC: Why is now the time for a platform like Spark?
One of the main reasons is agility, and it’s not just around the agility in our tools. It’s about the agility in our customers’ own businesses (and) the ability to interact with all of this subject matter that is required to get something done faster.

Email is the right tool for efficiency. If you’ve got a dynamic team interacting, quick responses (are powered by) mobility and cloud. I could be notified right now by a message appearing on the lock screen of my phone about what is needed on a critical project. It’s the only way to get that done.

When it comes to collaboration, all of our customers remember and ultimately never forget that collaboration is not about a technology tool; it’s about people working together. From a business perspective, the best collaborating organization will be the one that works best with its customers (and) delivers the best collaborative experience. It therefore creates differentiation in the market in the eyes of its customers.

ITIC: Why must enterprises become more agile in today’s digital landscape?
I think it’s (the result of) several exponential changes right now. It’s not just about increasing speed and complexity linearly; it’s about evolving at an exponential rate. We need to increase our agility because we are in the Information Age, which has resulted in this need to embrace change like never before.

The Industrial Revolution was about predictability, and the Information Age we are in now is about not only the ability to adapt quickly to a changing environment, but to embrace it. We are not going to adapt to change once a year, or once every six months; we actually going to constantly adapt to change. Changes are coming at us not on a regular basis or a periodic basis, but on a continuous basis.

Agility is the very definition of embracing change, creating a structure in an organization that embraces change instead of having to work around it.

ITIC: How can enterprises benefit from using Spark?
One of the great things about a global single-instance public cloud service is that I can reach everyone on the planet. In the past, if I deployed a video conferencing endpoint that could only call the other 10 endpoints in my organization, it has limited value. In the networking world, we refer to that as Metcalfe’s Law, which refers to the fact that the value of a communication network varies proportionally to the square of the number of connected nodes.

What this is saying is that if I have 10 video endpoints that I can call, if I add another 10 endpoints, making 20 total, it’s not linearly 10 better. It’s actually exponentially better than the 10 because of the number of possible connections that can be established amongst that network of 20 connected nodes.

What we’re talking about with these new solutions is the number of connected nodes equals the number of devices attached to the Internet. That used to be a very complex thing to deliver; there was a lot of extra work required in order to build up external connectivity.

When we make a platform that is free to try, we’ve created an environment where a business of any size can collaborate with a very rich, immersive experience potentially with anyone on the planet. It puts them on a level playing field with the biggest of enterprises. It is no longer the biggest of enterprises that have access to these collaboration abilities. These companies are being disrupted by the smallest of start-ups these days, and tools are not the things that lead that change.

It’s the innovation and the entrepreneurship of smart people thinking of ways to disrupt the status quo. Our tools are enabling them to do that, but they’re not a catalyst for it. We are designing collaboration tools to fulfill the need of how the world is working these days.

ITIC: Is it possible to adapt Spark to other collaborative environments, such as a classroom?
I’ve presented to five separate Canadian universities in the past two months, and that is absolutely the theme. Obviously, we have a business focus, but to us, education is a business. There is nothing to stop an individual consumer from using Spark, despite the fact that it was designed with business requirements in mind because of the nature in which it was built.

If you think about the metaphor of the virtual room, I think that the idea of the classroom is the perfect way to express that metaphor. There is the idea that 100 students taking a particular course might always meet in the same physical classroom. But imagine if there was a virtual classroom that followed them for the entire semester, and all of the students, the professor and the teaching assistants were members.

It could contain all of the course notes, assigned reading material, interaction between the students, the professor and the TAs, and the ability to bring in guest speakers. All you have to do is invite the right person to that room, and if they’re not a permanent part of the class, they leave when they’re finished.

There is the idea of reverse learning, where far more input comes from the students. It’s not a one-way interaction where a lectured stands at a lectern and presents one way to a group of people who takes notes and hopefully pass the test at the end of the year. Group and collaborative learning are huge trends that certainly weren’t led by our tools, but are certainly being facilitated by them now.

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