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Bridging data and capabilities across channels and departments has become critical as organizations strive to eliminate customer data silos and become more agile in responding to rapidly changing market dynamics. For many companies, cloud-based solutions like software-as-a-service (SaaS) and platform-as-a-service (PaaS) meet these needs by allowing for collaboration and connecting internal and external value chains at minimal capital expenses.

In fact, 2014 will be the first year when the majority of workloads shift to the cloud, according to Cisco, which forecasts 51 percent of all workloads will be processed in the cloud versus 49 percent in the traditional IT space by year’s end. As companies embrace the cloud, industry experts and analysts are finding that several best practices and lessons on how to leverage the technology are emerging.

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 edition of Dialogue, our monthly e-Newsletter. Click here to learn more and to subscribe.

But even if an organization has the best cloud-based solution or any type of new technology, the company’s efforts to improve collaboration and work processes will fall flat unless employees support the initiative.

“People are reluctant to change unless they are incentivized to do so,” says Leslie Ament, SVP of research and principal analyst at Hypatia Research Group. “They may be used to doing things a certain way and don’t see the value in adopting a new approach.”

Organizations need to give employees incentives to work together as a team and understand how these improvements will enhance the customer experience, Ament continues. “Emphasizing customer centricity as well as efficiency within the organization is important, especially if employees don’t believe they touch the customer in a meaningful way,” she adds.

As an example, Ament describes a telecommunications company that conducted business with new customers in fragmented ways. A sales team sold subscriptions and sent the paperwork to the billing department. The installation team then contacted customers to install the service and educate them on how to use it.

Several weeks later, the bill arrived, but “there was often confusion because at every touchpoint the customer was dealing with someone who had no history of the previous process and no one was overseeing that customer from start to finish,” Ament notes.

The problem was that the company’s processes were designed for maximum efficiency but lacked customer centricity. When the telecom provider began offering bonuses, special recognition, and other incentives for being more customer-friendly, “attitudes changed quickly,” Ament adds, “because the incentives were now aligned with what was best for the customer.”

Charlene Li, founder and CEO of Altimeter Group, agrees. To successfully implement a cloud-based collaboration platform, for example, a team leader or senior executive needs to champion the adoption efforts, Li says.

“The biggest problem we see with a cloud solution or any new technology is that there’s an initial excitement where people will say ‘Yay, we have an 80 percent adoption rate’ and then there’s a gradual decline because people don't understand how the technology should be used,” Li notes. “Unless somebody is championing the technology and explaining how it benefits employees and the company, it's not going to be sustainable.”

The Feature War

With so many vendors offering cloud-based enterprise solutions with similar features, choosing the right solution can also be a challenge. The “feature war” will continue, but prospective companies should take into consideration a series of factors, notes management consultant and blogger Brian Vellmure.

“Selection is dependent on so many things including incumbent technologies, integrations, solving for specific use cases, and price,” Vellmure observes. “Price repeatedly comes up as one of the least effective differentiators, but in an environment where technology is viewed as a commodity, it becomes the default lever for buyers.”

And instead of selecting vendors based on their ability to solve specific use cases for the greatest value, it is more important to “ make a bet on the roadmap and agility of your vendor,” Vellmure adds. “Two to three years from now, the offerings and capabilities will be meaningfully different, so who looks like they are best equipped and committed to evolve with the needs of your organization and the market? Who will commit to investing in innovation and also interoperability to plug the gaps in your infrastructure the way you want to consume them?”

David Trzupek, director of CRM solutions at TeleTech’s Technology services, agrees that companies need to think ahead and also take the size of a vendor’s partner ecosystem into consideration. “You can’t just look at features and functions,” he notes. “You have to ask, ‘what’s your ecosystem like? What does your partner network look like?” A vendor with an extensive partner ecosystem, Trzupek continues, is a good sign that the vendor’s solution is sustainable and will be better positioned to meet its customers’ needs.

Another factor companies should keep in mind is whether the tool integrates into the company’s other programs. “Choosing a tool in many ways comes down to the integration opportunities, so that you can get a comprehensive view of the customer,” Li says. “The customers who you interact with from a marketing perspective and get information from are also the ones who you're combining on the back end when they call into your customer service.” CRM data, Li continues, is “the linchpin of all these systems, so no matter where they interact with you through all the different departments, it's the same customer.”

The roles of the CIO and marketer continue to evolve as companies transition to cloud-based platforms and other types of technology. Sixty percent of cloud application investment decisions are made at the department level and IT played a role as influencer in less than 20 percent of the purchase decisions, according to a study by Nucleus Research. “In the world of cloud solutions, marketers and service managers are making their own product evaluations, buying decisions, and implementations without the need for IT involvement,” Nucleus Research noted in the report.

But regardless of who ultimately controls the budget for cloud applications, the technology is simply the means to an end, Vellmure notes. “The key to this is recognizing that cloud technology is simply a more easily deployable enabler of collaboration and communication,” he comments. “It's more agile. However, the fundamentals of corporate culture, strategy, incentives, innovation are the true drivers of success.”