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Quo Vadis, Unified Communications?

This is the time of year when we traditionally look ahead to what’s coming next. Given that, and given the holiday season that’s upon us, I think it’s fitting to open with a question, phrased in Latin. “Quo Vadis” means “where are you going”, and that’s what we need to consider now, and for UC/UCC that starts by tossing something away—the “U”—and replacing it with a “V”.

There is absolutely nothing unified about communications today, and contending with that truth is our mission for 2023. This is where my “V” comes in: i stands for “virtual,” and the coming transformation in communications and collaboration both targets “virtuality” and accommodates it.

If you think about it, the pandemic and lockdown solidified a trend that was already developing, the notion of the “virtual organization.” A company isn’t centered around a physical site any longer, it’s a collection of collections of workers, partners, customers, advisors; a collection of roles. What collects and organizes these roles is the communications piece, and the goal is to create what we could call a “rolespace,” i.e. a virtual place where everyone can perform their role effectively. That, in fact, is the central requirement for a virtual organization, and one we tend to miss.

When we talk about UC/UCC tools, we’re almost always talking about tools that extend person-to-person communications. Voice, video, conferencing systems, are all about making us believe at some level that we’re in each other’s presence. OK, maybe we need those things, but consider for a moment your most recent “real” collaborative meeting. Suppose you could see each other and talk, but that was all that could be done. How long would it be before somebody had to draw on a board, show a screen? Rolespace is more than people

communicating, it’s a space for generating and capturing the information content of a collaborative process, the stuff that lets us do things. We’ve centered a whole industry on the wrong thing.

Over the last couple of decades, we’ve augmented things like call centers with application hooks so that information could be injected into collaboration. Then some companies have tried to take applications and inject communications tools—think screen sharing. Neither of these is ideal, because what we need is to define the rolespace.

That could and should have been the target of the metaverse concept. If we think of a metaverse as a virtual reality, then we should be able to model a rolespace as a kind of metaverse. Information plus processes equals rolespace, and you could surely foster that sort of assembly line, with its contributors and raw data, each injected at the proper place and in the proper context, within a metaverse virtual space. If we did, then a collaborative session wouldn’t be defined and constrained by the communications mechanism, or the applications and data. The processes would define it, -- which is what everyone who’s ever attempted to collaborate realizes is the right approach. What we’re trying to do is the ultimate guide of any supporting technology.

So do we all run out and fit ourselves for VR goggles? No, because rolespace viewing should be possible with whatever viewing technology the process participants find optimal for the situation. Surround sound so everyone sounds like they are in a specific place in our virtual conference room? If that’s helpful in the rolespace-hosted process we’re trying to support, there’s technology available to do that. But none of this stuff should be mandatory or else our virtual rolespace ends up being limited by the participants, or the participants are limited by its rules. The model of the process frames the relationships, and each participant should be able to see things in the best way for them under their current circumstances. If any participant can’t fully engage with what’s currently available to them (they can’t read the whiteboard on their phone) then either the process has to proceed without them, or they have to rejoin with adequate facilities.

What we have, then, is a rolespace that’s mapped to a virtual reality accessible by the tools established via the rolespace's process requirements. A metaverse is a convenient way of putting a modern label on this, but you could get to something similar (but not as generally useful) by integrating application and communications facilities, then adding in scheduling and participation rules. If we viewed UC/UCC as VC/VCC we’d realize that we have to construct that unity of rolespace and virtual reality around the process we need to achieve our goal.

So why haven’t we done that? The answer is that UC/UCC grew up with a giant boat anchor tied around its neck, the anchor of capital investment. We bought communications products, and we depreciate them over a fixed period, which encourages us to use them for that period. Sellers built these products, and their factories, tools, and human capital were based on them, so they want to leverage the past rather than toss it aside. There’s a lesson there, and it relates to the modern concept of UCaaS.

The key to turning UC/UCC into VC/VCC in 2023 is to offer it as a service. For the buyer, as-a-service means no sunk costs, no capital stakes driven into the ground to tie you down. For the seller, it means focusing on features and functions that relate to what the buyer is trying to do, not on tools that the buyer has to figure out to optimize your own value proposition and sales. The fact that we can get to VC/VCC via UCaaS is the latter’s most significant benefit, and it’s one that we are likely to see exploited, really exploited, in 2023.