Consumer unified communications technology is entering the enterprise, ready or not, on the coattails of employees looking to connect more quickly in more ways with more people.
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"There's tremendous grassroots adoption," said Zeus Kerravala, Yankee Group's vice president for enterprise infrastructure. "I don't think banning it outright works. Users will find a way."
Indeed, enterprises might do well to use these power users to experiment with and better evaluate the value that unified communications can bring to the company.
With that in mind, below is a roundup of some UC applications making waves, as well as tips on managing them and similar programs. There is a good chance that even if you haven't heard of them, your users already have.
Twitter Twitter is a service that lets users broadcast -- via a Web page, instant messaging, application or text message -- short messages to a group of other Twitter users, who could be co-workers, friends or even total strangers. Users can communicate with others (no matter where they are), using consistent, familiar mechanisms.
Pros: Twitter doesn't have a robust feature set, but its appeal is in its simplicity, which some users have leveraged into a makeshift conferencing tool.
Tim Davies, a youth empowerment consultant in Leicester, U.K., recently used the service to get live feedback from the audience during a conference his company held, entitled "Practical Ideas for Participation Gathering." After a few minutes of setup via cell phones, attendees could text a central number to pose questions, respond to speaker sessions, answer polls, and receive updates on how other members of the audience were responding.
"We didn't know what to expect, really, but the really useful bit was the two-way communication," Davies said. He decided to experiment with Twitter because he wanted to get live feedback throughout the day's event so that he could adapt to the attendees' responses and deliver a better conference to them.
Davies also hoped that Twitter would encourage attendees to continue discussing the subject of the conference with one another afterward.
Davies' website illustrates how he pushed all the feedback onto a projection screen. The screen showed attendees that their feedback was being heard by conference organizers while they shared their thoughts with other attendees.
Cons: As Davies noted on his website, Twitter turned out not to be free for everyone. Because of texting area codes, some users got hit by large surcharges on their cell phone bills.
Davies also said he would avoid using Twitter in mission-critical situations because it is prone to the occasional outage.
In addition, organizers interested in using Twitter should be comfortable with the idea of some participants thumbing texts throughout a discussion while also accounting for ways to get feedback from those who are not so cell phone savvy. (Davies suggested groups of users might share a cell phone to provide feedback.)
The oldest program on our list, Skype, is also one of the most versatile. It's an IM client, a softphone, and a videoconferencing tool all rolled into one slick package.
Pros: Skype continually improves its features and tweaks its pricing, but the fundamentals remain the same: Calls, video and chat to other Skype users are free, and calls to landlines are cheap.
"I don't think we could do what we're doing without the [communications] applications we use," said Jon Bischke, founder of remote language tutoring company EduFire. EduFire uses a combination of Skype, Apple iChat and 37Signal's Basecamp to keep employees and contractors across the globe connected. "For our communications software, we probably pay under a couple of hundred dollars a month."
Bischke said using free consumer tools had a number of fringe benefits, such as almost eliminating training time because of simplified interfaces and allowing outside parties to easily join in conversations.
"If I was using more cumbersome software, it would make it much harder for me to bring [contractors] up to speed," Bischke said.
He also said the lack of enterprise-grade quality assurance didn't faze him.
"I think that there's the notion that hosted software is less reliable, but I think it's the opposite," he said, pointing to the trouble that many IT departments have in keeping software running 100%.
Even when network congestion makes Skype calls drop, Bischke said, the program's built-in chat adds a level of redundancy -- if one form of communication doesn't work, just switch to another.
Cons:"Free" comes at a price. Quality issues have been persistent, particularly if Skype is being used from home. Someone downloading in the other room, or even down the street, can kill a call. Even a large email has been known to ruin a conversation, so Skype might not be appropriate for that critical sales call.
Security and compliance are also concerns, particularly for the enterprise. Security will require education about what kinds of information employees can and cannot send via less-secure channels, with best practices regularly reviewed. Compliance will vary by industry, but while there are products to monitor and control more consumer-oriented IM protocols, some companies might do better with stricter enforcement of what programs are acceptable for use.
Qik is a young service that lets users stream live video from their cell phones to an embedded video player on the Web, where users can comment on -- and even chat about -- the on-screen action in real time. The videos are then saved and can be viewed later by visitors.
Pros: Despite Qik's decidedly consumer flavor, Bhaskar Roy, company founder and vice president of marketing, said a lot of companies were developing innovative business uses for the service.
Broadcasting meetings and conferences is an obvious application, but Roy said it was also popular with field service technicians who, when running across a problem they hadn't seen before, could broadcast live video to the home office and get instant support.
Roy illustrated the potential of this approach by telling the story of a young girl whose braces became loose in the middle of the night. The girl's father called her orthodontist.
"The father said: 'My daughter is really in pain, so what can you do?' " Roy said. "They started Qik and … the doctor was able to show the person what to do, and walked the parent through fixing the braces."
Do-it-yourself surgery is an extreme case, but the ability to cut down on repeat service trips has the potential to cut serious costs while boosting customer satisfaction. As Qik adds more kinds of streaming – phone-to-phone communication is in the works, Roy said – the possibilities will expand.
Cons: Don't expect to widely deploy Qik anytime soon: The service is still in Alpha, with rolling invitations extended to those who register. Also, the supported devices are limited to a number of Nokia phones, although Windows Mobile support is coming, according to Qik.
Enterprises should be cautious about what they broadcast and to whom. Streaming company meetings to remote employees is great until financial or competitive data is leaked accidentally. The service has privacy settings to help keep internal streams internal.