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Using Search Technology to Contact People


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June 23, 2006

Using Search Technology to Contact People

By Art Rosenberg

Business communication activity is comprised of three main elements from a user perspective: information access, business process transactions, and initiating (and receiving) contacts with people. The Internet and World Wide Web are changing how all three are being done.
Information Search
By now, everyone knows how dramatically the World Wide Web has impacted access to all kinds of information; it’s like living in a giant “virtual” library. Combined with the power of natural language text search tools, we can easily find all kinds of documents, including personal information and messages stored on our own private PCs.
We can also get information notification dynamically delivered by email through RSS (Really Simple Syndication) technology as soon as it becomes “published” on a web site. Finally, people and automated processes that have our email address can send us information ranging from unwanted “spam” to important, time sensitive information.
Unlike the physical book library, network access to information retrieval or delivery is always available to authorized users, regardless of physical locations of the information or the people. Our main concern as end users now, is to selectively manage our time and technology filtering tools to limit information access only to what we really want or need at any given point in time.
Automated Transactions
As information becomes more accessible online, automated (self-service) business processes that are dependent upon such information are also becoming accessible to users responsible for the accuracy of such information. Whether it is simple data entry or a transaction, business applications are the “gateways” to all online informational databases.
Business process transactions are also becoming more automated, i.e., “self-service,” as web-based online application portals, both within the enterprise and between enterprise partners, and with consumers (customers).
The main differentiators are the rights that different users have to both the application processes, as well as the specific data items controlled by the applications. Internal users, outside partners, and customers will obviously all have different access rights to shared information and application processes.
Initiating Contacts with People Through Search

As discussed in “Rosenberg’s Third Law,” the increased accessibility to information and even automated applications on the Web has resulted in a corresponding increase in making business contacts with people.
Even though self-service applications enable end users/customers to transact various business activities with automated business process applications online and by telephone, there are always situations where real-time human interaction is required to describe problems, answer questions, approve changes, finalize decisions, and coordinate/confirm follow-up corrective actions. Such person-to-person communication is still the heart of effective business operations.
However, initiating and receiving business contacts with people are very dependent on different working relationships, which include:                                  
  • Business unit management - business unit staff
  • Customer – customer support staff
  • Customer – sales staff
  • Intra-enterprise group – inter-enterprise partners
  • Known contacts – unknown contacts
Personalized information delivery from business applications are also dependent upon efficiently contacting people, ranging from simply sending an email to a mailbox to delivering time-sensitive information to a customer’s mobile device.
As enterprise activities become more geographically distributed, and communications become more mobile and “virtual,” business contacts will become less dependent on knowing the physical location of a specific person, the spelling of their name, or the communication device address and status (e.g., phone number, email address).
It’s Not Who You Know, But Who Is Available and How
A key differentiator between business and personal consumer communications is the ability to maintain real-time “business continuity” at all times. That means not only insuring that information access and communication channels are always functional, but also that people responsibilities can also be backed up in the event that a particular individual is not available for a significant period of time.
Interactions with customers, who don’t typically know any specific person to provide assistance, have always been supported both in physical brick and mortar environments, as well as in traditional call centers. For technology support within the enterprise, the telephone “Help Desk” has also been a familiar fixture.
As business communications become more flexible and multimodal, the ability for enterprise personnel to contact people for workflow activities has increased, to make people contact more efficient, regardless of location.
Business communications technology is transitioning from requiring that a contact initiator know the device “address” of a specific person to knowing just a name or any associated descriptor to qualify the responsibilities/skills of any member of a group. This applies to address books, document links, stored messages, contact logs, etc.
With presence and availability/modality management and new presence-based “dashboards,” a contact initiator can also dynamically “search” for the modality of contact accessibility for a specific name or for any available person in a group that qualifies for their contact needs.
Even if a contact recipient is “busy” talking on a phone or is in a situation where talking is inappropriate, other real-time contact alternatives for the contact initiator include:
1. Simple IM text message exchange multitasking with the phone call. Good for existing “buddies.”)
2. Visual Call notification (like traditional call waiting) but without disrupting the phone conversation, which would identify the caller and subject of the call textually. Good for “non-buddies.”
3. Urgent message notification (text, voice) in the event that the call initiator doesn’t want to interrupt the recipient, but leaves an important “one-way” message, e.g., email, voice mail, SMS. Good for any caller, especially someone with transmodal device capabilities.
4. Setting up a future automated call return/conference call that coordinates the availability of all parties “as soon as possible” and would identify the initiator and the purpose of the contact. Good for “buddies” who are authorized to schedule such future arrangements and for multi-party conferencing.
(For more on multimodality, see this interview with OnState.)
The Benefits of “Searching” for People Using Communication Modalities
The ability for a user to quickly find the right, available person for their business needs certainly contributes to their individual time productivity, or what we have labeled as “micro-productivity.” 
However, being able to negotiate an immediate contact or one that is “as soon as possible” will also contribute towards reducing the “human latency” in business processes, which we consider having much more value to the enterprise and we call “macro-productivity.”
Using natural language search technologies, either textual or through speech recognition, simplifies the user interface for micro-productivity because they don’t have to know specific phone numbers or even names. It also simplifies the development of business information applications that will be increasingly linked to contact initiation with people for live assistance.
Although personal relationships with business contacts will always be important, both within an enterprise organization and across enterprises, critical, time-sensitive business processes have to be supported by multiple people resources, whether it is to get an answer, authorize a change, make a decision, or deliver a fix.
Getting in touch with the right people in a timely way can’t be dependent on just the information in your personal address book or the communication devices you can use! 
Some Implications for Telephony Systems
The migration from traditional wired telephony systems to mobile and IP-based, converged communications means that first and foremost that people are no longer “location-based” to make contact. The traditional “dial-plan” is going to be obsolete when you have an address book and name directories.
With presence management and multimodal interfaces, the modality of contact with a person will depend dynamically on circumstances and user needs, not necessarily on how the contact is initiated (“transmodal” communications). The focus on the telephone number pad will shift to alphanumeric interface, which is more flexible for dealing with both information and people.
At the desktop, business phones will be changing their interfaces to support voice call-centric job responsibilities that vary from contact initiations (e.g., sales) to contact reception (customer support), along with the flexibility to be multimodal and transmodal.
Desk phones will range from pure PC-based softphones to the next generation “hard phones,” such as Avaya’s recently announced one-X series of desk phones, which provide customizable, application-controlled screen interfaces and support “extension to cellular” functionality when users leave their office.
For mobile users, communication devices and mobile services need to be even more multimodal and personalized and the responsibility of the individual end users, even though the enterprise will reimburse them for business usage and control access to secure business information. These are the kind of changes enterprises should be preparing for in their migration planning.   
What Do You Think? 
Will need-oriented, rather than individual-oriented, business contacts become more effective in getting business processes to be more efficient? Will it be difficult to manage such kinds of contact information, or will end users still have to have their own private contact lists? Will presence-based multimodal contacts change the etiquette of phone calls, as well as impact the use of traditional telephony technologies of auto-attendants, call-waiting, call forwarding, and voice messaging (telephone answering)? Send your opinion to [email protected].

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Art Rosenberg is a veteran of the computer and communications industry and formed The Unified View to provide strategic consulting to technology and service providers, as well as to enterprise organizations, in migrating towards converged wired and wireless unified communications.


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