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Enterprise social networking may enhance, not yet replace, presence

Enterprise social networking might seem the perfect way to enable greater unified communications (UC) adoption, but not on its own nor without the right strategy.

Give users an account on Facebook or Twitter and they'll share more information than anyone should. Asking users to timely update their status on a presence application yields the opposite result -- inconsistent and sporadic updates. Enterprise social networking might seem the perfect way to enable greater unified communications (UC) adoption, but not on its own nor without the right strategy.

"It's about giving flexibility and options. I think it's going to be a long time before we see this as the standard, de facto way of doing presence," said Vanessa Alvarez, industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan. "The majority of people are not really there yet, and that is a challenge. It's really the vendors' responsibility at this point to teach people how to use these tools so they can do their jobs better."

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At VoiceCon San Francisco last week, Siemens Enterprise Communications previewed a cloud-based "mash-up" application between Twitter and its OpenScape platform. The application crawls users' Twitter feeds looking for programmed terms -- set by customers -- such as "just landed" or "on board." The enterprise social media application, available in early 2010, adjusts a user's presence accordingly and forwards messages to the appropriate device.

Early demonstrations of the application also show it would be able to set up conference calls via OpenScape by pinging colleagues on Twitter, according to Siemens.

"UC has got tremendous adoption, but social networking has phenomenal adoption. Social networking is overtaking in terms of numbers what UC used to have," said Adrian Brookes, Siemens' vice president of UC technical vision and strategy in the office of the CTO. "Nobody is shy about using [social networking] … and we want to bring that welcomeness and acquaintance and merge that with UC."

Although the Siemens application earned "oohs" and "aahs," analysts remained skeptical about the value of enterprise social networking as the next generation of UC.

"I don't think people are going to Twitter that they 'just landed' so their presence status changes," said Irwin Lazar, vice president at Nemertes Research. "People aren't going to be bothered. You have a hard enough time getting people to set their presence status as it is."

Although not perfect, Siemens is on the right track, according to Blair Pleasant, president and principal analyst of COMMfusion. Anything to take "the burden away from the user" is going to be useful in making enterprises' existing UC solutions see greater adoption, she said.

The less people have to do, the better it's going to work.
Blair Pleasant
President and Principal AnalystCOMMfusion

"It's not going to be appropriate for a lot of companies, but what's nice for the companies that are using Twitter is [that the Siemens application could] update status and provide information without the user having to do anything," Pleasant said. "It's like when you integrate presence status with a calendar.... The less people have to do, the better it's going to work."

But until mainstream social media applications such as Twitter and Facebook become more secure, the takeoff of enterprise social networking is going to remain stalled, she said. Even if it makes employees more productive, company executives may not be thrilled to see colleagues using Twitter to set up a conference that hints at proprietary information.

"Companies don't feel secure about it, so we're going to see more and more enterprise-grade tools that do the same thing but add that element of security and confidentiality," Pleasant said. "The main benefit is being able to find the right person or resource to get the information you need, whether that's through Twitter or some of these other social networking sites."

Is enterprise social media better suited for customer service?

Rather than use enterprise social networking for employee communication, enterprises would be better served to use social networking as a way to check the pulse of their customers, such as companies like Comcast that use Twitter to monitor customer complaints, Lazar said.

"The real strength is being able to share that information in a collaborative workspace to have a sort of Twitter dashboard [to delegate messages to the appropriate departments]," he said. "Enterprises should be leveraging micro-blogging applications as part of a collaboration strategy."

Earlier this year, Avaya previewed "Facephone," an application "living inside of Facebook" but passing information through a private channel via its Aura platform, said Brett Shockley, vice president of emerging technologies.

Avaya is marketing the application mainly to enterprises as a way for customers -- who become "friends" or "fans" -- to engage in a phone call, instant message session or video conference through what looks and feels to them like Facebook but uses the Aura platform, Shockley said. End users would download a plug-in to make it work. The enterprise social media application, which has no release date, could also crawl customers' Facebook profiles for information if they allowed it to do so.

"We're rapidly getting to the point where mere mortals have a challenge in dealing with all the different types of communication that are coming at us," Shockley said. "So I think it's incumbent on companies like Avaya to really focus on the user experience to figure out not only how to take advantage of all these modes of communication but also how to combine them."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer

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