Unified communications is the promise that never delivered: Avaya CEO

Like many large IT companies, Avaya has faced a mammoth transition in recent years. President and CEO Kevin Kennedy talks to Information Age about how to survive in the new world of communications

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'Unified communications has been the promise that has never been delivered for over a decade'

 

We’ve heard about Avaya’s recent transformation, predominantly its shift form hardware to engagement. Most people are talking about a move to services – why have you chosen to emphasise engagement?

We merged from what was a traditional voice to unified communications and now what? The ‘what’ is first about mobility, second about being open – which is really quite a departure from the past of telecommunications – and third is this notion of engagement, which really means that the enterprise is about making decisions. It’s active, action-oriented, and is all about what you do with communications. So we focused the company on those three words.

How is this affecting your portfolio directly?

A little known fact is about 80% of all the software that we ship connects up mobile apps on phones, verses hard devices like conference phones. So we are very much – in terms of our customer mix – connecting up mobility-based enterprise works. The second is we actually invented a piece of software that’s really a middleware, much like WebSphere was for IBM or Weblogic was for BEA, which was eventually bought by Oracle. It allows lots of different forms of communication or applications to coexists in an engagement environment. So we can take social media, we integrate Google Apps and Lync and all sorts of things, verses a one-size-fits-all from one vendor. That was really the anchor point to becoming an open company – the middleware.

Can you tell us a bit more about your new partnership with Google around the contact centre?

We’re at a stage where we spent a number of years reinventing almost our entire product portfolio. So now getting that product portfolio to become an ingredient in other people’s solutions was an important piece. We had a big announcement with HP in the summer/early fall period. The Google one is very interested in the sense that we enable anybody who has our contact centre resources to use a very low-cost Chromebook, but with a VDI brick, to be a contact centre agent. So for BPOs (business process outsourcers) that want to have many agents that serve the enterprise, they can have very low-cost terminals but work at home.

Unified communications (UC) is something we heard about from your sector for years, but didn’t see much evidence of. Did that ever materialise into deployment?

Unified communications has been the promise that has never been delivered for over a decade. I actually think it’s not going to be unified but people will still communicate – and they’ll communicate on the outcomes, the import and export, and the integration things. But integration is a different statement than unified. Unified sends the notion that everything is the same. I think we know from communities of people that they like what they like. So I think a future of communications is this open, integrative reality – unified is something that has been around for a long time but hasn’t been delivered yet. That’s why we need a new term called engagement.

>See also: One true voice: approaching unified communications

Is mobile as a proper tool for enterprise collaboration a long way off too?

The reality is that consumers have led the charge and you can’t keep these devices out of the enterprise. That happened probably about three years ago. I think there is a second reality where workplace organisations and leaders of companies are opening up their workplaces – more open seating and virtual offices – and people are just moving around to where the work is and where their colleagues are. I’ve visited probably half a dozen companies in London and everyone had open workspaces. Is IT in a catch-up mode from a security perspective relative to those statements? Absolutely. And I think IT will continue to be that way because the cyber security peril is growing with momentum at the moment, so I don’t know if it’s a bad thing or a good thing – it’s just a reality. So people-led organisations began to follow with the way that they accommodated employees, and I think IT has a tough race to continue to muster.

You are also a member of the President's National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee, so you have that insight on the government side as well as running a business. Are both doing enough to protect the data of customers and citizens?

The number of attacks on companies and countries is just enormous, so for the best of us we will be safe only by a measure of time. You have to have the humility to know what you’re protecting yourself against. I do think cyber security is at the front and centre of both government officials and industry. I expect governments of countries to most likely regulate companies in the form of an audit committee that examines whether they’re doing enough to protect customer data.

I think you will see the trend towards private cloud inoculated because people are afraid of getting too far away from their data and the protections of their data. I think you will see people lay to rest the notion of ‘let me just have the single largest data centre’ because now with the cyber threats people will see that as a single point of peril, so I think more distributed architectures will emerge. I think there will be requirements on companies to prove that the software that they put in the government or other companies has been protected, which will force fewer vendors and make it harder for startups to get in. I do see a period where governments and enterprises – either through regulation or cooperation – tighten down the hatches in cyber security.

How should businesses and governments approach the challenge of getting the balance right between security and privacy?

There are many things in life you just discover by going through it and I would say that people have sophisticated ways of collaborating where you are on the journey of securing yourself. While it may never be enough, there is good practice there. The harder practice in an enterprise is the leakiness of the people and the content that moves in and out. There was a recent event in New York City with a bank where an individual did something they shouldn’t do, so the hardest part of those regulations is the impact of the employees.