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Context Aware Communications Will Be The Next Wave of UC

A little while ago, I wrote about how presence, not VoIP was the foundation of unified communications. While I still believe presence is the key foundational element of UC I do believe presence will only answer some of the questions involved in communications-enabling a business process. Presence allows us to understand whether a contact is available or not, but does not provide information on the location of the contact (or device), the qualifications of the person or any other information used to answer many of the decisions in the normal day-to-day activities of a worker. I think of this larger decision criteria as "context."I define the context as an understanding of who a user is, where the user is located, whether the user is available or not, which device the user can be reached on and if the user has the correct skills or knowledge required. The main components of context (or at least the way I define it) are the following:

* Presence. In the simplest terms, presence is the ability to indicate whether a user is available or not. If a user's presence is "available" then the person inspecting the status of the user can feel free to contact them. Over the years, presence has expanded greatly to the point where it is very easy to understand exactly what a certain individual is doing. You can show a status of "busy," "on phone" or any custom message that you like. The downside of this is that these custom messages need to be set manually in most systems, but we're pretty close to having that automated.

* Location. Location intelligence is an understanding of where a user or a device is. Location information can be pulled from RFID-tagged devices, cellular devices or some WiFi devices. This can help locate the closest user or device. Location is important in processes when the closest individual or device is required.

* Integration with knowledge systems. Integrating into knowledge systems can provide an understanding of who the best person in an organization is to solve a certain problem or answer a question. UC is great when you know who to contact. Integrating UC into the corporate knowledge systems can help when you don't know who to contact.

* Unified communications (UC). UC doesn't exactly fit into context but it does tie all of the collaboration and communication tools together. Context allows a user to understand which is the preferred communications tool, and UC can create a single interface into all of these tools.

Context can be extended from just understanding users to understanding devices, objects or systems. This could be medical equipment, alarm systems, manufacturing devices or any other "thing" that's core to a business processes.

The Importance of Context in Communications Context can help a user locate the best person or device by adding the required intelligence into a communications-enabled process. Take a simple example of a user trying to locate another user to help solve a certain business problem. In a normal work environment, the use would need to have a lot of knowledge in their head to know who to contact. If the user doesn't, the task of understanding who to contact can be the time intensive part of the task. The worker would then proceed to possibly sending emails, leaving messages across a number of devices such as mobile phones, desktop phones and maybe sending a text message and instant message and still not be guaranteed the user would actually get the message. This is all without even understanding whether the person is actually available or not. I know we have all experienced this kind of communications delay before. We describe this delay as "human latency," and this kind of delay creates high levels of frustration when trying to collaborate with others.

Context-aware communications would allow a user to be able to first search on a specific set of criteria to solve a problem such as "Widget A." The search would then be limited to those individuals with only Widget A knowledge. The worker then could look at only people with Widget A knowledge that show an available status and then further sort by who is closest, and finally understand how the person would prefer to be contacted. Context created the ability to find the best person with the right skill set that was also located closest to the problem, and finally provides an understanding of how to contact that individual.

Ubiquitous connectivity, mobile technology and social networking have made it possible for us to reach people "on demand." However, the flexibility and choice that this technology has created have also added a high amount of human delay into many of the processes we have in our professional lives. Context aware communications can streamline or even automate many of today's communications intensive processes and allow companies to create new processes that are built around communications.