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10/3/2006
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Melanie Turek
Melanie Turek
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Collaborative Mash-Up: Integrating Communications and Business Apps

Last week WebEx introduced WebEx Connect, a hosted platform that allows existing software to be integrated with other collaboration and business applications. Back-end business process integration like this is the next wave of unified communications, and it's one way UC will change how companies, and people, do business.  

Here's why. 

One of the key benefits of unified communications is integration. Today, for most vendors and user organizations, the focus is still on integrating the communications applications themselves—IM; audio, video and Web conferencing; voice calls and related features; and, of course, presence (both PC and telephony). Frankly, for a lot of companies, that’s hard enough, and it will continue to take time.

On the vendor side, protocols need to become truly standard, partnerships must be made and supported, and business models will have to adjust to accommodate best-of-breed as well as all-in-one scenarios. (Because, let’s face it: vendors always say they want to offer their customers choice, but they’d much rather have those customers spend as much of their IT dollars with them as possible.)

On the IT side, companies first need to develop an enterprise-wide collaboration & communications strategy that includes deploying unified communications dashboards, so that employees can click to call, chat and collaborate via PC and video. Then they can start worrying about integrating those same unified communications into their back-office and enterprise applications. But some leading-edge vendors are already offering solutions.

For instance, last week WebEx introduced WebEx Connect, a hosted platform that allows existing software to be integrated with other collaboration and business applications. The company is geared up to support developers with a full set of on-demand software services to address such issues as workflow integration and cross-company data access. The goal is to give collaboration applications to knowledge workers -- applications that are integrated with business processes, and which can easily tap and contribute to corporate data.

The WebEx Connect Platform comprises the WebEx Connect grid and the WebEx Connect workspace, which run on the WebEx MediaTone network. Unlike other platforms that mandate data migration to a proprietary source, WebEx Connect does not discriminate the targets or sources of data, nor require that all applications are “on-demand.” My colleague, Roopam Jain, calls these composite applications the business equivalent of consumer mashups. One of the nicest things about the service is that it will let companies integrate hosted and on-net applications, an increasingly critical issue for IT executives whose infrastructure includes both software and services.

In a similar vein, Siemens recently demo’d an integration of OpenScape with Salesforce.com via a partnership with Accenture. This particular alliance lets users embed their OpenScape communications tools—including presence information and voice and chat capabilities—into their CRM application, and in such a way as to highlight the contacts and information needed for that particular take or activity. So, for instance, if a user is working on an account for Acme Corp., all his contacts at and relating to Acme Corp. will appear in his buddy list. He’ll also get access to Acme Corp.’s account history, any recent contacts the company had, and so on.

What’s more, the integration lets companies embed OpenScape directly into its CRM processes so that calls or IMs are triggered by certain pre-defined events. For instance, if a customer contacts a bank with a request to close an account, the system could ping a senior-level account executive, then place a call between him and the customer, while popping up a record of account activity on his screen.

This type of back-end business process integration is the next wave of unified communications, and it's one of the really cool ways UC will change how companies, and people, do business. You may not be ready to implement it yet—but when you are, there should be plenty if options to choose from. The key to increased development, of course, is open standards—without them, the integration just won’t work (or, it will, but only after costly, time-consuming and proprietary consulting work). SOA should also help.

So as you start to deploy unified communications enterprise wide, make sure you consider how and when you want to integrate with other enterprise applications—then ask your vendors how they’ll support that effort.

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