In the beginning, the term unified communications (UC) was created to describe the technologies that help companies improve worker productivity and optimize business processes. Next came collaboration technology, which combined with unified communications to create unified communications and collaboration (UCC) -- emphasizing the collaborative benefits of tools such as Web and video conferencing, Web collaboration, etc. Most recently, social software, which started in the consumer space, became an important business tool. The combination of UC, collaboration and social media created collaborative communications. While each of these tools is valuable by itself, the functions are even more powerful when they're integrated with each other.
How social software must evolve in the enterprise
Social software is changing the way we communicate and collaborate, providing communities, activity feeds, and other ways of connecting with colleagues and customers. While sites like Twitter were originally seen as a way to let other hipsters know which bars they planned to frequent, events such as the "Arab Spring" have demonstrated the political power of social software. Despite the sea change of events driven by social media, the use of social software is still somewhat limited in the business world, and there are many companies that discourage employees from using public social-networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, and instead are turning to secure, enterprise-class services like IBM Connections or Cisco WebEx Social.
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UC channel partners act as solution integrators
As an asynchronous means of communication, social software has its limitations. While it's great for providing textual and visual information, making connections, and finding the resources and expertise needed, it needs to go one step further by enabling real-time voice interactions. Here's a typical scenario: I'm reading my Twitter stream and see that someone responded to one of my tweets. I can send a reply or a direct message to the person, and we can send tweets and messages back and forth to each other discussing the topic. This is fine in many situations, but sometimes a real-time voice interaction is needed. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to “click-to-call" from within Twitter (or Facebook, Jive, Yammer or any other social software solution) and have a voice or video interaction, rather than sending text messages back and forth?
That's where unified communications comes into play. Social software helps to build communities and engage in discussions about a variety of topics. Enterprise social software makes it possible to find the people you need, based on expertise, projects they're working on, communities of interest, etc. Add UC to the mix, and you can view the presence and availability of people you want to interact with, then communicate directly from the social software client via voice or even a Web or video conference.
UC + social = collaborative communications
This integration of UC and social is what I call "collaborative communications," which adds the real-time communication and collaboration capabilities of UC to the networking capabilities of social software. Collaborative communications combines:
- UC tools such as instant messaging, video and presence, which are delivered via a unified end user client.
- Collaboration technologies like meetings or conferencing.
- Social tools like communities, activity feeds and microblogging.
There are several ways in which social software and unified communications can be used together, including tying in presence, mobility, click-to-call, click-to-conference and other capabilities to make it easier to connect with people inside and outside of the organization.
Integrating all these technologies is not a trivial job. Working with vendors that provide products with open application programming interfaces and plug-ins can help IT departments and value-added resellers make the integration a bit easier. While there aren't tons of businesses that have enabled this kind of capability, I expect the numbers to grow rapidly in the next couple of years, as enterprises realize the value that can be attained. Early adopters are starting to show the way. For example, U.K.-based Virgin Media was able to save thousands of pounds based on its use of Cisco WebEx Social to replace some face-to-face interactions, and by enabling people to work remotely while still feeling connected to the organization. Leon Benjamin, Virgin Media's enterprise 2.0 project manager, noted that "No matter what a company chooses to use for enterprise UC and collaboration, enabling conversations between people previously unknown to each other is powerful."
In order to gain true value from unified communications, collaboration and social business, proper integration into a single solution is paramount. While it's a slow process, it's beginning to happen, and companies are reaping the benefits.