5 Steps to Making UC Great Again

I say "yes," it is time to say "CU" to UC. I think it's entirely apropos that the innovators of the 'new collaboration' space -- artfully blurring the lines between social networking, messaging, and sharing -- do not describe what they do or the market they serve as UC. For a start, their tribes of fans wouldn't have the first idea what they were talking about. And for the few that did -- the likes of you and me -- that term has gone just a little smelly.

Traditional UC vendors have spent more than a decade playing catch up with leaner, nimbler entrants. If they couldn't beat them, they bought them. The solutions they created were unified, so long as you got everything from the same company, and were prepared for a hefty price tag. That would include thousands of the most expensive paperweights ever made: the desktop IP phone. Meanwhile integration, transparency, collaboration -- these things existed mostly in the minds of the branding teams.

Meanwhile corporate users, whose response to these systems have never warmed beyond tepid, enthusiastically opt in to WhatsApp, Slack, Skype, and the like. And that includes those in the C-suite.

I'm being flippant, of course. But for IT teams this is pretty serious stuff. You have the challenge of creating and delivering a coherent collaboration solution and strategy for the business. It isn't going to emerge magically from the patchwork of shadow IT solutions currently being purchased by line-of-business managers, is it? No one else has to account for the whereabouts and security of all that corporate data, splashed across maybe a dozen messaging apps and filestores. No one else has to create a compelling, opt in-driven user experience to compete with the social players. And no one else worries about sweating your existing investments.

The paradox is that to make UC great again, we need to leave the old paradigms, and maybe the language, behind. Here are my five steps to a brighter future:

  1. Prepare to dis-unify your strategic suppliers. You might think that vendor proliferation is that last thing you need to do, but you need at least one more. You are going to task them with knitting together your existing, telephony-centric solutions while expanding services and improving the user experience.
  2. Commit to open. Open is going to be all-important from now on -- open APIs and ready-made integrations capable of bridging the infrastructure you have to the collaboration solution you dream about, for example. Make sure your new partner has everything to gain from the opening up of infrastructure and services. Keep all of your options open, too.
  3. Start from the mobile experience. Your users' first preference is their smartphone or tablet. It's how they carry the office with them as they travel, and smooth the edges between work and home life. To be compelling and indispensable, your services have to be mobile. If that sounds like stating the obvious, explain to me why mobile UC integration is often still a high-cost option? Creating a mobile-first experience, on any and every device, is the first priority. Work back to the desktop experience from there.
  4. Put the user first, and make UX the heart of the end-to-end solution. A messaging service in which user content self-deletes after 10 seconds doesn't sound like a winner on paper does it? In practice, what Snapchat did was give users a brand new "show and tell" experience, prioritizing only the very freshest visual imagery. It updated, streamlined, and optimized a useful workflow. In theory, you could get to the same kind of outcome on Twitter -- but in nothing like as sleek an experience. That's what a well-designed user experience does: It streamlines, focuses, declutters, simplifies, and contextualizes. This is definitely a case in which design beats evolution. And this is patently not the same thing as when, in the bad old days, a company created a user interface, almost as an afterthought, to patch disparate features and functions together.
  5. Take the cloud on your terms. Make the cloud work for you, leveraging it for connection-persistent communications that tie devices and conversations together through context.

How will you know "good" when you see it? Well, you won't have had to replace any of the telephony gear you already had unless you really want to -- but then again, why would you? What you have is unified, but not in any vertically integrated sense: You're not reliant on any one vendor. Instead, you have an array of traditional and born-in-the-cloud vendors, delivering a harmonious user experience, perhaps through a unifying, orchestrating neutral service platform that brings everything together from a softphone perspective and stitches together the most optimal user experience based on the best of a multivendor offering.

And it's definitely communications in the broader, collaborative sense. Today, that means presence-driven conferencing, chat and sharing, through messaging, voice and video, plus cloud fileshares, on every mobile device and desktop.

Pretty soon it's going to embrace the concept of threaded communications as well. This means collaboration sessions will not only be available across all devices but also stored and synchronized in the cloud. Entire meetings -- including all of their content and streams -- become as easily accessible as call history logs are today. Each user could go back to his or her earlier live meeting and replay everything from that session. It's a virtual time machine for collaboration.

The ultimate test, of course, is that it's used -- and loved -- by the smart, professional people with whom we work. So it's unified. And communications. And most of all, it's compelling. But it's not UC as we know it. If we use that term, it ought to be just to whisper it to ourselves as a shorthand for a technology outcome. As a description of a user experience, it will always be meaningless.