Unified Communications: past, present, future

Unified Communications: past, present, future

We hear a lot about Unified Communications (UC) these days. All your communications in one place – “a single pane of glass” is the lovely metaphor often used – certainly a seemingly sensible idea.

But this idea has been evolving for a long time, and we’re just in the middle of its evolution. Much more needs to happen (and will) before it has realized its full potential to better our lives.

Early Days: searching for a Unified Inbox

My first brush with UC was in the mid-nineties, when I was Computing Productivity Manager at Intel Israel. We had deployed laptops and a well-thought-out telecommuting program, and our employees could work from anywhere – if not for one thing: they had to come to the plant to pick up their incoming faxes, which were received in the central mailroom and placed in their physical mailboxes. To cut this last tether, I deployed a custom-made system that allowed the mailroom operator to forward the incoming faxes directly as email messages. So now the employees had access to two channels in one inbox: email and fax. The third channel, voice mail, they handled separately, although in a conference of the Electronic Messaging Association I saw a vendor that moved that too into the inbox – I remember their cool slogan, “Have you seen your voicemail lately?…”

Growth – and a problem

Over the years the number of channels grew and finally exploded out of control with the arrival of social media, each with its own proprietary messaging system, each clamoring for attention to its messages’ arrival and accumulation. And for a long time, the goal seemed to remain the same one we had in the nineties: divert all the channels into a single “unified messaging” inbox.  With email being the older and dominant communication mode, it was natural to try to stick everything into its inbox, although eventually we saw new products that replaced the classic inbox entirely.

But this trend, as I see it, was self-defeating. If you have ten streams of messaging, each overloaded in itself with (say) 50 messages a day, combining them into a single stream may save you the overhead of having to check each stream separately – but you still have 500 messages to check. Information Overload will kill your productivity, no matter how much you shuffle the messages. A better approach is necessary.

A good illustration is a manager that approached me to discuss his email overload. He had half a dozen email accounts and had to skip among them all day long. My first thought was to suggest he either use fewer accounts or else auto-forward the messages from most of them to a single address; but then he told me what the accounts were used for, and it turned out one of them was reserved for entirely useless newsletter subscriptions and such, which were never read (he actually called them, inaccurately, Spam). Leaving aside the question of why he didn’t unsubscribe from these (Google FOMO if you don’t know), I realized that unifying all the accounts would merely mix the useless messages in with the necessary ones, creating a bigger mess.

And that was just email. Today’s Unified Communications platforms address numerous channels, including real time ones, each with its unique attributes of importance, urgency, verbosity, and contextual connections to your work. Pouring them indiscriminately onto that single pane of glass is not what we need. What we need is to make sense of them and consume them in a way that enhances our overall productivity in jobs that become more hectic, overloaded and under-resourced by the year.

What we really need

The holy grail here would, of course, be to recover that lost, lamented superhero, the human administrative assistant. I’ve written before about the loss of these capable individuals that were so adept at keeping the boss together. If you think about it, these admins were handling (among many other functions) the task of unifying communications: they would receive all incoming comms – by phone, email, paper mail, and inquiries from people popping in – and would present them to their boss in the right doses at the right moments – or not at all. They applied their intelligence to filter the information, prioritize it, recombine it, and present a distilled stream of what really mattered at a given moment that could be consumed rapidly and efficiently. They also shielded you from incoming stuff you didn’t need to waste attention on. And they took instructions – high level instructions, such as “reschedule the meeting for when I’m available”, or “Set me up to fly to San Diego for that event”. What’s more, they could figure out what to do in response to the situations that arose without instructions, because they knew what the boss would want them to do.

And this is exactly what we need a Unified Communications platform to do for us: we need it to understand, prioritize, summarize, and serve us with messages we can make sense of in the context of being productive at our best; and we need it to figure out what we’d want to do about them before ever showing them to us.

What we have instead

The Unified Communications market has taken its own path in the past decade. It has certainly unified channels, with the perplexing omission of email – an old horse that is still alive and carrying much of the world’s business. Email is at best an afterthought in the offerings on the market, which seem to cater more to real-time communications channels, conferencing, and collaboration.

What we see dominating the UC market is a few major players such as Alcatel-Lucent, Avaya and Cisco, which come from a background of providing telephony and video infrastructure; and a number of even larger corporations like Microsoft, Google and IBM that are doing their best to bundle together the spaces of Communications, Collaboration, Office, and Cloud services in order to provide an end-to-end single-vendor solution to their corporate customers.

But this is not enough, and we can expect a major disruption to shake this market in the near future. The commoditized offerings we see need to be enhanced to the next level, where user productivity is boosted by more personalized, fine-tuned tools. Fortunately, the explosive growth we’re seeing in Artificial Intelligence R&D is going to enable this necessary boost, as it will enable so many other disruptive changes in our world. The legacy vendors would do well to incorporate the outcomes into their UC offerings – or they will remain behind.

The future of Unified Communications

It is time for a new Unified Communications paradigm. What we need is a system that will take in all the raw incoming streams, understand their meaning and context, and present them – like that human admin – in just the right manner, at just the right time, based on the user’s personal context. Not in a huge pane of glass but in a small window, a “What’s Hot NOW” summary, where only the half dozen most important things are shown. Not hundreds of messages in one pane and a triple-booked calendar in another and an overflowing To Do list in a third. Right now, you want to be shown just three messages – be they in email, Facebook, WhatsApp, no matter – but the three that must be read so the one meeting you should attend this morning (also shown in the same window) will be more effective. And the two tasks that are connected to that meeting where you have value to bring. And recommendations for what to do about all of these, right now: what to file where, who to call, what to delegate and to whom.

This capability requires a lot of AI muscle – which is becoming available today and will continue to grow exponentially like everything in computing. And it is the sort of thing the large vendors need to incorporate in their offerings if they wish to remain competitive. Who would buy a dumb unification engine when they can get an automated intelligent assistant?

An interesting direction includes Knowmail’s Personalized AI technology and Avaya Vantage announcement, combining AI innovation within one of the key players in the unified communication domain, enabling a new level of work effectiveness; and it adds email back in, not as a flood, but with the AI’s filtering and advice for “Next best action”.

And this is just the beginning!

Nathan Zeldes
Nathan Zeldes

Nathan Zeldes is a globally recognized thought leader in the search for improved knowledge worker productivity. After a 26 year career as a manager and principal engineer at Intel Corporation, he now helps organizations solve core problems at the intersection of information technology and human behavior.

Leave a Reply

Your Email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *