It’s not uncommon to hear enterprise IT managers and end users say that they now find e-mail to be a more mission-critical business tool than the telephone. And a recent industry survey suggests such preferences are becoming more common.
The “Communications of the Association of Computer Machinery,” the journal of the world’s oldest computer association, recently conducted a survey assessing the “richness” of various forms of communications. The highest ranking wasn’t much of a surprise—face-to-face meetings.
Rosenberg’s Third Law Of Business Communications
A few years ago, as part of a conference presentation on IP telecommunications as the drivers for innovation in person-to-person communications, I came up with my “Third Law” for business communications, which states:
The faster and easier it is to get information, the more we will still need to contact people!
The reasoning behind this is that people, not just information databases nor even automated business processes, make the important decisions and make things happen. People also make the data entry mistakes that cause automated business processes to generate problems that have to be fixed by people.
It’s just not enough to get all the information you want; you still have to deal with people to get things done or resolved as a result of the information you can get so easily. So, the faster you get information, good or bad, the more you will be following up with people with questions, requests for assistance, approvals, and help in task completion.
As both information and people become more accessible on line through the Web, it is now convenient for Rosenberg’s Third Law to be facilitated by person-to-person multi-modal contacts embedded in online information and documentation. This can be done by email, instant messaging, or voice connections.
Most importantly, SIP-based presence and availability management technology will make such contact attempts more “intelligent” and controllable, rather than time-wasting “blind” calls and messages.
The rest of the survey, however, was more startling. While the telephone received a perceived “richness” score of 25.91 (out of a maximum of 40), e-mail achieved an almost identical score of 25.83. According to the study report, “This surprising result may signal that frequent email use and technologies such as instant messaging, automatic messaging, and voice mail may blur the perceived differences in the richness of email and the phone.”
The study report concludes, “The main lesson learned is that distributed (business) relationships involving complex tasks can be maintained by increasing the frequency and flow of (all forms of) communication.”
Trends such as the one described in this study, and the conclusion it draws, set the stage for the coming breakthroughs in unified communications (UC). As voice communications become more mobile and real-time and asynchronous messaging increasingly become an acceptable substitute for voice, we will see a more seamless integration of telephony with messaging, as well as the use of multi-modal desktop and handheld multi-modal devices.
What Is UC?
Last spring’s VoiceCon 2006 was a landmark conference for the enterprise communications industry because at this event, all the major technology providers acknowledged the convergence of communication applications, i.e., wired and wireless telephony, multi-modal messaging, mobile interfaces, and SIP-based presence management, etc., generally under the label of “unified communications” (UC).
Cisco, which has already become a major player in IP-telephony, and Microsoft (News - Alert), which is taking another run at the telephony space, publicly joined the other major vendors in announcing new UC applications. These will be open messaging technologies that integrate with basic IP-telephony functions (IP-PBXs) and a variety of communication endpoint devices to support more flexible, personalized business communications.
This is a new and different, even a “next-gen,” version of unified communications, since it embraces all channels and modalities of business communication contacts. UC can be defined as the flexible integration of real-time conferencing (voice, video, instant messaging) with unified asynchronous messaging (UM).
UC has been talked about for years as being the multi-modal solution for greater flexibility and efficiency. However, until the advent of standards-based IP-telephony, UC could not be easily or cost-effectively implemented across different proprietary telephone systems or messaging services, and therefore it languished.
UC will facilitate the integration of IP-telephony applications (call management and conferencing) with all forms of messaging, which themselves have already been consolidating under the label of unified messaging (UM). UC and UM will be joined at the user-interface hip on converged, multi-modal communication end user devices, as well as at the “presence management” level of communication applications and federated directories.
Micro-productivity and Macro-productivity
A few years ago, the Unified-View proposed the idea of new metrics for quantifying efficient person-to-person communication contacts. We anticipated that IP communications technologies, based on the evolving SIP standard, coupled with presence management data, would enable the necessary information to be collected for such communication activity.
