Presence: Powering Productivity - InformationWeek
10:44 AM
Melanie Turek
Melanie Turek

Presence: Powering Productivity

Among networking, telephony, and applications vendors, presence is paramount today. Once considered merely an underlying technology to instant messaging, presence—being able to see, in real time, where someone is, how he or she would like to be reached, and even what he or she is doing—has become its own killer app (or, one might argue, killer infrastructure), one that we predict will go well beyond instant messaging and deep into the enterprise.

Presence has always been a part of how people work, whether in person or by telephone (the telephone’s “busy signal” is, of course, an unsophisticated presence indicator). But these days, 90% of employees work away from headquarters, whether in remote offices, on the road, or from home, according to Nemertes’ latest research. That means that for most of us, the old ways of doing business no longer apply: We can’t congregate around the water cooler for an impromptu meeting or ask the person in the next cubicle where a colleague is.

That’s where presence technology comes in, to recreate what it’s like for employees to work in the same place, at the same time. Instant messaging is the most obvious example; by allowing people to see when their “buddies” are online, IM lets them communicate in real time. But IM’s use of presence information is rudimentary. More advanced are real-time communications dashboards, the term Nemertes coined to describe soft phones that leverage Voice over IP (VOIP) technology to do more than just enable voice communications. These products, available from telephony vendors such as Avaya, Nortel and Siemens, let users see who’s available when, and how they prefer to be reached—whether by telephone (and at which number), instant message or e-mail.

Meanwhile, software vendors, including Microsoft, IBM Lotus, and dozens of smaller companies, envision a world in which presence is embedded in all a user’s applications, including Office and back-end systems such as enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management, and supply chain software. That will allow an employee who’s working in, say, SAP, to see who else is working in the application, at the same time. Alternatively, someone reading a white paper written by a co-worker could simply right-click on the author’s name, see whether he or she is available and how (by phone, e-mail or IM) and instantly get in touch to ask a question or discuss a point. The goal in either case is to enable real-time, contextual collaboration.

Although many companies are intrigued with the idea of embedding presence in other enterprise applications (collaborative and not), most are one to three years away from actually doing that. What’s more, 42% of companies say they have no plans for embedding presence throughout the enterprise.

“I think it needs to be a part of everything we do, so you always know what someone’s availability is and how to reach them—it’s key to a successful environment,” says one communications director. But, he adds, that’s still about one to two years out inside his company.

What’s keeping companies from implementing presence more quickly? Most companies can’t measure the return on investment—and they’ll need to do so in order to convince the budget keepers to agree to changing the way the company and its employees work. The lack of standards, privacy and security concerns are also of issue.

Part of the hold-up is the technology. SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) and its IM counterpart, SIMPLE (SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions) are the clear standards in the development arena today, but they still lag many vendors’ proprietary code when it comes to rich features and security.

But the lack of interoperability around presence is also a business decision on the part of the consumer IM vendors, who fear for their very existence if integration happens. These aren’t software vendors—they’re in the advertising business. They deliver free software to their customers, and eyeballs to their advertisers. It’s a numbers game. By remaining proprietary, the vendors ensure that users will have to continue to subscribe to their services in order to maintain contact with their existing buddies, also on that service. Once interoperability exists, IM users can choose one IM client—and there go all those eyeballs on all the others.

Today, Microsoft is leading the interoperability charge with the consumer services, supporting AOL, Yahoo and MSN on Live Communications Server; other vendors may follow suit, or they may opt to let their customers piggy-back on the LCS offering. As for inter-enterprise interoperability, or federation, more and more vendors are supporting open standards and cutting deals with LCS. But out-of-the-box interoperability is still 2-3 years away.

In the meantime, companies can try to tackle an even bigger obstacle to widespread enterprise presence adoption: cultural resistance. Many IT executives worry that presence, when used enterprise-wide, will create more problems than it will solve.

“It’s intriguing, but I have concerns about the types of problems that could result,” says an IT executive in charge of collaboration at his company. “Like people getting deluged with instant requests. Sometimes people need time to formulate a reasonable response. Right now I don’t think that’s a problem, it will help us reduce E-mails and such. But down the road, I worry.”

When they do implement presence, companies need to seriously consider the controls they place on users’ access. For instance, if a company is simply using IM as a stand-alone application, it may make sense to place restrictions on who can message the CEO, as well as others in the organization. But if the company is now integrating presence with e-mail—and as it integrates with other collaborative and enterprise apps—such restrictions may be less useful, or at least less conducive to open-door business. (Imagine, for instance, the emotional, cultural, and morale ramifications of not allowing employees to send an e-mail to a corporate executive, even if he or she isn’t the person who actually reads them.)

Many of the managers we speak to about presence are concerned that it’s a productivity drain, not a productivity boost (this goes for line-of-business managers as well as IT managers—and it’s the line-of-business managers who need to buy in for this to really work). But embedded presence offers even more fundamental changes in the way people work, and therefore, more challenges to overcome.

The idea that drives presence—that all your co-workers, and eventually even partners, suppliers and customers, can see not only where you are but, theoretically, what you’re doing—may be a tough one for many Americans to swallow. It’s hard enough for most of us to accept the fact that our cell phones should be attached to our hips almost 24/7 (indeed, people still complain about this phenomenon so often, one could argue we haven’t really accepted it at all). Take that a step further—people can not only reach you whenever they need you, wherever you are, but they can also “see” exactly what it is you’re doing—and people start to get nervous.

And yet, the fact that your manager and co-workers know what you’re doing while you’re on the job is hardly new. We think that the biggest resistance is actually the result of another recent change, one also enabled by technology, and one that’s now driving the need for presence capabilities: the remote, and newly independent, worker. As employees have moved away from headquarters, they’ve often moved away from prying eyes—and many of them like it that way. They may not be so willing to go back.

Finally, there is the issue of controlling who knows what about whom. While it may be perfectly reasonable for a manager to expect to know where his or her reports are at all times during the official work day (and, in well-run organizations, for the reverse to be true as well), it isn’t automatically okay for that knowledge to extend to off-duty hours. More troubling to many IT executives and line-of-business managers is the notion that the rank-and-file will know where the CEO is at any given time, and also what he or she is up to.

Ultimately, however, when it comes to the widespread adoption of enterprise presence, it’s not so much a question of “if,” but “when.” The barriers are partly related to technology: Knowing everyone’s whereabouts and availability within your company is valuable; knowing the whereabouts and availability of everyone you do business with, more so. But corporate culture—indeed, the very way American knowledge workers do what they do, day in and day out—will have to change. When it does, this viral technology will alter not just the way we work, but the very way we interact, on and off the job.

Sr. Vice President and Founding Partner, Melanie Turek, is a reknowned expert in enterprise application integration software, collaboration technologies, and business intelligence at Nemertes Research. For the past 10 years, Ms. Turek has worked closely with hundreds of senior IT executives across a range of industries. She also has in-depth experience with business-process engineering, project management, and productivity and performance enhancement.

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