Unified Communications

External Federation: An Introduction

Discover the evolution and current state of external federation in team collaboration apps, a technology that enables seamless communication across different organizations using platforms like Microsoft Lync, Skype for Business, and Teams, highlighting its significance in enhancing cross-company collaboration.
Dominic Kent
Dominic Kent is a content marketer specializing in unified communications and contact centers.
Introduction to external federation for Slack Microsoft Teams Cisco Webex Teams

In this post, we introduce the principle of external federation in the world of team collaboration apps.

From its beginnings in the team collaboration world within Microsoft Lync to the latest innovations linking your company to external vendors, suppliers, contractors, and customers, we cover what external federation is, how it's evolved, disappeared, and is thriving once again.

Jump to:

  1. What is External Federation?
  2. History of External Federation
  3. The State of External Federation in 2021
  4. External Federation Examples
  5. What Next for External Federation?
  6. Expectation vs Reality
  7. I Just Want to Install Mio for External Federation

 💁‍♂️ 📃 If team collaboration is not your native language, we've made a handy resource to help you and your team out.

What is External Federation?

External federation is the process or technology required for team collaboration apps to communicate with each other across domain.

Federation is meant in its most literal sense: the action of forming organizations into a single group with centralized control.

This, translated into team collaboration speak, means that users within multiple organizations, i.e. a supplier <> customer relationship, become a single group that can collaborate together.

This is preferential to the previous method of working in silos and having to switch between a plethora of apps to communicate.

In some cases, users must log in and out of the same app just to access conversations they are having with external parties.

For example, Microsoft Teams has features called external access and guest access...

External access is a way for external Teams users from an entire domain to find, call, chat, and set up meetings with you in Teams. You can also use external access to communicate with external users who are still using Skype for Business (online and on-premises) and Skype.

Microsoft Teams guest access enables Teams users to access multiple tenants that belong to different organizations.

A personal example is during my time as a consultant for StableLogic.

At any one time, I could have 4-8 different clients that I needed to collaborate with. Most of these would be using Microsoft Teams.

To stay on top of my collaboration notifications, I would regularly switch between Teams tenants - logging out of my StableLogic account and joining as a guest on my clients' tenant.

Similar scenarios and access exist across other team collaboration apps like Slack and Cisco Webex.

Federation exists to solve these common problems.

History of External Federation

Microsoft External Federation

The term federation seemingly appears first in the Microsoft collaboration stack.

In Skype for Business, and versions of Microsoft Lync before that, federation existed to connect users of Skype for Business in different organizations.

You could simply add a contact from another organization.

Skype for Business federation

I'll give you another real-life example...

While I was a project manager at Maersk, my job was to move all the offices from whatever phone system each of the 200+ sites was using to a standardized Cisco solution.

We had appointed Orange Business Services (OBS) to run our migration.

Internally, we used Microsoft Lync (which then became Skype for Business).

I could instant message all the local IT Managers across the world. Internal communication was simple.

OBS also used Microsoft Lync (and then Skype for Business).

With federation access enabled in both Maersk's Skype for Business tenant and OBS' Skype for Business tenant, we could message each other without having to resort to email or find another platform to chat on.

Employees at Maersk used their preferred chat app. So did OBS.

Skype for Business federation made our day to day communications seamless.

At Microsoft Ignite in March 2021, Microsoft announced it is launching Teams Connect.

While few details are available about the number of users or organizations that will be able to message cross-company, this is a major move for Teams federation.

External Federation Examples

Outside of the Microsoft world, external federation exists in other team collaboration apps too.

Slack External Federation

In September 2019, Slack launched shared channels.

Slack defines shared channels as two separate organizations working together in a single channel, each from their own Slack workspace.

Within a shared channel, users from both organizations can:

  • Send and read messages in the channel
  • Exchange direct messages with other members
  • Upload files and use apps and integrations

Shared channels look just like a regular channel in Slack. You can see below that the UI remains the same but the descriptor Shared with DQ Creative is added to distinguish this channel as a Slack channel shared with another organization.

