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Sure, Social Will Replace UC--But in Name Only

In her most recent post, Blair Pleasant asks whether UC will be replaced by social media. I agree with her that unified communications isn't going anywhere--as she says, "UC provides the presence and IM capabilities, real time voice capabilities, point to point and multipoint communications, the ability to launch into an audio, web, or video conference--all from within a business process or application...."

But that's what people have been saying about UC for years, and for most companies it is nowhere near a reality yet. As Blair notes, if you now layer on "social," you will enhance "the use of the new social and collaboration capabilities that organizations have begun using." But that assumes that most companies already have the full-blown UC capabilities we've all been crowing about. And they don't.

All this is, really, is re-branding. IBM has made lousy inroads into the UC market; although Lotus Sametime and Connections have been around for years and are very good at what they do, the vendor has never had much of a story around voice, and that has hurt it, a lot. So the move to "Social Business" makes marketing sense. Same with Cisco’s emphasis on "collaboration"; the term sets them apart from competitors like Microsoft and Avaya--or at least it did, until those vendors also began using "collaboration" with abandon. I am looking forward to hearing the case studies in Blair's session at Enterprise Connect, but for most organizations, social business and true collaboration require a lot more than technology change. Just because vendors are pushing the new mantra doesn’t mean enterprises are ready to buy it.

The bottom line is, there is one overwhelming trend in business that is compelling companies to change the technology they deploy and the way in which they use it: The increasingly "virtual" nature of the workplace. More and more people routinely work away from a standard "office," whether from home or a hotel, the car or train, or any number of other locations outside normal business hours. This is impacting the kinds of tools we need to communicate and collaborate (two different acts, mind you). When companies don’t give employees what they need, employees find it on their own--hence the rise of the "consumerization of IT." Presence, conferencing, mobile comms and apps, and now social media--all can help keep remote workers connected.

But they can also overwhelm, and when I look at Blair’s breakdown of the ideal scenario--"UC tools such as email, voice, text, video, presence, IM, click-to-communicate, mobility, and unified client; collaboration technologies such as shared workspaces, meetings and conferencing; as well as social tools such as communities, user profiles, microblogging, and activity feeds...all coming together"--I get a little dizzy. So do a lot of the IT people I speak with. Of course, no one needs to use all those tools all the time--the point is to be able to pick and choose according to time and place, and within a particular business process. But human beings are creatures of habit, and essentially lazy; we will gravitate to what we’re used to and what we like, and leave the rest untouched, even if those other options could serve us better. And we don't like it when people change the look and feel of what we like or do (see: public outcry every time Facebook changes, well, anything). That's a two-pronged challenge for IT--even before we talk about more typical concerns like TCO and ROI.

Vendors like IBM, Cisco and Microsoft need people to buy into the latest and greatest technologies, because that's the only way they're going to grow in a saturated market (telephony, email, productivity apps--until UC, there was little reason for any company to upgrade any of them). If that means changing the name, so be it. But buyers still need to weigh the value of any investment, and since most organizations move about as fast as the Titanic when it comes to up-ending the way they do business (which is, effectively, what UC&C and Social Business are asking them to do), that's gonna take some time. A lot of time, if history is any guide at all.

My guess: By the time the majority of organizations have rolled out all the capabilities Blair mentions, it will be called something else again. And we will all be playing around with the next big thing, whatever that may be.