A dashboard that unites e-mail, instant messaging, collaboration and more

The real-time communications dashboard gives users much-needed control.

Frank Braski has suffered through the hype surrounding real-time communications dashboards for years. But these days he says the presence technology is finally fulfilling its promise.

"I've been living with the promise of this technology for the past 10 years - we went through a serious period of disillusionment. But we're finally at a point where we can give our people actionable systems," says Braski, manager of high-performance workplaces at American Family Life Assurance Co. (AFLAC), in Columbus, Ga.

The technology, which attempts to meld enterprise communications tools into a single view, gives context to collaboration, including knowing with whom, when and how to make contact (for example, via BlackBerry or e-mail).

Braski combines custom-built and off-the-shelf RTC dashboards across AFLAC, which comprises 4,800 employees and 65,000 agents. For example, he uses a Unix- and Java-based dashboard to give independent field-force agents up-to-the-minute alerts about insurance programs.

Once they receive alerts, they use e-mail, IMs or other preferred methods to communicate with appropriate personnel. "We don't have a dedicated sales force so we need to work closely with our independent agents. The dashboard allows us to have proactive communications where they otherwise would have had to call us," he says.

AFLAC gains competitive advantage by working with independent agents in a personalized manner and offering them advanced tools, Braski says.

Dashboard integration

But some IT managers are waiting for dashboard nirvana. Joanne Kossuth, CIO at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., says she'll be fully convinced of their power only when presence tools are automatically embedded within common enterprise applications.

At Olin, faculty and senior consulting project teams use RTC dashboard technology that comes with the Nortel Multimedia Communications Server 5100, Kossuth says. Although they find it useful, a wider rollout will have to wait until dashboards become more integrated with other enterprise applications, such as her users' IM buddy lists. "Without full integration, there are just too many things [for IT] to manage and there's too much multitasking [for users]," she says.

Vendors are trying to address this challenge, says Paul Duffy, group product manager for unified communications at Microsoft. "Having the presence capability in Outlook is important, but for industries such as engineering and financial services that might use different applications, switching over to Outlook for unified communications doesn't make much sense," he says. Microsoft, which plans to embed its API into other enterprise applications, recently announced a technology and marketing alliance with Nortel. Through the agreement, Microsoft will integrate its RTC offerings in Nortel's unified communications product lines, and vice versa.

But vendors also need to hammer out the privacy and compliance issues that most organizations face regarding the retention of communications records and sharing of documents, Kossuth says. She points out that mixing IM with e-mail and conferencing blurs the line between personal and corporate communications. "The challenge is meeting strict [regulatory] requirements while still giving users the tools they need," she says.

Some dashboard tools let IT match user privilege policies to retention strategies, and this feature should be universal on dashboard technology, Kossuth says.

Despite these lingering issues, RTC dashboards are rapidly turning from "nice to have" to "need to have," says Johna Till Johnson, co-founder of Nemertes Research and a Network World columnist. "The goal of any organization is to reduce the amount of time you spend trying to find the right person who knows something in order to get to the next step. RTC dashboards cut down on the latency and overhead in human-to-human interaction by allowing you to reach the right people at the right time the way they want to be reached," she says.

Dashboard deployment

IT managers and industry experts agree that the success of these tools depends on how they are deployed. Most important is to tie the tools into your Lightweight Directory Access Protocol directory. "This is ideal, so that you don't have to replicate databases," says Dennis Fortier, multimedia product marketing manager at Nortel.

Fortier also warns IT not to develop and deploy RTC tools in a bubble. "Users should be able to customize the tools to specify how they want their presence to be displayed," he says. Some might want to reflect when they're on the phone, while others may want the dashboard to link with their calendaring tools.

AFLAC's Braski recommends educating users about employing the tools to their advantage. "You need to help them learn how to manage the data and then provide tools to turn up or down the level of noise they receive in the dashboard," he says.

Braski hopes future versions of RTC dashboard will have single sign-on and include self-developing heuristics that can sense what information users access most and then bring those to the surface. "We have a lot of moving parts and quite a few applications we expose to users via the dashboard. We manually look at metrics and determine what gets used most often and put those upfront," he says. "A good, smart dashboard would help facilitate that automatically."

Gittlen is a freelance technology writer in Northboro, Mass. She can be reached at sgittlen@charter.net.

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