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July 31, 2008

What "Human Latency" Does UC Help?


Unified Communications (News - Alert)” is quickly moving up the ROI food chain for business organizations as the focus shifts from cost reductions to business process efficiencies. This shift in emphasis will require looking at combining the use of different communication technologies from both an individual user perspective and from their impact on all the key people involved a particular business process. In the new world of Internet networking, I see this kind of integration and interoperability being a “mash-up” of business application and communications software, converged voice and data transport on wired and wireless networks, and, last, but not least, multimodal desktop and mobile end user devices.
 
Industry pundits have sharpened their search for the value of UC in improving business process performance by focusing on reducing “human (contact) latency.” That can mean any kind of process delay waiting for human intervention and action. From a UC perspective, the focus is not on human skills for task performance, but on the speed and efficiency of making contact and delivering information to a person involved in completing a task. Some of this activity could be called “knowledge work” (trouble reporting, information exchange, research, etc.), but a lot of it may also be more “actionable” (e.g., decision-making, delivery, repair, installations, etc.). With increasing process automation, real-time contacts to people are being initiated by automated business applications, in addition to traditional person-to-person contacts. 
 
Telephone Calling “Latency”
Traditional, wired telephony will be impacted significantly, as UC applications help remove the “human latency” inefficiencies of person-to-person telephone calls. Because such calls require real-time interaction and coordination, they must be efficient and effective for both callers and call recipients, in order to minimize human contact latency of all parties and to maximize both individual productivity and business process efficiency.
 
For a caller (contact initiator), such latencies stem from the following:
  • Knowing who to call
  • Knowing where they are or which phone number to call
  • Initiating a call to a device or location with no guarantee of contact
  • Not getting any useful contact information when there is no one to answer the call attempt

Leaving a voice message (when there is a busy signal or no answer) would be the beginning of “voice mail jail,” inefficient voice message retrieval, manual message transcriptions, and the delays of “telephone tag (News - Alert).” These inefficiencies are exacerbated when there is no efficient means of timely message notification, message “reply” options to outside callers, or “call return” capability.

 
For a call recipient (callee), the lack of the following can reduce efficient call activities as part of a business process:
  • Having access to an incoming call regardless of location and network connection (mobility)
  • Getting immediate call notifications regardless of other activities
  • Knowing who or what kind of caller is calling
  • Knowing why they are calling
  • Have contextual information about prior contacts
  • Getting selective notification of urgent or expected telephone messages regardless of location or mode of notification, along with immediate message access and response (reply) in any modality of communication
  • Have the ability to multi-task non-voice forms of messaging while in voice conversation with a caller
Voice calls have always been the primary means of real-time, person-to-person business communications until the recent advent of Instant Messaging (IM), which also brings with it the benefits of a rich, visual interface and “virtual” access, rather than a fixed location like a wired desktop telephone.
 
Enter Presence Management
IM introduced its own brand of more efficient contact initiation through presence management and a personalized “buddy list” of people whose IP network accessibility and availability were dynamically tracked in real time. These evolved into public enterprise services that monitored network device connectivity as well as personalized status information supplied by individual users sharing the service. The primary benefit of presence information has been to enable an authorized contact initiator to check the current contact accessibility of a specific recipient for an IM exchange, or, if directly integrated with the recipient’s phone system, it can indicate if the recipient is already “busy” on a phone (“telephony presence”).
 
Presence information does not necessarily, however, create faster communication contact. Presence indicates “connectivity” but not really “availability.” Prospective senders of asynchronous email messages, therefore, would gain little from such presence information, other than perhaps the fact that because the recipient is connected online to the Internet at the moment, they are therefore likely to be notified about and have convenient access to a new email message. 
 
However, because IM is both real-time and, unlike a voice connection, allows visual multi-tasking, it has become an alternative means of initiating a voice phone call between people who have a “person-to-person” relationship. Rather than guessing about the availability of the person to take a phone call, presence information and IM communication allow the contact initiator to check for accessibility to a call recipient and request permission via IM to make a call before blindly making a call attempt. With such a “pre-call” connection that is phone-number independent, all sorts of contextual contact information can be presented to the callee before the voice connection is actually made. Think of it as an IM-based “screen pop,” which can also provide “click-to-call” capabilities.
 
That kind of capability can reduce much of the human latency described earlier that has become the main productivity target of UC.
 
Mobility and Presence
Whatever benefits presence technology can bring to traditional business phone calls, they will be further increased when applied to phone calls to or from mobile users. A voice call or message is often a practical form of contact interface for mobile people away from their desks, but dynamic availability and costs are more of an issue for mobile users. So, not only do mobile users want to avoid wasting time calling others fruitlessly, they also want to avoid taking calls when they are busy with other activities. Accordingly, they will need to manage the retrieval of voice message information they receive more easily and efficiently.
 
Voice mail technology is now being targeted to exploit more efficient visual interfaces of “smart communicators” (aka “smart-phones”), which can accommodate email, SMS, and IM, as well 3G web applications. (Witness the popularity of the iPhone’s (News - Alert) “Visual Voicemail!”) In addition, automated transcription of voice messages into text messages, like email and SMS, is becoming a practical service offering for voice mail recipients.
 
Minimizing “Human Contact Latency”
While better and more flexible user interfaces indeed contribute to increased end user productivity by a few minutes, e.g., contextual “click-to-call,” and IP network connections will reduce the costs of access, significant business process efficiencies will be also be derived from reducing the delays of “blind” contact attempts that fail. This includes calling phone numbers that are usually busy, don’t answer, or are answered by the wrong party.
 
Business communications are no longer just “person-to-person” contacts, but increasingly “process-to-person” or “person-to-process-person” contacts, like telephone self-service (IVR) applications that allow access to any available live assistance. Business process applications can also proactively exploit the flexibility of UC as contact initiators to deliver information messages immediately and directly to a person. Unified messaging capabilities enable such messages to be delivered in any mode that the recipient requires.
 
The bottom line, however, for reducing human contact latency is that individual end users, whether inside or outside an organization, have to be able to initiate and respond to business contacts wherever they are, in whatever modality of contact is available to them, and as independently of the other parties as possible. The primary exception will remain synchronous conferencing (voice, video conversations) that are specifically “person-to-person.” This is where callers may benefit from “ASAP” (As Soon As Possible) call connections that will exploit federated presence and availability management technology along with “smart-phone” mobility. That combination will make a voice connection as soon as all parties are available and accessible.
 
What Do You Think?
 
You can contact me at: artr@ix.netcom.com or (310) 395-2360.
 
Art Rosenberg, a veteran of the computer and communications industry, contributes his column, The Unified-View to TMCnet. To read more of Art’s articles, please visit his columnist page.    



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