Our definition of communication micro-productivity is based upon metrics for both real-time contact accessibility (phone calls, IM) and asynchronous message delivery and responsiveness for an individual user when communicating with others.
Our definition of macro-productivity is a “group” metric that can be compiled from the individual micro-productivity ratings of a group of users with particular responsibilities or task involvement.
Quantifying such communication productivity will be an important way to not only confirm the value of mobile and UC technologies, but also to ensure that such new capabilities are being effectively used by appropriate categories of end users.
Minimizing Business Process Delays From People
The challenge for enterprise IT management of “why” to migrate to UC is twofold—especially for CIOs in larger enterprise organizations. They not only have to make a “hard dollar” ROI case for reducing technology infrastructure capex and opex costs, but they also have to help justify changing how end-users will communicate with each other, from a business process perspective.
The latter has unfortunately been viewed as only a “soft dollar” productivity benefit, which has been hard to quantify or predict in advance. However, that doesn’t mean that there are no important “hard dollar” consequences like lost revenue or financial penalties for missing deadlines, or other costs for not fixing a time-critical operational problem.
Most early attempts at quantifying “communication productivity” zeroed in on guesstimates of individual user time savings. Although such benefits won’t always go to the enterprise bottom line, they can be useful for gaining end user interest and acceptance.
However, UC technology combined with wireless mobility will introduce significant change in how and when people communicate, and will generate more variety in endpoint devices that must interoperate. As a result, it will be difficult for enterprise IT to intelligently quantify and justify what the organization will need for its different types of users and their changing communication needs.
While well-designed user interfaces and device “intelligence” can simplify communication procedures for individual end users, this only helps improve personal productivity, what we have termed “micro-productivity.” Such time savings could amount to as much as 30 minutes a day, according to studies, but only for people who do a lot of calling and messaging.
However, such benefits don’t eliminate the delays to mission-critical tasks or situations caused whenever a key member of a group is not in contact, accessible in real time or responsive in a timely manner to asynchronous messaging. Such lack of contact degrades the performance of the rest of the group.
To really make the enterprise more productive as a whole, UC implementations must be geared toward the goal of increasing “macro-productivity,” so that the overall task is accomplished more efficiently.
The UC Provider’s View
We did a quick survey of some enterprise vendors for this article. We wanted an update of their UC offerings particularly for IP-telephony applications, their support for hosted application services, their IP endpoint device support, and their views of enterprise market migration activity.
Our participants included the big traditional enterprise telephone system providers who own the bulk of the legacy TDM PBX, voice mail, and call center installed base that will be migrating to UC. These include Avaya (News - Alert), Nortel, Cisco, Mitel (News - Alert) and Siemens in the telephony market, and Microsoft, which dominates the enterprise email market, but is adding instant messaging and unified communications in partnership with IP-telephony offerings.
Other providers are focusing on specific UC application packages. These players include Interactive Intelligence (News - Alert), Adomo, and Citrix.
Although there were no real surprises, here are some highlights based on the responses:
* While most UC technology providers are starting to offer many new IP-telephony features and functions that support UC and UM, the new products are lagging mostly in the integration of IP-telephony for wireless mobility. Several CPE providers have announced managed and hosted software services, but the industry is still getting its offerings aligned with the pure service providers like network, wireless and ISP services.
* Most enterprise CPE providers support traditional intra-enterprise communication activity reporting for end users, but integrating such reporting with external services activity, e.g., mobile usage, is still evolving.
* No enterprise organizations are buying UC technology just because it is now becoming available. Although end of life-cycle and “greenfield” situations drive replacement of TDM telephony, every organization is requiring specific operational justifications, which must come from the business management and end-user side of the house, not from IT.
* Installing an IP-PBX doesn’t seem have a significant influence on implementing other IP-telephony applications such as voice messaging, customer contact routing, IVR self-service applications, etc., nor on replacing desktop phones with “hard,” screen-based IP phones.
* Enterprise technology decision-making for migrating to IP-telephony and UC is still mainly focused on the CIO and IT management, but providers report that consultants are also key decision makers.
