Hybrid comms

No-one would question the usefulness of telephones and email in modern business – indeed, it is hard to imagine business life without them. To date, though, most attempts to build on these communication and collaboration technologies have failed to attract adoption.

Unified communications, which promises to enhance the telephone network with such functionality as presence information, videoconferencing and instant messaging, is the perennial ‘next big thing’ but the absence of a solid business case has impeded adoption.

And while somewhat more widespread, enterprise adoption of social media – arguably email’s natural successor as the dominant Internet-based communication method – has been capped by the difficulty of proving financial benefits.
So could a combination of these two technologies, a combination that a number of vendors now argue represents the ultimate enterprise collaboration and communication platform, overcome the setbacks of its component parts, and finally deliver the long-awaited revolution?

Or will it simply concentrate their weaknesses, further undermining the business case for technologies that address the way employees – and customers – communicate?

Location aware

A glimpse of how UC and social media might converge was seen at the VoiceCon event in San Francisco in November 2009, when communications equipment vendor Siemens Enterprise Networks (SEN) demonstrated a ‘mash-up’ of its OpenScape UC platform and public micro-blogging service Twitter.

Beyond simply incorporating the Twitter interface into SEN’s existing UC dashboard, the demonstration showed OpenScape analysing the content of employee ‘tweets’ – short status updates of 140 characters or fewer – in order to detect their authors’ location and availability. When the system came across a phrase such as ‘just landed’, it would detect the geographical location of the employee’s mobile device (using Google’s Latitude geolocation service) and adjust their contact preferences accordingly.

The vendor argued that this kind of automation would greatly reduce the cost of intra-enterprise communications by cutting the time employees spend locating their colleagues.

This Twitter mash-up is not a product that Siemens customers can buy – instead, it was meant as a demonstration of OpenScape integration capabilities. In Siemens’s view, it is through such integrations as this that ‘unified communications 2.0’, as it has inevitably been dubbed, will transpire.

“The beauty of this is that you have not had to go out and buy another product,” says Adrian Brookes, vice president of UC technical vision and strategy at SEN, explaining that IT departments are free to tailor the use of web-based platforms to the specific requirements of the enterprise.

Calling out

Enterprise social media has outward-facing applications as well as internal uses – indeed, a recent Gartner report predicted that customer-focused social media projects were significantly more likely to succeed than internal deployments. It is logical, therefore, that UC 2.0 might also be deployed in a marketing or customer service context.

In August 2009 at the ITEXPO West event in California, UC technology vendor Avaya showcased a prototype application for use with Facebook known as Facephone, which adds real-time communications features such as click-to-call and videoconferencing functionality to the social networking site.

This, the company argues, could prove a powerful tool for so-called ‘social CRM’ – the use of social networking sites to interact directly with existing and potential customers.

“The relationships that consumers have on social networking sites are not just with other individuals on a peer-to-peer basis, but also with companies and organisations,” says Brett Shockley, vice president of emerging products and technology at Avaya. “If you’re already inside Facebook, why not initiate conversations [with companies] inside Facebook too?”

While Avaya’s UC 2.0 experiment uses Facebook as an interface, the communications between users are channelled through Avaya’s secure Aura IP communications platform.

That the two platforms – telephone system and social network – can be tied together so simply is yet another demonstration of the possibilities unlocked by IP-based communications.

UC 2.0, then, has potential uses in both internal and external communications. But according to Robin Gareiss, vice president of industry analyst Nemertes Research, its ‘killer app’ may prove to be a combination of the two. An example of this is what she calls “just in time fetch the expert”, a concept that leverages UC 2.0 equally as a CRM and employee communications utility.


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Locating employees who have specific knowledge or experience within a large organisation is an oft-cited benefit of internal corporate social networking. It is argued that by allowing employees to build profiles describing their personal expertise and recording their interactions publicly – in a similar fashion to such ‘professional’ social networking sites as LinkedIn – businesses can at last address the perennial problem of cross-departmental knowledge transfer.

Gareiss argues that a combination of these features and such UC functionality as click-to-call or click-to-videoconference would have particular utility for staff in customer- or client-facing roles. In the context of a sales pitch, when time and expertise can make the difference between closing a deal or losing a potential customer, she says, this amounts to something resembling a business case for converging social networking and UC.

However, Gareiss warns that the combination of unified communications and social media could intensify the security and regulatory concerns already associated with each individually.

Combined concern

By breaking down the distinction between one-to-one customer service and marketing or PR, for example, UC-empowered social CRM will make current corporate messaging policies difficult to enforce. “The problem is that all other forms of [outbound communication] have to go through marketing or PR or similar channels, to ensure that it fits legal or privacy criteria – and all of that kind of goes out the window,” Gareiss explains. “Information might be getting out that should not be getting out.“

Nick Sears, vice president for EMEA at security software vendor Facetime, proposes a similar concern. “The UK Companies Act mandates that you must put your company’s registered name, address and number on any externally bound communications if you are a registered company,” he explains. “Many people do not think about that as they deploy UC.” This could have serious connotations for outgoing correspondence that goes through social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter – the latter being notably awkward, due to its rigid 140 character limit.

In the end, though, it may not be such businesslike concerns that determine the viability – or otherwise – of the combination of unified communications and social media.

The driving force behind end-user technology adoption, even on business premises, has long passed from the IT department to the consumer. The use of social media in the workplace – for business as well as personal reasons – is a particularly potent example of this, as it has often occurred in direct contravention of corporate IT policy.

Business adoption of UC 2.0 is therefore unlikely to prove widespread until a similar service has gained momentum on the public web. A number of services approaching this vision are already available – web-based VoIP provider Jajah’s ‘@call’ offering that allows users to make phone calls to their contacts on Twitter is but one example – but none has yet tipped into mainstream adoption.

That may be about to change, considering that mobile telephones are today being used both to conduct IP telephone calls through such services as Skype and to access social media sites.

Until that happens, however, the potential utility of a combination of social media and unified communications will probably remain like that of its constituent parts: largely untapped.


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Peter Done

Peter Done is managing director of Peninsula Business Services, the personnel and employment law consultancy he set up having already built a successful betting shop business.

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