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All Alone by the Telephone

It should be the UC clan who’s out and actively looking for vendors and solutions, but maybe they’re waiting by the phone for a call.

Truth be told, 2010 hasn't been a good year for UC/UCC. The cry that next year will be the "Year of UC" is getting a bit thin at this point, and a prominent analyst firm even called UC a "ponzi scheme". The big problem isn't even that the concept is losing enterprise support, according to my latest survey. It's why that support is being lost.

Enterprises have a real appreciation of the value of worker communication. In the survey, they clustered into three groups based on how they visualized their communications and collaboration tools. One group was data-centric, and saw communication and collaboration focused on application data views shared by the workers. For this group, collaboration was an offshoot of their IT directions, driven by their IT and in particular software vendors. Another group was people-centric, and saw collaboration as the virtual assembly of teams. This was the group most likely to support telepresence and video collaboration. The final group was tool-centric, and planned to build their future communications and collaboration around tools that were available.

It would seem that traditional UC/UCC fits in this final category, and in fact that's where enterprises tend to put it. Not surprisingly, though, that third category is the smallest in terms of enterprise population, and it's also the category that reports having the weakest internal support. The reason for that is the key to the state of UC today; enterprises say that UC is too focused on the telephone.

Let's start with internal political constituency. The telephony group in an enterprise is the group that's lost the most power over the last decade, the group that's seen their budgets and headcount shrink the most. In fact, telephony budgets in 2011 are less than half the 2000 budgets according to my survey. The average telephony organization has shrunk by almost 60%, and the average telephony group manager reports having lost almost three-quarters of their strategic influence with senior management since 2000. The reason is that the group is seen as simply sustaining a technology that's easing out of corporate plans. Telephony management also said that they'd lost control in communications and collaboration deployments; 37% said that the primary UC strategic influence was IT or data networking in 2010, compared with only 9% who believed that in 2000.

Then there's the question of where enterprises think UC is going. Regardless of how they visualize their applications today, they believe that UC/UCC has to be based on social-network principles. They are establishing a fourth model for UC/UCC, in fact, one that’s relationship-centric and thus ties in nicely with how social networks work. In fact, they visualize their future collaboration and communication in the form of four elements, the profile page, the status update, the blog, and the chat. Projects and people would have profile pages. They'd post status updates that reflected events or announcements, and blogs that represented conversational threads that generated discussions. Where real-time communication was needed, they'd jump into chats, and these chats might be instant messages or SMS, voice calls, or even videos.

This may sound like an endorsement of an Internet social network as the framework for enterprise communication, but that's not how they see it. While enterprises said they like the four elements of social networking noted above, they didn't like how current social networking tools provided these elements. Groups, for example, don’t map well to how enterprises view projects, and the way that blogs and status updates are propagated to people and groups isn't granular enough to suit enterprise requirements. Further, they're uncomfortable about the security of a social-network-hosted communications framework, though they’d be happy with a private framework hosted in the cloud.

So given that enterprises have a model for a revolutionary form of UC, why don't we see all sorts of momentum behind it? The reason goes back to the politics of the process. While telephony types feel increasingly dis-intermediated in the UC space, they're still tending to dominate it, and enterprises think their view is rooted too much in the past. Said a major enterprise strategist whose company has just abolished its telephony group completely, "UC isn't about a new kind of phone, or at least we don't see it as that as a company. Our UC people did, unfortunately."

The trouble with evolutionary technology visions like UC is that progress is by definition incremental even when markets demand leaps forward. Enterprises think that Cisco's Quad is the closest thing that they're currently offered to the utopian social-UC vision they're now trying to embrace. Even Quad doesn't do everything they'd like as they'd like it done, and while they like Cisco's marketing of Quad they report that Cisco has a problem engaging the right people in their organizations. That's because it's hard to say who these "right people" might be.

It should be the UC clan who’s out and actively looking for vendors and solutions, but maybe they’re waiting by the phone for a call.