04 May

Unified communications is a marketing Camelot

    A while back I wrote my feelings about the term unified communications. My point in different words is that unification regarding enterprise communications technologies is a type of marketing Camelot. Paraphrasing The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, like the legendary city, an imaginary enterprise communications environment is said to exist with some “impressive architecture … and the chivalry and courtesy of its inhabitants.”

    Back in the real-world, enterprise communications in truth are very un-unified, and that’s a good thing innovation wise. This lack of unification and the expectation gap that has resulted from decades of marketing spin is today opening new opportunities for innovators. One example is Zinc.

    Rather than unity, enterprise communications applications and platforms traditionally were dominated by a few companies and relative homogeneity in what is offered. The industry never really met the needs of the worker. What resulted is a mix of shadow IT; once en vogue dusty, misused, pushed-aside, idle form factors; IT dictated applications that get used mostly when the boss is looking; and feature-rich appliances, of which only a small subset of the application value ever gets applied.

    The unified ideal has lately been further eroded by the advent of new communications modalities, including group messaging. Owing in part to demographics trends, as increasingly digital natives reach critical mass in organizations, things are moving with incredible speed to new models for enterprise communications.

    Zinc is a great example of a company offering new ways for enterprise communications. News that Zinc received commitments of $11 million of funding by a group of investors led by GE Ventures prompted me to learn more. The Zinc website describes addressing the challenge that “knowledge comes together and becomes actionable when information flows freely,” but for “the 72 percent of the workforce who don’t sit at a desk, don’t work in an office, and may not have a computer or even an email address, effective communication has been an elusive goal.”

    A promotional video highlighted on the website does a great job expressing how the platform addresses the new realities of how people work today. A key point articulated by demonstration is that knowledge worker communications today are mainly asynchronous, impromptu and threaded.

    A fundamental premise of the old-world unified communications model is that it is efficient for people to assemble to collaborate. The reality is that the act of aggregating people for conference calls, web conferences or videoconferences is highly inefficient and out of step with today’s work world.

    Zinc’s communications approach

    Zinc addresses this counter-intuitive thinking by supplanting the old model with multiple means of on-demand knowledge sharing. As the video demonstrates, when “a quick one-on-one or a group call is required,” that escalation path is available. Rather than the focal point of communications, however, it is just one of many methods interacting that Zinc assembles into a mobile-first interface.

    Instead of unified, examples like Zinc represent the true reality of the user that communications are instead disaggregated. Compared to the old-world view of enterprise communications that offered few choices and only incremental improvements, suddenly innovation is exploding. Where once enterprise communications were anchored by voice and extended to other “channels” of communications, today’s platforms meet the modern user with tools that mirror how they are most comfortable communicating.

    Zinc CEO Stacey Epstein explained, “It’s hard to question the value of effective communication, and for decades we’ve looked to technology to help realize it. The issue is that existing ‘unified communication’ tools are anything but unifying, mostly due to poor adoption. Whether it’s lateral knowledge-sharing between workers, top-down directives from management or feedback from the workforce back to company leadership, we’re finally making effective knowledge sharing and communication as easy and attractive as your favorite app on your phone.”

    Traditional unified communications vendors, including Avaya, Cisco, Mitel and Unify, are game to protect the user base for their legacy UC platforms. Recent offers show promise, including Cisco’s Spark Board, a wall-mounted iPhone analog; Avaya’s Equinox; and the application platforms Cisco Spark and Avaya Breeze that these applications are built upon. I’m just not as excited about these as others seem to be.

    The problem I see is that these legacy approaches are just too, well, tethered to the past. They are built on an architectural premise that has become increasingly irrelevant in this mobile-first world. Like Arthur’s castle in Camelot, that notion is of another era. Zinc excites me because their vision and approach is born in the world of today and the realities of the modern user.

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