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Convergence: Overused Buzzword or Holy Grail?

Convergence. The word had so much promise 10 years ago, when it was being floated as the Holy Grail of communications. "Purchase our wares and you too will find the nirvana, the panacea, the solution to all that ails you--convergence!" But what happened? Much like the stock market, we have a lost decade where few companies have realized the massive advantages that were promised to them.

Very early on, the hardware manufacturers adopted the term "convergence" as a way to move businesses away from the traditional voice PBX companies (i.e., Nortel and Avaya) towards the traditional data companies (i.e., Cisco.) And to a certain degree, the strategy worked--with Cisco moving from a new entrant in the voice world to market leadership in under 10 years.

It is easy to map the evolution of this trend against the OSI Model, with each version of Convergence, from version 1.0 on up, corresponding with a different layer of the stack.

These iterations, again driven by the hardware folks, were focused first on the physical layer. Putting voice and data over the same wire promised huge cost savings, both with local support cost and long distance savings. Once reality set in, it became clear early on that the savings on both accounts were drastically overstated.

With that strategy called in question, the market began to push the concept that the true value of Convergence was up the stack. The benefits of LAN and WAN convergence continue to be pumped out there, but the real focus in the last few years has been on the convergence of applications. How do we get the management of our voice conversations coordinated with our email and chat conversations? How do we get Outlook to integrate with our PBX?

And despite going all the way up the stack, we are still sitting here with that lost decade. UC sales continue to disappoint and future projections are not promising for the traditional UC players.

It is clear to me where the market missed the boat. It is in the definition of Convergence from the get-go. To properly understand Convergence as it should be, the focus has to shift from the convergence of technology to the convergence of people. What happens when people converge? The world changes. And while that might sound a little hyperbolic, the principles should not be underestimated.

Don't let me be misinterpreted. Convergence of networks, technology, and applications can be a huge driver of human convergence. Certainly we have seen an exponential explosion of technologies driving human convergence over the last few centuries. Or even decades if you consider the power of the Internet. The key is to understand the technology as a means and not an end.

Much has been written about the effect of Social Media on the events in the Middle East over the last few years. We have seen revolution break out in multiple countries, oftentimes with at least partial credit given to Social Media as an important aspect. But it wasn't Social Media that brought about revolution--it was people coming together (converging) in the streets to demand change.

The distinction, while subtle, really does matter. It is easy as a consultant to focus on the tools, but the real power lies in what people can do when they come together (converge) to meet business challenges. This IS where the Holy Grail of communications technology is located.

Once we understand that Convergence is about people coming together, with a common purpose of driving the objectives of the enterprise, the rest is easy. We find that with this understanding, technology improvements fall into one of the categories below:

1) No brainer--Positioned with the proper support from the business, there is little opposition to moving forward with technology improvements. Even in tough budget years, if truly understood, the benefits are so obvious that there is support across the board. We see this all the time in the area of mobility. When you consider the effect of mobile communications and related applications on business processes, the results can be astounding; mobility can become not only an asset, but a competitive advantage.

2) Unnecessary--When addressing Convergence from the people side, many times "technical convergence" is not really needed. The desired results can be achieved with existing tools and networks. Evaluating technology by itself will rarely result in that type of finding.

For instance, in a recent interview with Phybridge CEO John Croce, we discussed how their customers are implementing UC applications on separate physical networks. While traditional thinking had us believing that voice and data should run over the same physical network, Phybridge's approach is the opposite. There are myriad reasons why that makes sense for their customers--but the point is that Convergence doesn't always require a wholesale changeout of infrastructure.

The trick is communicating the message in a way that is easily understood and helps folks break away from their limited vision of communications as just being about phones. Otherwise, our quest for the Holy Grail is just us skipping around, banging coconuts together a la Monty Python.

I hate buzzwords and am sad to see convergence relegated to the realm of a Buzzword Bingo card along with "paradigm", "metrics", "touch-points", and "no brainer." (Well, maybe "no brainer" is OK...)

I say we resurrect it, but this time with a capital C-- Convergence. Focused on people, where it should have been all along.