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The Future of Unified Communications is Social

Lately, I've been seeing an accelerating trend in the Unified Communications (UC) market linking UC with Enterprise 2.0 (or social business). I saw a lot of discussion of this at Enterprise Connect 2011 and at Interop Las Vegas. It's been a topic of discussion with several industry analysts (including reports I've seen from Wainhouse Research, UCStrategies, Forrester, Gartner and others) over the past couple of months. And it's also been confirmed by some new IBM research. The just-released 2011 IBM CIO Study had some insights that showed CIOs are definitely being impacted not just by social business trends, but how these trends are specifically impacting their communications infrastructure:

* 66% of CIOs from top-performing organizations see internal communication and collaboration [emphasis mine] as key to innovation

* 74% of CIOs see collaboration and communication as a key driver in transforming their organizations

This trend is important. As the economy continues to improve (meaning enterprises are focused more on strategic projects vs. pure cost savings), it further implies that UC decisions will also move from a pure cost-savings project to more UC-as-business-transformation project. I like to think of this as the 3rd wave of UC:

* Wave 1: "IP-PBX", focus was on cost reduction and consolidation
* Wave 2: "Unified Communications and Collaboration" ("UCC"), focus is on integrating online meetings, presence, chat and VoIP with more traditional tools like e-mail and business process applications.
* Wave 3: "Social UC"

As the market moves forward, it's time to reposition UC as more social. It's a world where voice and video are not stand-alone tools, but truly integrated with traditional collaboration tools (Wave 2) as well as the newer collaboration tools like microblogging, status updates, and our broader personal and professional social networks.

Imagine you're a sales representative with Spacely Sprockets. You receive a pop-up on your screen: it's an inbound call from Anil, one of your Customer Service Reps. Because you're on your mobile phone with a new prospect and don't want to be interrupted, you park his call. Anil marked his message urgent, so as soon as you are off your call, you get a text of the voice message Anil left. It seems Anil saw a support tweet from one of your best clients, Alexandra, complaining that their last shipment of sprockets was 1,000 units short.

You click to open a video chat with Anil to learn more, and discover something is wrong with the contract. You go into your contracts e-form application, and see that Denise, assigned as the contract lead, is online, so you click to invite her into a 3-way online meeting where you can all review the contract together. Looks like there was a typo in the contract (oops). While Denise corrects the contract, you do a quick search to see who in Shipping supports Alexandra. You find Dan, invite him to the online meeting, and set up a replacement order. From Alexandra's twitter ID, you click-to-call her from your mobile phone. You tell her Spacely Sprockets made an error, and quickly invite her to the online meeting. Alexandra joins from her tablet as she's at her daughter's softball game (that's where she tweeted from, a few minutes ago). From her web browser, she sees the corrected contract, the revised order that will be overnighted, and the 5% discount off her next order you offer her as a thank you for her continued business.

The reality is that we want to be able to pivot between different modes of communications as best fits the business challenge at hand. Younger workers especially use this pivoting technique in their personal lives and increasingly demand it in their work lives as well. When you need to take quick action, voice and video are still preferred communication modes. It's just that we're shifting from 100 years of "interruption culture" to one where voice and video are just two communication modes among many. It's common for people to now tweet or IM you to ask if it's ok to call. In a March 18 New York Times Culture section article, Judith Martin (a.k.a. Miss Manners) was delighted to see the culture shift:

I've been hammering away at this for decades. The telephone has a very rude propensity to interrupt people.

At their March Directions 2011 Summit, IDC estimated that there are over 2 Billion mobile phones out there, 20% of which are smartphones capable of running over 2.3 million apps. Smartphone shipments are expected to outpace laptop shipments this year--smartphones that are increasingly video-enabled with high-speed networks (4G, WiFi) and social apps like Facetime. This increasingly video-ready mobile world will only accelerate the Social UC trend.

So how can you get started with Social UC? From our own experience, there are several entry points that can most quickly deliver real value to your organization:

* enable a more effective workforce: use online meetings and softphones to reduce travel and telephony costs while making it easier to meet with colleagues wherever they may be.

* speed new idea generation: for example, use persistent group chats, broadcast tools, community expertise location and skill taps to extend participation in new product or service development

* deepen relationships with customers: for example, use online meetings that include audio and video, and find-me/follow-me universal (video-enabled) phone numbers, to create richer experiences between you and your customers

Many social UC implementations can start with an initial focus on reducing costs. And as the ROI quickly kicks in (in many instances, I've seen customer examples with full payback in less than 12 months), budget can be freed up to focus on strategic, transformational projects. So whether you're looking at UC tactically or at a more strategic level, a social UC approach can provide real benefits.

However real the benefits, at first blush, UC in general and social UC in particular can appear complex. To reduce that complexity, I recommend you have a frank conversation with your technology partner that includes the following questions:

* Where does social collaboration fit into your unified communications strategy? And how would it fit into the strategy you recommend for organizations like me?

* I have already made a lot of collaboration investments. Can I build these new capabilities on top of my existing tools?

* Can you show me specific examples of how organizations like mine are successfully using a Social UC (or UCC) approach? What are some easy ways that others have used to get started?

* Social technologies change fast. How will I know my investment won't be obsolete before it pays off?

* I'm scared of the security and governance risks. How do you take the special needs of my industry (such as financial services or government) into account when designing a solution?

What do you think? How important is UC to your broader collaboration strategy? What intersections between social business and UC are you seeing in your industry?