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Do 'UC' What's Next?

As I consider what we call unified communications today, I think of Pony Express riders passing telegraph lines under construction. While its benefits are irrefutable, UC is becoming obsolete. The industry will soon transition to social-based conversations, with early versions of the supporting technology available from Unify and Cisco plus Slack and a slew of other startups.

The shift represents more than technological changes. It also represents a transition from exclusive to inclusive, from integrated to unified, and from being complementary to workflow to being central to it.

Email & UC: Similar But Not Equal
UC introduced the concept of multimodal conversations by bringing instant messaging and sometimes video into the conversation. But email remained separate. Modern enterprise communications effectively includes two types of electronic conversations: email and UC. Two types of conversations that can occur anytime, anywhere, on any device. Two types of lightly integrated conversations.

But the two are not equal. Email is the heavy weight that touches -- some might say contaminates -- all of our activities. Unfortunately, it knows few restrictions on broadcasts, reply-alls, and attachments. It treats the urgent and trivial with equal aplomb. It poorly performs the simultaneous roles of inbox, filing system, and to-do manager. Email means to serve us, but with a science fiction twist of irony it instead dictates and controls us. Its utility and value peaked years ago (see related post, "Addressing the Problem With Email, At Long Last.")

Despite its power and capabilities, UC plays second fiddle in this hierarchy. As a result, our conversations get scattered across different tools, are stored in different servers, and make use of different networks. Having choices is nice, but that leads to us having no default form of communications. We waste too many cycles on overhead -- determining the how, when, and where of all those conversation details.

Text As Last Resort
The ineffectiveness and disarray of our communications tools causes an unexpected side effect. We increasingly settle for text-based communications such as email, IM, and texting. They work better for us because our mobile, flexible work styles do not easily accommodate simultaneous participation. We have never before been able to so easily and richly communicate (wideband voice and HD video) from wherever we happen to be, yet choose to settle for cryptic text-based alternatives. BRB, LOL, ROFL... WTF?

Ironically, the invention of the telephone was a blow to the primary text-based alternatives of mail and telegrams. Voice was simply easier and faster. Keyboards, both real and their touch-screen derivatives, are one of the worst human interfaces ever designed. Believable folklore suggests the QWERTY keyboard was designed to slow data entry. Text-based communications take more work, perhaps explaining why Americans spend about 19 minutes a day reading, compared to about 5 hours a day of watching television.

The compelling need to work asynchronously is so strong that we convince ourselves that the compromise of text-based communications is the ideal. Real-time communications are more natural and effective than text-based alternatives. For example, newborn babies communicate with sounds and expressions years before learning to read or type. When we are together, we converse with speech, not text. Yet, for mostly the wrong reasons, we resort to text when out of earshot.

This wasn't the plan. The big lure of presence was to improve the ability to connect with real-time communications. Yet, text took over. UC clients that support shifts between IM, voice, and video are compelling. The problem is email. The majority of our conversations are stuck in a separate asynchronous domain -- separate directories, clients, and histories. The answer is not more clients, but one communications client for asynchronous and real-time communications solution for desktop and mobile.

A Better Way
This next-generation communications platforms center around asynchronous messaging with intuitive capabilities for real-time communications. They support and store conversations, and as a result become central to workflow. Conversation history is retained as a shared record instead of duplicated private records.

These tools also flip the model from exclusive to inclusive. When two parties exchange emails, they exclude everyone else. Clearly we need privacy controls, but our options of reply-all and cc: are ineffective, annoying, and frequently become productivity killers for others. We need to be able to share conversations and make them searchable without generating more interruptions.

That same conversation in an inclusive format may solicit unexpected input from other team members. Participation is optional and non spammy. Other team members may benefit just from knowing about the conversation. This is the way teams really work... and why water coolers did more than cool water.

Consistently, those who engage with these newer social technologies report more effective communications. They find and share content with ease, and claim to be more informed on relevant topics. They also report reduced email. Conversations morph and adapt among modalities and participants.

Reports of email's death are indeed exaggerated. It's still very early, and this transformation will be gradual. Email can be valuable, and these newer forms of communications may give it the boost it needs to reclaim its productivity. These new solutions are rapidly evolving. The big winners may not have even emerged yet.

We are the modern Pony Express riders and times are changing. Our journey is uncertain, and it's going to be a hell of a ride.

Dave Michels is a Contributing Editor and Analyst at TalkingPointz.

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