Telephone tag no more: An epiphany
Douglas Heintzman 060000Q98X firstname.lastname@example.org | | Tags:  social-business uc ics-strategy
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A few weeks ago I was in Toronto visiting some very nice people at the Lassonde school of Engineering at York University. Before going into visit with the Dean to discuss his vision for a new kind of engineering school, a few of us met in the local campus coffee shop to discuss issue prioritization. One of our group blurted out an apology for playing “telephone tag”. It hit me like a thunderbolt... “telephone tag” It was a world (actually two words I guess) that I used some number of years ago many times a day, but a word that I had not used or thought of for many many years. It was strange. Its was like some vivid childhood memory that gets provoked somehow and then suddenly hits you between the eyes... bright and vivid. I suddenly remembered that my life use to be dominated by telephone tag. I sat there and marveled that something that had been such a prominent fixture in my professional life had all but disappeared form my vocabulary.
The reason why telephone tag disappeared from my consciousness was that
IBM's culture of communication and collaboration had shifted quite
dramatically over the years. We are voracious users of Instant
Messaging, or in our vernacular “Sametimeing”. We have a culture where
no one calls someone out of the blue. Don't get me wrong, we still talk
to people on the phone, heck we live much of our lives on the phone,
phone conferences and increasingly video conferences. It is just that we
don't initiate a dialogue with a telephone. Our culture is such that we
“ping” people and ask them if they have 5 mins to chat. Most times the
answer is “no not right now” (our lives our often highly scheduled with
meetings running back to back) but there is always a “how about in 30
mins” or “how about at 4:00 this PM”. We negotiate a mutually agreeable
time and often tee up the topic ahead of time. When the time rolls
around we type “free now?” and then “calling” so they know it know who
it is. Admittedly this is somewhat redundant as the systems are smart
enough to notify a person who is calling, but still, for some reason, it
is part of our culture. The point is that you never just call someone if you don't know they are there, ready to answer the call and know that it is you calling.
As this epiphany hit me I was embarrassed to realize that I couldn't remember the last time I checked my office phonemail (it has been many years and for that matter had no idea what my password is or how to change it).
This episode got me to thinking. As we get exposed to new kinds of technology infrastructure our culture changes and we start taking new things for granted. Obviously the virtual rooting of phone calls to many different devices changes our behaviors. SMS and MMS and IM messaging changes our behaviors. Mobile telephony and computing in various forms changes our behavior. Video and web conferencing changes our behavior.
As all of these ideas were running around in my head a colleague forwarded me a Forrester paper titled “Social Enterprise Apps Redefine Collaboration”. The title seemed very promising and the subtitle read “for Vendor Strategy Professionals” of which I am one, so I sat down with enthusiasm to read it. One thing that surprised be up front was that the paper was authored by Henery Dewing who wasn't one of the Forrester analysts that I regularly interacted with on Social Business topics but instead a unified communications specialist. I read on with curiosity.
I got a few pages in and started to appreciate his core argument which perhaps not surprisingly was an issue my strategy team had been mulling over for quite some time. Namely that Unified Communications has failed to deliver on its promise because it: “Operates outside of information worker's business processes”; “Does not leverage the most current knowledge and information”; and “Fails to capture personal information dynamically”. That is to say, it is about helping 2 people communicate better but not about achieving the true collaborative potential of an organization. To do that you need: much more context; better discovery capabilities; to better appreciate and navigate across the linkages between people and content, and access “information based on multiple attributes that can be defined and searched by users to connect to groups of experts”. If you have this social backbone in place then a unified communications capability that incorporates multiple communication modalities becomes quite valuable. Without it UC's value is limited.
Dewing argues that UC will increasing be integrated into social enterprise apps which I happen to agree with.
As I though through these arguments and reflected on my epiphany about telephone tag, I recalled an episode from about 9 years ago. A colleague and good friend of mine from our software laboratory in Böblingen, Germany sent me a Sametime message, asking me if I knew of an IGS person with SAP on Oracle skills who was in charge of the Oracle relationship or had access to Oracle headquarters in California. Now this isn't someone that I should know off the top of my head but my friend figured that I was in IBM HQ in NY and likely had a better idea of how to find this person than he did. Well in about 30 seconds I Sametimed him the name, phone number, email address, and let him know that this person was in his office right now and available to chat. I didn't think much about this but my friend was blown away at how fast I had the information for him. So I explained how I had used advanced profiles and the embedded org charts and some “social network” information to find him. This was of course teaching someone how to fish so to speak.
The point of this story is that the best Unified Communications technology in the world would not have found the right person, and for that matter it may not actually be the person that is required, but instead something that he/she had written. For that matter even if my friend had know the person's name at some point there is some likelihood that that person would have moved to some other position or might not have been available at that moment. It is only with the social context that the communications technology really starts to deliver on its promise.
I think Forrester's Dewing is right and that the UC market will be transformed in the next few years. I think that communications through many types of communication mediums will be initiated by and large from inside a social and business process context. I think that more and more people will drop “telephone tag” from their vocabulary. I think that more and more some social navigation and discovery will precede actual communication and for that matter some significant amount of communication will be made obsolete as information becomes more transparent and discoverable.