The Future Is Presence
BY JIM HUZELL
Multitasking is no longer the preserve of desktop operating systems.
Today, we can conduct a telephone conversation, respond to an instant
message, clear our e-mail backlog and browse the Internet simultaneously
-- even when away from the office.
Technology is not just an enabler but, in many cases, technology in
fact demands that we tackle multiple activities simultaneously.
One of the principal drivers behind this trend is ï¿½presenceï¿½
technology. Presence enables users to be located and contacted through a
variety of computing applications and devices, such as instant messaging,
short message service (SMS), e-mail, mobile phones, pagers, personal
digital assistants (PDAs) and PCs.
What are the technical issues and obstacles underpinning presence? When
and how can we expect to see presence impact the workplace? More
importantly, what are the social and workplace implications of presence?
How can organisations measure the benefits and ensure that they -- rather
than the technology -- remain in control.
The Technology Behind Presence
At its core, presence technology is supported by an Instant Messaging
& Presence Protocol (IMPP) currently being ratified by the IETF.
Instant messaging differs from e-mail primarily by requiring relatively
short delivery latency guarantees and, typically, less robust transport
service. In addition, instant messaging includes the notion of
ï¿½presenceï¿½ information, or a userï¿½s current availability.
In fact, presence information has been readily accessible on
Internet-connected systems for years. When users conduct open sessions
through a well-known, multi-user, system, correspondents can easily
identify their location and whether they are currently online.
However, todayï¿½s computer infrastructures are increasingly complex and
distributed. The same user may be accessing the network through a variety
of devices from desktops to mobile phones, and a range of media, from
e-mail to short message services (SMS) -- potentially simultaneously.
This element of availability across multiple devices is fundamental to
presence, as it enables the users to determine whether and how they can be
contacted. The IMPP standard is designed to enable a user to indicate his
or her presence and level of availability across this range of devices and
For instance, while in the office, a user could be accessible via a range
of devices and applications, from instant messaging to Web conferencing.
Conversely, while traveling or working remotely, voice or text messages
may be the only way of reaching the user. Presence technology would convey
all this information to correspondents, enabling them to tailor their
content and media accordingly.
Multitasking And The Surferï¿½s Voice
But how will presence manifest itself in the workplace? How will it add
value and how can this value be evaluated?
First, and most importantly, multitasking is already with us. Preliminary
research at the University of California amongst workers within the
financial services sector suggests that, on average, workers switched
tasks about once every three minutes. This will come as little surprise --
or comfort -- to many of us working in busy office environments!
Secondly, while technology such as IMPP will enable users to confirm the
availability and contact correspondents more easily, management structures
and behavioural changes are essential if this process is to make the
decision-making process genuinely more efficient.
One example of this can be found within the so-called, ï¿½surferï¿½s
voice.ï¿½ Surferï¿½s voice is the practice of half-heartedly talking to
someone on the telephone while simultaneously surfing the Web, reading
e-mail, or exchanging instant messages. It is manifest in the dull
monotone ï¿½OK, yeah, uh-hum, rightï¿½ï¿½ accompanied by the pervasive
tapping of keyboard.
It is questionable whether this practice -- though certainly common --
really contributes to the efficiency of an organisationï¿½s
decision-making. However, it does highlight the fact that technology to
improve communications will only be as effective as the management
structures and good practices that support it.
Of Telephones And Typing Pools
Given appropriate management and behavioural adjustments, I believe that
presence will transform the working environment rather like the telephone
and personal computer have already done.
For example, while the advent of direct telephone lines has made staff
more accessible to colleagues and customers, it can also be said to make
them more accountable since their direct details are carried on corporate
business cards and, in some cases, headed paper. Likewise the adoption of
the network PC signaled an end to the traditional typing pool. The role of
the personal assistant evolved too, with managers starting to handle their
own correspondence. These evolutions were reflected in the physical layout
of offices with open plan replacing traditional -- and hierarchical --
Each of these instances required a conscious management decision to change
behaviour, roles, responsibilities, and even physical environments. And I
believe that the benefits of presence technology will be only be fully
realised once an accompanying ï¿½presence etiquetteï¿½ is adopted.
