Unified Communications Goes Social

Facebook-style interaction adds the missing link to enterprise voice and video integration.
You can have enterprise social software without unified communications, but no unified communications technology player worth its salt is without an enterprise social media strategy.

I've been thinking about this issue in the context of my attending the Enterprise Connect conference in Orlando earlier this month, where the vendors of unified communications and collaboration software put a huge focus on the social features of their products. UC usually starts with voice, video, and the unification of calls and conferencing with the enterprise data network. Part of the point is to make voice and video truly integrated with the rest of the activities the enterprise network supports, including customer service, document sharing, knowledge management, email, presence detection, and instant messaging. From a UC point of view, social interaction is just another interesting thing you can do with that data connection.

Even if technologically it's just adding another feature, social may be the way UC technology gets widespread appeal, or at least gets used more effectively. UC concepts and products have been kicking around well before Twitter and Facebook, but they've become more grounded over the past few years.

One of the first UC concepts I remember hearing a lot about was presence, usually expressed as the ability to see whether someone is at or away from his or her desk, on the phone, on the computer, or presenting a virtual do-not-disturb sign. With good mobile integration, those presence signals can be further enhanced to let you know when someone is traveling and where.

When you combine UC with enterprise social networking, you get something more -- the ability to see who these people are, who else they're connected to, and what they're working on. Given a good activity stream, you can get an idea of why they're traveling and how busy they are on this trip. If you don't know them well, maybe you get to know them better by looking at their profile on a corporate portal and perhaps even following links to LinkedIn or Facebook before you pick up the phone.

One reason for reaching outside is that people often participate more enthusiastically and show more personality in informal consumer social media than in any enterprise collaboration environment. Social software for the enterprise is trying hard to be more inviting and less boring, winning more and better use of corporate collaboration technologies. But what's more exciting are the possibilities for new socially enabled modes of collaboration.

One of the most intriguing crossover products I've seen is Avaya's Flare, a communications control panel implemented initially as an Android tablet you keep on your desk to coordinate multiple modes of communication. The Flare lets you drag and drop profile pictures of your contacts to set up a call, conference call, or videoconference. If some of the people on the call need to have a side conversation, the call administrator can drag and drop them into a subgroup, let them confer privately for a few minutes, and then bring them back into the main conference call later.

There are other scenarios for customer service, where social integration makes it easier for a call center representative to pull up a profile of a customer or reach out to other people in the enterprise who can answer a customer's questions.

Outside of the UC world, of course, plenty of other enterprise social software innovators want to help you create your own internal Facebook or Twitter and imitate the streamlined style of collaboration they represent. These folks may make it easy for you to find a contact's phone number, but not place the call.

For UC to claim to be truly unified these days, it must incorporate social media.