Avaya Labs tries to fast-track good ideas

Using a start-up mentality, Avaya labs tries to cut product development time

Avaya is working with virtual reality, context engines, and prioritizing relevant Facebook and Twitter entries in an effort to streamline how corporations do business by better managing their communications.

Avaya is working with virtual reality, context engines, and prioritizing relevant Facebook and Twitter entries in an effort to streamline how corporations do business by better managing their communications.

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More than just tinkering, Avaya Labs is working on turning these software elements into products on a short timescale in order to pass its competitors and please its customers, says Brett Shockley, the vice president who heads up the 800-person Emerging Products and Technology Team that includes Avaya Labs and that is part of the company but acts "like a start-up that wants to be acquired by Avaya," he says.

Some of the innovations recently popped out as products or enhancements with the announcement of contact center and unified communications upgrades, but this effort also includes virtual reality software -- think Second Life -- that can be used for training, collaboration or online sales, as is the case on the Web site of computer vendor Lenovo, Shockley says.

Also in the labs is software for what the company calls contextual communications. The platform has a context engine that keeps track of all the communication an individual engages in and sorts it so it can be more useful to that person. "It's attention management in a very smart way, pointing you the end user to what you need to take care of right now," says Venky Krishnaswamy, director of IP Communications Research at the labs, "be it an e-mail, a document, a phone call or a person you need to reach." Products based on the engine are in the works for smartphones, softphones and desktops, he says.

For example, one application of contextual communications is a platform called Phone Mash. If a person has had a recent series of e-mail exchanges with another individual and then gets on the phone with that person, the software displays a menu of all that correspondence so it is handy for discussion during the call.

The engine analyzes users' calendars, phone calls, access codes, Web URLs and other communications data and draws together related items on a single screen in preparation for a meeting. The user can initiate a call about that meeting by clicking on a single button on the screen, and the rest of the data is listed there as a resource to tap during the call. Similarly, the software creates a screen of such resources on the fly for unscheduled incoming phone calls, including who the person works with, recent contacts shared between the caller and the person being called and documents related to recent contact with the caller.

The same resources could be assembled manually, but at a cost of time that could be better spent, he says. "It takes time, it takes time away from focus on my interaction, it takes time away from being productive when I need to be focusing on the job at hand rather than looking for things," Krishnaswamy says.

A piece of Phone Mash is a short voice or video message (SVM) that can be sent to multiple device types much as SMS messages are sent via cell phones now.

Avaya Labs is also working on social media management for businesses to sort relevant postings from Facebook, Twitter and the like, says Val Matula, director of Multimedia Technologies at the labs. Software finds relevant messages and, using features of Avaya contact center platforms, can route them to the people best suited to dealing with them.

First, the software filters out irrelevant postings that contain keywords that are relevant to the company but whose message isn't actually directed toward it, Matula says. Of those, the software further filters to isolate just those that are actionable, that a person can respond to in order to resolve a problem. "Those, we want to identify, bundle up, bring to a call center agent or a customer service agent and have them respond to that person. And we want to make sure it's assigned only to one person,"Matula says.

The whole process is augmented with logging and reporting that can improve the process over time and measure the success of the program. "So that we move from what might be considered the switchboard days of today -- which is somebody coming into a company, oh, here's a piece of e-mail, can you take a look at this? -- into the automated process-oriented, metrics-oriented social media management of the future," he says.

Avaya is calling this its year of innovation, and that puts a lot of pressure on the company's labs, Shockley says. "We've got to figure this innovation thing out. We try to innovate so the new stuff is transformational," he says.

All vendors have their R&D teams, but Shockley aims for driving out the time it takes to go from idea to product, what he calls crossing the chasm. To help do that he has instituted a proof-of-concept stage during which new software is put in the hands of selected customers up to two years earlier than under previous models. The point is to have customers weigh in on "whether it's relevant or if it's just geeks playing with technology." Previously, the company would keep products under development secret.

Shockley is an apt choice to head up these efforts, given his heritage as a founder of Spanlink Communications, which, like Avaya, specializes in contact centers and UC.

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