* Although end users don’t influence general UC implementation decisions, individual end user needs within the enterprise are a significant factor for migrating to desktop and laptop softphones, unified messaging systems and wireless mobility. This also reinforces the role of business management as leading decision makers for mobile communications.
* CFOs are only rated high as important decision makers (after CIOs and IT management) when an enterprise is moving to hosted IP communication services versus CPE procurements.
* CEOs aren’t rated high up in the UC migration decision-making, except in the SMB market segment.
Focus On Microsoft, IBM (News - Alert)
UC is not just about voice communications, but its flexible interoperability with text messaging as well. So it is important to look at what the two dominant enterprise email and instant messaging providers, Microsoft and IBM, are doing for UC.
As we all know, Microsoft is dramatically restructuring itself (again) to focus on services and people, under the label of “Windows Live.” This initiative is also bringing Microsoft into the world of telephony at a time that telephony is becoming an open communications application.
According to Zig Serafin, general manager of Microsoft’s Unified Communications Group, the company is integrating IP-telephony into familiar visual desktop application interfaces that end users are already comfortable with. This makes particular sense at the desktop, since legacy telephone sets were always very limited by their numeric touch-tone pad for input and a small screen display--or none at all--for informational output.
According to Serafin, Microsoft is also pushing very heavily into mobile communications through Office Communicator Mobile software, and into voice self-service applications development tools (IVRs) to serve both customer contacts as well as any mobile device application for internal users. The speech application interface is being pursued through Microsoft’s Speech Server 2007 platform for IP-IVR application development to support TDM telephony integrations as well as supporting native SIP for presence management and multi-modal customer contacts in the future.
Microsoft is betting on its strength in the enterprise email and instant messaging/presence management market to embed enterprise UC on its Live Communication Server (LCS) platform, and in Office Communicator, and Office Communicator Mobile clients. It is also targeting the mobile market with its Windows CE and Pocket PC operating systems and aiming at wireless carriers in the 3G space to support inter-enterprise communications, by federating Active Directory functions.
Microsoft’s chief competitor in the enterprise text messaging and presence market is IBM. Although they did not participate in our survey, IBM is teaming with Cisco in migrating their whole company to IP telephony and UC. They also are leveraging their Lotus SameTime instant messaging product with a “customized plug-in” to support federated presence between Cisco’s CallManager (IP-PBX) and Unified Presence Server to provide “click-to-call” and “click-to-chat” contact options to their internal users.
It will be interesting to see how the telecommunications provider industry slowly restructures itself around the convergence of software communication applications, multi-modal wired and wireless communication devices, and network services vs. CPE options. Perhaps these email and IM providers will drive the consolidation of IT administration tools for unified communications.
The Complexities of Managing UC
But the vendors are only half the picture. UC will only succeed in the enterprise if IT managers and staff are able to master its complexities and deliver the promised benefits.
The road to enterprise implementation of UC is paved with the complexity of many new technology “convergences” that will rock the legacy silos of enterprise IT management. “Convergence” may mean either “integrations” between different application servers or actual consolidation of software technology at all levels, i.e., network, servers, software clients, and—last, but not least—device form factors and user interfaces. These convergences and integrations include:
IP data networks for real-time and non real-time applications, wired and wireless.
Seamless 3G and Wi-Fi wireless access and call transfer to wired devices.
Platform-independent software application servers.
Device-independent, interface independent client software for user application functions.
Integrating business contact routing with personal availability and accessibility routing.
Converging individual contact access across wireless services and internal enterprise servers (CPE).
Managing one-number/one mailbox business contacts for both voice and text on a single mobile device that will also serve the end user for personal (i.e., consumer) mobile communications services.
SIP-based user presence and availability management across all contact modalities, federated across networks and enterprises.
Multi-modal, device-independent, self-service business applications for both internal enterprise users and customers.
Security management across all forms of business communication access.
Business activity management reporting across all forms of contact and communications at individual user levels, group levels, and customer contact levels.
