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In Search of a Unified Communication Model

Published
  • April 18 2003, 1:00am EDT

It's early in the morning and quite typically I'm running late. As I'm running out the door, I grab my cell phone and pager. As usual, my cell phone vibrates with new messages as I turn it on while hopping into the car. While on the drive in to work, I pick up my cell phone's voice mail and check the voice mail at my office. When I arrive at the client site of my current consulting engagement, I check my client-provided voice mail. As I'm listening to those voice mail messages, I boot up the client-provided PC. Last night's e- mails start to come in as well as a few old and unsuccessful "RU There?" messages from the instant messenger system I use. Later, as the day progresses, I'll check my office Web-enabled e-mail and when I get home at night I'll pick up my personal e-mail.

This daily litany is driven not by the need to communicate but by the sheer quantity and diversity of the communication tools employed today. Personally, these tools can be totaled as follows: three voice mail-enabled phones, three e-mail accounts, one pager and one instant messenger, for a grand total of eight, count them, eight different, incompatible and not-close-to-being-integrated communication tools. What's amazing about this is that I am no where near being a techno Bill out of a Dilbert cartoon with this multitude of devices velcroed to my belt. I am merely a technical-savvy guy trying to use currently available and popular technology as efficiently as possible.

My career as a consultant definitely exacerbates this communication jumble, but I imagine many of you juggle a similar set of communication devices. How we arrived at this tangled morass is that each of these tools was originally developed as a time-saving communication device to meet a specific need. The problem rests not with any one of these tools but in their combined and collective use. In this case the old adage, "the sum of the parts is greater than the whole" is entirely backwards. In this situation, the whole is noticeably less than the sum of the parts. While each of these devices may facilitate efficient communication and be great time savers within its own niche, most of us don't live in a singular, controllable niche. The mobile, changeable world we live in requires a much broader approach to communication.

In order to achieve a unified communication model, a top-down approach needs to be taken. Communication vendors that will flourish in the future are those that are able to address a corporation's or individual's unified communication needs. At a high level, these needs are divided into two categories: synchronous and asynchronous. While the pervasive telephone has existed for over a century enabling two-way real-time voice communication, instant messaging (IM) and mobile instant messaging (m-IM) are growing in popularity. The asynchronous communications of voice mail and e-mail have become equally ubiquitous in this day and age with short message service (SMS) and multimedia message service (MMS) up and coming. Haven't heard of SMS or MMS yet? Just take a look at those tech-savvy teens swapping text messages or pictures on their video-enabled cell phones.

The evolution to a unified communication model will begin with integration. The vision here is simple; communication devices that don't simply facilitate human communication but can themselves communicate with other communication devices. This vision will begin to be achieved when you are able to send a high-priority e-mail and have it automatically routed to the recipient's instant message system or translated into an SMS message if they are not currently accessing their e-mail and able to respond. Similarly, you should not need to have your secretary read an important e-mail over your cell phone while you are on the road, it should be automatically translated from text to voice and either delivered to your cell phone's voice mailbox or your e-mail depending on your preference.

Some of this integration is already occurring today. PDAs and cell phones are being merged on products such as the T-Mobile Pocket PC. While this is a step in the right direction, this level of integration is more an exercise in hardware integration than functional integration. While devices like this handle both e-mail and voice communication, the functional integration between the two is limited primarily to the address book. While the voice mail box and e-mail box on these combo PDA/cell phones are separated physically by a transistor or two, they still remain an ocean of functionality apart.

Another step in the right direction is advanced voice mail systems like Wildfire by Wildfire Communications. This voice mail system keeps track of where you are and can route phone calls to you automatically regardless of whether you are at home, mobile or at an alternate site. It interacts with you via a rather efficient and advanced voice activated system. It also can differentiate between voice and fax communications, allowing one phone number to be used for both of these communication mediums. This is a good example of the integration potential and a look into the future of communication.

Implied within these examples, is the concept of presence. One of the requirements for unified messaging will be presence detection and indication. Communication devices must be able to detect and inform others regarding your location, availability and personal preferences. You may be currently sitting at your desk but don't want to be disturbed; in that case, all calls should be automatically moved into voice mail and any IM communication either rejected or sent directly into e-mail. Similarly, your office phone should be able to automatically forward calls to your cell phone when you are out of the office and traveling. The best example of this today is the buddy list on some IM products. The attributes in this list will typically tell other IM users who is online, where they are (i.e., home or office) and their current receptivity to messages. In short, your communication devices keep track of where you are and your current preferred choice for communication.

But while advances in unified communication begin to come to fruition, we should not just wait for the next greatest communication tool to appear before taking action. Corporations should begin now to look at their communication policies, strategy and their overall corporate culture to set a unified communication direction. As the communication choices increase in number but become blurred in function, important questions and issues will arise. Policy issues such as whether or not instant messaging falls under your corporate e-mail policy for appropriate behavior and record retention will surface. From a change management perspective, companies need to weigh the benefits of a new communication medium with the potential confusion on which medium to use and the time spent managing each distinct tool. And finally culturally, corporations need to decide if tools like IM or SMS foster a reactionary culture and permit the appropriate rigor in the decision-making process.

A unified communication model has tremendous potential to improve personal productivity, improve relations with customers and partners, and increase corporate flexibility and responsiveness. While new tools and whole new communication mediums will continue to appear in the marketplace, companies should begin by setting an overall communication strategy as the context for evaluating future communication tools.

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