Slack shared channels

Shared channels become available in Slack when you purchase the Standard package or higher.

For use cases when you need to chat to more than one organization in a shared channel, Slack launched Slack Connect. In Slack Connect, you can extend a shared channel to up to 20 different organizations.

Recommended post: Best 43 Slack Integrations

Cisco Webex Federation

Cisco allows external users to collaborate in Webex.

Like Slack, there is no change to the UI for users of either party.

For Webex spaces that are opened to guests,  you'll see some areas in those spaces highlighted, like the border, message background, and icon in the message area, and their email addresses.

Cisco Webex Teams external users

You can invite any Webex user from another organization, assuming your policy doesn't restrict you from doing so.

Recommended post: Best 35 Cisco Webex Integrations

The State of External Federation in 2021

While external federation exists for the use case of external parties collaborating via the same team collaboration app, like Slack to Slack, in 2021 there is no native functionality for cross-platform chat.

If everybody across the board used the same team collaboration app, this would not be a problem.

The underlying issue here is that the collaboration industry is one of the most fragmented in the B2B world.

In fact, 91% of businesses use at least 2 platforms themselves.

91% of businesses use at least 2 messaging apps; 66% use Microsoft teams and Slack

So, adding another platform that a supplier or contractor uses only increase the number of apps in play.

Why is this a problem?

It's not if you enjoy switching between apps all day to keep up with your clients, your freelance network, or your supplier.

Even if you are the biggest app enthusiast out there, the loss in productivity and time should be red flags.

There is no doubt that a single platform to rule them all would be the most effective approach.

However, the reality is that this will never happen.

In 2019, we surveyed IT Managers and admins of these chat platforms. The results suggested, among other things, that 63% of companies using Microsoft apps are using Slack in parallel.

If a single company can't decide on a single platform of choice, what chance do you have convincing all the external parties you need to chat with?

The End of Skype for Business Federation

Later in 2019, it was announced that Microsoft was retiring Skype for Business Online and that Microsoft Teams would soon be the only collaboration tool supported.

Microsoft Teams users had already expressed frustration that the guest access experience was not slick enough and users would often complain about constant app switching when collaborating with external parties.

In summary, external federation is not commonplace in a cross-platform environment in 2021. Skype for Business Online users, in particular, also face a challenge when moving from Skype to Teams.

What Next for External Federation?

In order for external teams to collaborate at maximum productivity, the barriers between team A and team B need to be broken down.

The introduction of guest access and shared channels achieves this for external relationships that use the same platform.

But, when users in different organizations use Slack instead of Teams, or Webex instead of Slack, the options are limited and collaboration suffers.

Just think about the times you've got so fed up with switching between apps to juggle your contractors or liaise with different clients.

What did you do?

Go back to email, maybe?

Wait it out until someone called because you weren't on top of your chats?

Crawl into a corner...

The next wave of external federation must include cross-platform chat.

Expectations vs Reality

By 2021, you have every right to expect seamless collaboration with external parties.

With tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Webex widely available and widely used, collaboration should be much simpler by now.

The reality is that, according to figures published by each brand, there are over 600 million users of Slack, Microsoft, and Cisco messaging apps:

  • Slack has 12.5 million daily active users
  • Cisco Webex has 130 million active users
  • Cisco Jabber has 45 million monthly active users
  • Microsoft Teams has 145 million daily active users
  • Skype for Business has 300 million monthly active users

If these 500 million team collaboration users all belonged to the same company, the problem would not be so vast. Mio is already solving the problem of intracompany collaboration with its enterprise-grade interoperability tool.

As technology has progressed and more and more apps have become simple to use and easily available, the way we communicate with people outside of our company needs to be governed.

This can't mean that you request every supplier and every contractor to use that platform that suits you.

It also can't mean that you revert back to email or rely purely on synchronous communication.

That sounds like a relationship doomed to fail.

Instead, ensure external federation is a must-have requirement for your workplace communications stack to evolve.

Read Next: External Federation: 5 Expectations vs 5 Realities

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