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Time to Schedule Calendar Upgrades

Just a few years ago, every UC solution was an island. While UC technology offered improved clarity and new modalities for rich collaboration and communication, its use was restricted to internal teams. But at the same time, work teams started to include external participants with increasing frequency, requiring that the young technology adapt to new organizational needs.

Video vendors first broadly addressed inter-organizational collaboration by adding external participant links, and now teams have a variety of options for involving remote participants in rich, collaborative UC sessions. The lowest common denominator tends to be the link with download, which enables external participants to join. WebRTC offers ways to engage without clients, and Skype for Business users can federate with each other as well as with users on the consumer Skype network.

The primary barrier to inter-organizational collaboration is no longer the collaboration technology, but in finding an available time among the participants to collaborate.

That's So Yesterday
It's a bit ironic that the calendar is the weak link because it went digital prior to UC. Remember those Franklin and Day-Timer calendar organizers? They are indeed distant memories, as most users now enjoy desktop and mobile calendar applications. This should facilitate finding and negotiating meeting times, but it doesn't help much.

It is shocking how primitive calendaring remains in the modern enterprise. Online systems generally make it easy to find a time when internal participants are available, though the approach of searching for an open slot can push appointments weeks or months into the future. Scheduling across organizations is another matter. That task remains very complex, and we've seen no meaningful improvements for some time.

Popular enterprise calendar systems have a ton of information, but little intelligence. Calendars force us to either pick a specific time or just add a note. For example, you can't use them to book a floating appointment such as "two hours a day in the office." Nor can you auto-book with a deadline such as to complete an hour-long task before close-of-business Wednesday. These are not exactly rocket science algorithms, yet may as well be for end users.

Calendar interoperability remains limited, particularly with regards to finding a suitable time to meet. Despite all the online and mobile technologies we utilize, we still invariably resort to negotiating times via manual processes. It's a huge productivity leak that is growing even bigger as teams become more distributed and we increase our usage of collaboration systems.

To be fair, it is impressive that we can send invitations to each other thanks to broad support of the iCalendar file format (.ics) across major systems, including Outlook/Exchange, Google Calendar, Apple Calendar, IBM Notes, Mozilla Thunderbird, and Novell GroupWise. It's a robust achievement that works with multiple devices, time zones, languages, operating systems, and fields (who, when, where, why, confirmed, tentative).

These appointment invitations are fine when the proposed time is agreeable or for coordinating meeting details regarding a previously agreed upon time. It's the agreed upon part that does not work well. iCalendar does not negotiate. It offers a Yes, No, or Tentative -- with no Reschedule option.

Happy Days Ahead?
Listening to the vendors you might forget that this problem exists. Promises that we can spend less time in email, and that we can richly engage with customers, partners, and suppliers, ignores the scheduling overhead. Distributed teams have different time zones and holidays, and participants are all juggling priorities that range from critical deadlines to siesta breaks.

Cloud-based services make sharing calendars easier than ever, and services such as ScheduleOnce can manage team calendars, but checking each calendar manually isn't particularly productive. I had hopes for, one of the more promising startups in this space. Unfortunately BlackBerry acquired, and then forgot it. New intelligent protocols won't come until the calendar gets smarter. For example, we should be able to specify fixed and variable appointments, deadlines, locations, and priorities. Calendars should understand location and commutes. In fact, commuting type (driving or riding) can impact the type of work a user can get done -- if any -- during that time block, and the calendar should be able to understand that as part of the scheduling process.

It's time to update the calendar. If this ever comes it will likely be between implementations of the same systems -- perhaps Microsoft will update how Outlook negotiates times between organizations using the software. Eventually, it needs to come across calendar solutions. We just need to get Microsoft, Google, and Apple to find a time to meet on this. Or, perhaps, we can teach pigs to fly.

Dave Michels is a contributing editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.

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