Using presence management for “virtual” customer assistance/help desk support within the enterprise, across enterprises, across contact modalities, and from outsourced staffing services and distributed experts.
Differentiating and reconciling business contact priorities from individual end user availability priorities.
Given the changes that IP telephony and presence management will enable for end users, devices and communication application functionality, it should be no surprise that end users and business management are not yet aware of all the new operational benefits that are just becoming available.
It should also be no surprise that IT technology management will not be too anxious to make changes when the complexities of their responsibilities are neither clear nor justified by demand from their end users. The old “chicken and egg” problem remains!
Now that unified IP communication technologies are finally becoming available to support the convergence of “open” voice telephony communications, videoconferencing and text messaging at the device-independent user interface level, enterprise IT organizations have to start planning realistically to migrate their existing technologies and organizations selectively and gracefully. This will require both restructuring of IT responsibilities and learning new skill sets, particularly for the shift of mission-critical voice communications from hardware to standards-based software applications.
Making Telephony Applications “Virtual”
With UC’s emphasis on interoperability and federation among network elements, the traditional advantages of CPE over service provider offerings will disappear. Hosted “on demand” service options will be particularly useful for trialing and/or selectively implementing the migration to unified communications to make the transition easier, faster, less disruptive, and more cost effective.
This alternative opens the door for both IP-telephony and UC technologies to be provided by a combination of software application developers, endpoint device manufacturers and network service providers that offer a choice of open application services--rather than being restricted to the closed, proprietary world of traditional TDM telephony hardware providers.
Enterprise IT management thus has two new major responsibilities to its business end-users:
Make them aware of the capabilities and potential benefits of UC technologies, so that business management can identify and define business value to justify the costs of IP-telephony migration.
Select and support the products and services that will be most cost effective, reliable, flexible, and “future-proof” for device-independent end-user needs, as well as being interoperable with existing communication technologies.
To effectively fulfill those responsibilities, enterprise IT must look beyond just infrastructure cost-savings, and understand what end users really need in order to do their jobs better in the future.
IT will have to realign itself to support the new IP network infrastructure that will provide device independent, multi-modal communications with people both inside and outside of the organization. This responsibility will be operationally organized around the network transport level (wired, wireless), the server platform infrastructures (hardware, OS), the application software server level for both business processes and personal communications, and, last, but not least, at the users’ device software client levels.
Such technologies may be enterprise owned, provided as a hosted/managed service or a combination of both. The real enterprise IT migration challenge, however, is to continue to support all existing, legacy technologies that will interoperate and integrate with the new, IP based communications.
Enterprise migration planning for UC and IP telephony applications should start now, in terms of understanding new requirements for both business management and end users in the context of multi-modal communications capabilities. UC implementation is not just VOIP networking infrastructure, nor just IP-telephony, nor the various modalities of messaging. It’s about exploiting the benefits of seamless interoperability of all the above.
Because UC and IP telephony applications will now be more standards-based, device independent software, there will be new choices for selecting implementation providers for both premises-based technology and hosted, “on demand” services.
The current lack of hands-on experience with still-evolving UC technologies in most enterprise IT organizations suggests that there is a critical need for them to get expert outside help. Now that the provider industry is starting to deliver IP-based communication technology products, independent consultants are starting to gain real experience with real UC products and services, not only how interoperable they are with TDM technology and business applications, but also how much new functionality and manageability they offer today and “future-proofed” for tomorrow.
Look for enterprise IT organizations and those supporting them to:
Develop strategic operational requirements for all the various forms of person-to-person communication applications.
Perform necessary network assessments to support VOIP QOS and IP-telephony traffic.
Project implementation costs and expected ROI benefits in terms of both reduced costs and increased user communication productivity.
Plan the tactical migration from existing communication technologies to centralized, IP-based “best-of-breed” or “suites” of interoperable communication applications.
Prepare end users for UC from a variety of devices and mobile services.
Provide assistance in realigning IT support organizations for the future UC environment.
Even if the technology were free, migrating to the benefits of unified communications will not be simple and it’s not something you have done before!