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Taking 'Unified Communications' Beyond Unification
Networking today is based on standardized (largely IP) technology. It's increasingly dominated by the universality of the Internet, an information platform and conduit that can underpin nearly any kind of communications or collaboration. It's focused on smartphones whose multiple apps let the devices seamlessly switch between the older "call" or "SMS" world and a host of these Internet communications tools. How much more unified does it have to be? No more, unless we're talking about "UCC" and not "UC."
If we're a typical smartphone-wielding consumer or worker, we might have a half-dozen ways of communicating with others, ranging from social media to legacy calls and SMS. Most of these ways will work either from our smartphone or from another Internet-ready device, including a desktop system. If I want to talk with John or Samantha, I probably know which of these mechanisms for connection we happen to share -- and if not I probably have that information in my Contacts app. Even if I have a dozen different communications options, all of them work on whatever I'm likely to be holding or sitting in front of. I have two different mail clients, a phone, and two message clients running on my smartphone, and I can manage the combination.
The point of this is that our quest for relevance in UC/UCC starts by taking the "UC" part off the table. If what we're talking about is pairwise communications, then further unification isn't at all required, nor will it likely ever be.
All About the Context
Collaboration is all about getting a group of people to share a context. It might involve only conversations, or it might involve sharing of video (telepresence) or documents. The variability in the context being shared pulls us away from some forms of connectivity -- you can't easily read a PDF as an SMS, nor can you contribute comments on something easily when others can visualize it and you can't. In addition, the practical resources for sharing context are different depending on the platform. Try to write code on a smartphone and you'll see what I mean. Collaboration, then, is about collecting people into a context using a suitable platform.
This fits with the way that Web conferencing works today. You can connect via a browser or app and have voice communications and document sharing. You can add your video presence. You can call in if you don't have Internet access or simply can't look at the screen because you're doing something like driving a car. But the Web conferencing experience shows where the concept of simply permitting multiple service paths to the collaborative center falls short of market needs.
You can record a Web conference, but what users would really like is to have the recording sync with the document, and have document change management be able to link changes to specific comments. A moderator could perhaps make changes to a document based on the comments of someone who had dialed in or was otherwise unable to edit directly. Then, as they review the document, users would like to be able to pull the page or-slide comments directly from the appropriate document editing software, not play back a whole recording.
Video presents another conference challenge. The number one reason people don't like videoconferences, as shown in my own surveys, is that they don't like how they look. In multiparty discussions, though, solid evidence shows that having a visual on at least the key players will move the group more quickly to consensus. That accounts for the interest conference users have in animated avatars versus direct video. That's especially true among youth or anyone with a strong gaming interest. The ideal is an avatar whose expressions and movement mirror the video image from the camera. Technically, an avatar system could reduce the bandwidth requirements for conference participation, too, and since a record of the movement vectors needed to sync an avatar with the person it represents is very small, that too could be linked to documents being reviewed.
Creating Collaborative Links
However we represent our collaborative team visually, we still have to link this to the scope of "documents" that might be involved. Yes, much of the collaboration is centered on the classic word processing, spreadsheets, or presentation tools, but even in this space a single vendor (Microsoft) doesn't completely dominate. Other graphic arts, video creation, and software development tools are also the center of collaborative work. What's needed here is a kind of metadata linkage, something that would allow the embedding of collaborative comments, video, avatars, or whatever. We have metadata embedded in almost every app, including the ability to reference URLs. Why not use that to create a collaborative link?
Making collaboration effective is very difficult if the things we're collaborating on don't have any explicit recognition of the collaborative process, beyond tracking changes or doing markups. Much easier would be to define a set of collaborative process links and make those a part of metadata, allowing us to create a common collaborative framework. If we do that, we can save at least the UCC part of "UC/UCC."
For more perspective on the role of context in collaboration, attend the Wednesday, March 29, summit on the lawn session at Enterprise Connect 2017, "Cognitive & Contextual -- Can AI Disrupt Enterprise Collaboration?" Enterprise Connect 2017 runs March 27 to 30 in Orlando, Fla. Check out the full Enterprise Connect conference program here, and register today using the code NOJITTER to receive $300 off an Entire Event or Tue-Thu Conference pass, or get a free Expo Plus Pass.
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