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Feature Article
May 2004


From IP Telephony To Presence-Aware Communications

BY VIJAY K. BHAGAVATH, Ph.D. & TIM MILLER

Enterprise IP communications has come a long way. Since its inception in the early 1990�s as a toll bypass technology, it is now a mature VoIP communications solution experiencing a phenomenal 25-percent annual growth rate as estimated in the 2003 Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) Telecommunications Market Forecast Report.

Of all IP communications solutions, presence-aware communications, currently associated with devices such as telephones and PCs and applications such as instant messaging (IM), is fast emerging as a new metaphor promising to fundamentally transform business communications. Presence-aware communications has sparked strong interest from businesses and corporate users because it allows people to instantly connect with individuals or members of a workgroup. The growth in enterprise IM deployments and the widespread use of IM for routine business communications interactions is proof-positive of the interest from IT and business executives in presence-aware instant communications. In fact, a recent research report published by IDC estimates that 76 million enterprise users worldwide routinely use instant messaging for business communications interactions.

Yet, current presence-based solutions still leave something to be desired. IT and business executives find fault with the current model of presence-enabled communications, implemented in IM or IP telephony clients because of the tight coupling of an individual�s presence awareness with a specific device or application. The inadequacy in the device presence model can be obviated by a comprehensive presence model that is device and application independent, and is modular for low-cost integration into communications-intensive workflows in complex business processes like supply chain, order fulfillment, or customer service. The end-goal needs to be to simplify workflow and accrue ROI from IT investments by:

  • Substantially reducing transactions costs � currently constituting about 65 percent of the GDP; especially given significant third-party supply and mediation of information processing services in their corporate networks and supply chain;
  • Enabling faster and more timely business decisions; and
  • Ensuring consistently high levels of customer and employee satisfaction.

Multi-resource presence-aware communications, by definition, implies communications solutions that incorporate presence awareness at a device, user, and group level.

DEVICE PRESENCE
Device presence, collectively referring to the presence from physical devices such as telephones and PCs, virtual devices such as IM and attributes such as geographic location and network type, is today�s de facto presence model. Device presence, currently implemented rather restrictively in devices like desk phones and applications like IM, is typically recorded in enterprise servers (e.g., Microsoft�s Live Communications Server or Lotus Workplace Server) and is displayed via visual icons within office applications like Microsoft Outlook or Yahoo! Messenger. Presence associated with telephony devices such as desk phones can be either displayed on the phone screen or within a PC-based soft-client application.

Device presence, while a good starting point when the device or application best suited to reach a person is known, remains inadequate as a reliable means to communicate with an individual. This is the common experience many of us face in everyday business situations because sending an IM to an individual�s IM client like Yahoo! Messenger, doesn�t guarantee a response within a reasonable time.
Calling a person via a PC soft-client, after first verifying that the individual isn�t currently on the phone, can also be a game of guess work. The routine often starts out with calling the person�s office phone, leaving a voice mail if unavailable, then trying his/her mobile phone, leaving another voice mail, if unavailable, and so on. The result is often times an endless stream of call-me-back voice mails.
The solution to the communication scenarios just presented lies in the need to introduce two higher-level presence concepts: user presence and group presence.

USER PRESENCE
User presence aggregates presence from various devices, applications, and attributes such as networks and locations to present a unified and aggregated view of an individual�s presence status. This allows users to dynamically select their preferred device or application for real-time contact, facilitating instant access among corporate employees and their partners and customers.

User presence enabled applications also allow users to easily define rules � either explicitly or via automated links to utilities � to dynamically set their reachability through different devices or applications. These rules can be based on attributes such as time-of-day, location, and the people attempting to contact them.

As an example: When a product manager is on the road, he can establish rules that allow only sales reps and his supervisor to reach him live via his cell-phone, while restricting other priority contacts to reach him only via IM. He can route all other non-priority communications to his unified messaging inbox.

GROUP PRESENCE
Group presence generalizes the user presence concept across a group, aggregating individual users� presence into a workgroup. The presence aggregation rules can be set according to the needs of the workgroup � individual, quorum, majority, or all members. Individuals can use a group presence-enabled application to connect instantly with an available member of a group.
For example: A tech-support rep can instantly contact an available member of the Project-X development team, by simply clicking on the Outlook click-to-call icon: �Project-X dev team.�

Both user presence and group presence, by virtue of enabling instant person-to-person interactions, have significant workflow and business process impacts. The impact ranges from simplifying communications-intensive tasks in workflows involved in customer-service, order fulfillment, tech-support, or B2B supplier interactions, to individual and workgroup productivity improvements. The productivity benefits are especially evident in taking the guesswork out of contacting employees to set up conference calls and team collaboration sessions using presence-aware applications.

Vertical Presence-Aware Solutions
We describe two business scenarios in the following paragraphs to exemplify everyday business situations that stand to significantly benefit from a presence-based communications solution that is tailored to meet the needs of the firm in the example.

Retail Bank
Scenario: A loan officer in a branch office can accelerate mortgage loan approvals through an instant review process that typically involves getting a quick second-opinion from one (or more) senior managers at headquarters. By clicking on the audio conferencing tab from within their PC-based application a loan officer can request, in real time, a second opinion on a mortgage approval. While the bank�s competitors may take days exchanging documents among loan officers to approve a loan, the use of a presence-aware conferencing solution empowers the loan approvers to confer and close the transaction in minutes.

Business Impact: The bank can significantly improve its turn-around time for loan approvals and other financial transactions requiring several approval levels from employees scattered across geographic locations, using a presence-aware conferencing feature integrated into its vertical PC-based applications. Metrics that will be positively impacted include: 1) revenues, 2) customer retention and satisfaction levels, and 3) overall business costs, due to reduced need for specialists at every branch.

Hospital System
Scenario: Hospitals can utilize a presence-aware instant communications application to improve communication with staff and patients. A customized version of Microsoft Outlook or Yahoo! Messenger enhanced with visual or voice-activated presence tabs, like �internal-medicine-charge-nurse,� enable staff and patients to instantly communicate with an available charge-nurse in the internal medicine department.

Business Impact: The hospital gains by enabling its staff to communicate instantly with its colleagues in a more natural, unscheduled manner, rather than utilizing pre-arranged online interactions � which are often impractical in a hospital system. Metrics that will be positively impacted include: 1) improved patient care and higher employee/patient satisfaction levels, and 2) faster turn-around time to administer complex patient diagnostic procedures, which translates to lower operating costs and higher employee productivity.

The impact of today�s device-oriented presence communications with applications such as IM is interesting to compare with the business impact of the two user/group-presence-aware business communications solutions scenarios just described.

IM-style interactions benefit a firm by enabling speedy chat-style interactions in the workplace. Business processes that utilize user and/or group presence concepts, imbedded in enterprise applications, allow business users to remove the guess work out of reaching people involved in critical workflows. This improved workflow normally results in increased employee productivity, faster sales closures, and improved customer satisfaction levels.

Vijay K. Bhagavath, Ph.D., is a Senior Strategist, and Tim Miller is Director of Product Planning for Siemens Information and Communication Networks, Inc., a leading provider of network and applications technology for enterprises, carriers and service providers.

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