Collaboration in Context: Crossing the UC and Collaboration Chasm


Almost since its inception, the Unified Communications and Collaboration (UC&C) market has existed in somewhat of a silo with vendors and IT architects focusing on integrating various forms of communications channels (e.g., voice, video, messaging, and conferencing) to deliver a seamless, consistent set of tools for collaboration. That narrow focus certainly solves a key set of business challenges; namely how to eliminate many of the hurdles around interpersonal and group communications and how to enable workers to find the people they need as quickly, and as efficiently, as possible. But this focus on building a stand-alone UC&C system misses the larger picture in that it creates an architecture separate from the applications central to running a business (financial considerations, HR, operations, process management, CRM, to name a few). Sure the idea of “communications enabled business processes” is to build links between business and UC apps, but most instances I’ve seen have simply enabled linking events in a business application to a communications process, or sharing of information between systems. What is missing from the discussion is collaboration in context. That is, how we integrate our collaboration applications directly into the systems essential to business operations. However, this is starting to change. At last week’s SAPPHIRE NOW annual gathering of SAP customers and partners in Orlando and Frankfurt, a key focus area of several sessions was on the integration of collaboration and communications tools directly into enterprise resource planning. In my view, this level of integration represents the most important future trend for UC&C. Think about the way we collaborate today. First, a manager or team leader views a report generated from a business system, whether it be manufacturing, customer support, production, or some other key application. They determine that there’s a need to discuss the report, which leads them to go to their stand-alone communications application (e-mail, IM, voice, or UC dashboard) to start a conversation. But what if the ability to communicate and collaborate were built directly into the business process application? In this case, the ERP would link to metadata information that enabled the business application to include a list of appropriate team members, their presence status, and the ability for any team member to initiate communications from within the ERP application. Starting a web conference, IM session, or video call would easily allow us to share the reference data--in this case the report that we wanted to discuss. This represents a sea change in the way we think about and procure communications and collaboration applications. Instead of buying Microsoft Office Communicator, IBM Lotus Sametime, or some other desktop or mobile application, we embed linkages between ERP front-end applications and UC&C applications on the back-end, enabling collaboration in context. Today the focus of many of the UC vendor wars is on who will control the desktop and the various user interfaces. Perhaps that question is already settled. Now it’s a matter of integrating ERP applications into backend collaboration services to give users the ability to collaborate in context, crossing the chasm from stand-alone UC&C applications to UC&C as an embedded feature in the applications we use to run our businesses.

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