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Feature Article
February 2004


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 �presence� 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 �presence� information, or a user�s 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, today�s 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 messaging tools.

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 Surfer�s 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, �surfer�s voice.� Surfer�s 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 �OK, yeah, uh-hum, right�� accompanied by the pervasive tapping of keyboard.

It is questionable whether this practice -- though certainly common -- really contributes to the efficiency of an organisation�s 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 -- individual offices.

Presence Etiquette
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 �presence etiquette� 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 user�s 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 States� 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 group�s 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 response.

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.

Contingency Planning
Another environment in which presence will be felt is disaster recovery and contingency planning. One of Europe�s most innovative and long established Internet service providers -- one of Europe�s 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 company�s 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 surfers� voice, but rather by organizations� 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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