A fundamental feature of presence is its potential to become entirely end
user controlled. The user sets up the parameters which define whether or
not he is available and in what capacity. These settings can be determined
by overall management policy or individually based on the userï¿½s current
situation and priorities.
The aim of presence within an organisation should be to streamline
communications -- decisions should ideally be made quicker and more
accurately. One example involves the use of desktop Web conferencing
within my own organisation.
Where possible, conference calls and shared meetings are supported by the
use of Web cams enabling us to view participants. Our experience is that,
far from representing a burden, Web cams actually aid focus and reduce
distraction. In turn, we also make good use of instant messaging
technology -- largely to schedule meetings, convene conferencing calls,
and exchange documents during online meetings.
Once again, instant messaging is not a substitute for e-mail
correspondence, just as virtual meetings are no substitute for the real
thing. However, adding these tools to the traditional meeting mix has made
us more responsive and flexible as an organisation.
New Forms Of Collaboration
I also believe that presence will also provide a catalyst for new forms of
collaboration and shared working. We are currently working with one of the
United Statesï¿½ largest support groups for those affected by cancer.
Central to this program are routine, interactive telephone and Web
conferences for cancer patients, caregivers, and medical researchers to
share information, exchange views and provide advice on treatments and
care programs. Up to 90 hour-long sessions are planned for the coming year
with up to 600 participants attending each one.
In addition to providing relevant and practical advice to patients and
caregivers, the regular sessions represent a cornerstone of the groupï¿½s
medical research efforts. In effect, conferencing technology enables the
organisation to routinely connect to potentially 14,000 people directly
affected by cancer via their telephones and PCs.
Today, registered members receive calls at the appointed hour to enable
them to join in a session. The goal is to make it as easy as possible to
participate. In the future, presence technology could potentially enable
users to register via a range of devices and methods such as e-mail from
their PC or SMS from their phone depending on their situation.
Their preferences would be automatically acknowledged and registered.
Should they decide to participate, users would receive the information and
access to the session in the format of their choosing.
Presence As A Marketing Medium
This is one example of conferencing being used to aid collaboration.
Presence technology will add greater flexibility to this process, giving
more choice and control to participants. In this way, future applications
could include user groups and potential customers. Presence technology
would deliver key messages, advertising campaigns or special offers to the
target group which would, in turn, chose the manner and medium of its
Once again, the recipient would be in full control of his/her status
(presence) and whether or not he was disposed to receive such commercial
information in the first place.
Another environment in which presence will be felt is disaster recovery
and contingency planning. One of Europeï¿½s most innovative and long
established Internet service providers -- one of Europeï¿½s to offer a
flat, per month fee -- uses a conference platform as a virtual operations
centre, in the event that office premises and traditional communications
media are unavailable.
Staff are issued with dial-in numbers and a timetable. In the event of
sudden and prolonged downtime, staff dial in a certain access code and
number to receive information and instructions; the numbers and dial in
times being determined by their role within the organisation. In this way,
audio and Web conferencing is being used as a surrogate communications
structure to ensure essential service during times of crisis.
Once again, presence technology can potentially add even greater rigour
and flexibility to this process. The ability to locate and communicate
with staff in various situations and environments is even more crucial
during times of crisis. Presence will ensure that priority messages are
issued to key managers over whatever device or medium they are available.
These messages could be set to override all other communications, ensuring
a prompt response. Use of presence technology to locate information
providers and key management could be enshrined in the companyï¿½s
disaster recovery policies and practices.
Managing The Meeting Mix
In conclusion, presence technology will enable staff to verify the
availability of and contact correspondents using the most appropriate
messaging tools and formats. This technology, backed by sound management
practices, has the potential to deliver efficiencies and new
opportunities. While the former focuses on improved and more accurate
decision-making, the latter includes opportunities for collaboration,
shared working, marketing, and contingency planning.
It is my belief that multitasking and presence technology will be
characterized, not by the surfersï¿½ voice, but rather by organizationsï¿½
capacity to communicate to their target audiences in a manner most
appropriate to their needs.
Jim Huzell is chief operating officer at Genesys Conferencing, a
global leader in integrated multimedia conferencing, providing a full
range of practical and innovative real-time collaboration and conferencing
services to over 18,000 clients worldwide. Additional information is
available at www.genesys.com.
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