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Monday, August 11, 2008

"Can We Talk?" - The Future of UC and Business Telephony

August 10, 2008

“Can We Talk?”

- The Future of Business Telephony With UC

Art Rosenberg, The Unified-View

A few weeks ago I received a phone call out of the blue from Heidi Thornlow, the Human Resources Director of Didlake, a “social enterprise dedicated to enrich the lives of adults with disabilities.” She was concerned about the trends in business communications where it is becoming harder to have effective voice conversations with people and wanted to know how UC technology can help the problem. In particular, she felt that the younger generation of workers was becoming addicted to text messaging contacts that prevented more effective verbal interaction.

The HR View

Here is her description of two types of problems she has encountered, where the lack of voice conversation has had a negative impact on business operations:

“Employee A is a high school graduate and 22 years old. She was hired into the function of automated ADP Payroll processing. She is bright, but her preferred mode of communication for problem solving and conflict resolution is texting messages. She also uses texting during business hours to conduct personal business. Her co-workers have routinely complained to human resources that she is not a "team player" and her supervisor has coached her on the importance of improving customer service relationships with her co-workers. The employee has reported responsibility for training others in her job function, but clearly prefers to communicate electronically using a variety of different modalities.”

“Employee B is 50 years old and works in the human resources area. She prefers to use the telephone and face-to-face communication to resolve areas of conflict between employees. She has discerned within her line of business that email is necessary but is not always the best venue for communication between employees, particularly as it relates to solving problems. In fact, in a group meeting that occurred very recently, misunderstandings ensued between co-workers in the course of elaborate emails that were being communicated to a band of approximately 10 different employees. A meeting had to be called to gather all employees' in the same room to tease out the miscommunication and the issues, face to face.”

The IT View

Didlake’s IT Director, Ivy Tetreault, was also invited to comment on this situation:

“I think that Human Resources and policy making needs to come in to play here so that proper office etiquette is
defined and enforced. The problem with Employee A was that she did not understand the issue; she truly believed
that her methods were fine and it was very difficult to enlighten her. With no policy or official statement from Didlake
it was hard to not look like it was my personal preference (as IT Director) that she answer her phone”
“IT comes into play with researching and implementing the most cost-effective technological options, but I think
IT also has a stake in how employees use/misuse their computers with other types of communication, particularly
personal, and those policies are generally written and approved, but not really enforced. It is also my understanding
that some companies are OK with texting and all day use of communication websites such as Myspace, which makes
it more difficult for other companies to oppose such practices.”

Looking Ahead

It is clear that there are times when voice and video conversations (TelePresence) become important in business activities, but with more people texting each other and exchanging emails as consumers, there needs to be a better way to selectively and seamlessly exploit both asynchronous and synchronous forms of business contact between people who can’t meet face-to-face.

Need For Both UC Technology and New “Etiquette”

It should be no surprise that person-to-person business contacts, which are more about exchanging information than socializing, are likely to minimize the use of phone calls that increasingly end up in “voice mail jail.” Telephone answering voice mail was a primitive method for converting a failed real-time call attempt into a useful, but asynchronous, voice message. However, with telephony presence (“busy”) information, multimodal mobile “smart-phones,” IM, and “click-to-call” contact initiation, more efficient real-time contacts are becoming available for both callers and callees.

UC technologies are aimed at providing seamless flexibility in changing from one communication modality to another, through what I have called “transmodal communication.” It is not enough to simply have various different, device-dependent modes of communication available to a user, but they must also be able to dynamically switch from one mode to another, as the situation requires. This would allow users to exploit all forms of messaging for information exchange, but easily add or transition to a voice discussion whenever appropriate.

In talking to the Didlake HR Director, it was clear that simply having “policies” for communication would not be enough. Even with new technologies in place, we will still need natural courtesies of communication etiquette to smooth out the contact relationship between the person who wants to have a conversation and the other party.

Integrating Voice Calls With Text Messaging Exchanges

A common approach being taken today, where IM capabilities are available to employees , is to not blindly place a phone call to a location-based phone number that may be busy or won’t be answered for a variety of reasons, but rather to make real-time contact with a less interruptive, more “virtual,” IM exchange first. Then, with mutual agreement, the parties can switch to a voice call (e.g., “click-to-call/talk”). However, even then there must be a comfortable procedural etiquette for both parties to follow. Maybe voice connections within a current text messaging exchange between people who are already communicating will simply start with a polite message that says, “Can we talk?”

Within an existing IM exchange, the response can be an immediate or scheduled voice connection. Within an asynchronous email exchange, it could escalate to either a real-time IM exchange and/or a call connection, based on presence availability.

It is the traditional ”blind” and interruptive person-to-person call attempts that cause the greatest amount of time wasting, because busy people are just not that “available” for ad hoc voice conversations, even with mobile devices. Since direct person-to-person asynchronous messaging has become so universal, initial business contacts don’t have to necessarily be with a real-time voice conversation. With UC and telephony presence ‘federation,” however, we should expect ad hoc phone call attempts in the future to be replaced by simple and contextually “intelligent” contact procedures. This can include orchestrating an “as soon as possible” callback option based on presence availability, when both parties are indeed available, rather than wasting time unnecessarily with frustrating back and forth caller messaging ("telephone tag") or frequent hang-ups and retries.

UC Policies Role For HR?

All the press about enterprise UC implementation has focused primarily on the enterprise “decision makers” for organizational areas that would be most affected, i.e., line-of-business management and IT technology management. However, the individual end users, who must also directly benefit from UC in order to gain practical acceptance and adoption of new technologies, have to be represented also. Since HR is an enterprise administration point for supplying employee work environment needs, perhaps they can include overseeing policies for effective use of UC capabilities as part of their responsibilities, especially for off-premise teleworkers.

The inquiry from the HR Director from Didlake suggests that HR will get involved in how people do their jobs most effectively, and understanding new UC communications usage will certainly play a strong role there. In effect, HR can be a practical buffer between business management, IT management, and the individual end user in terms of defining the UC requirements for different job categories, as well as for different work environments of the organization’s end users.

What Do You Think?

You can contact me at: or (310) 395-2360.

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