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UC and social collaboration platforms: Will the twain ever meet?

Unified communications and social collaboration are different, often competing tools in the quest for anytime, anywhere (with anyone) computing.

In the first part of this primer on fostering communication in the workforce, analyst Tony Byrne broke down the dos and don'ts of social collaborationplatforms. Here, the president and founder of The Real Story Group, a vendor-independent analyst firm in Silver Springs, Md., dissects the connection between unified communications and social collaboration. The two might seem like natural twins, but as Byrne explains, the technologies not only are quite different but also are often seen as competitors.

Tony ByrneTony Byrne, president
The Real Story Group

In the drive to build the "connected enterprise," unified communications, or UC, and social collaboration platforms would seem to go hand-in-hand. How do these two communication platforms intersect?

Tony Byrne: They don't intersect all that much. Maybe they should, maybe they shouldn't.UC, which is primarily VoIP[Voice over Internet Protocol] and video, has been around a lot longer. The vendors tend to be a little more mature. UC is a proven set of technologies that are pretty essential and fairly ubiquitous. There can be a lot of dependencies on hardware and networking equipment. So, it is often perceived, rightly or wrongly, as more of an infrastructure investment rather than a business application. There has always been an obvious [ROI] for it, as well.

Collaboration and social networking really gained a prominence in the enterprise with Web 2.0. (For collaboration it was a rebirth; "social" was a new phenomenon.) A big premise of Web 2.0 is that people want to and are most comfortable with communicating by text. It was not explicit, but that was one of the big assumptions in Web 2.0. Wikipedia is a collection of texts with a few supporting images. So, the collaboration and social technologies that emerged from that were, for better or worse, very textually oriented.

Social networking can have both tactical and strategic value for the enterprise. A prudent enterprise is going to be making investments in these areas.

The second thing is that social collaboration has evolved into very specific business-facing applications. We isolate about a dozen of these -- things like "social Q& A," innovation management and expertise location. These are business-facing applications that often require substantial customization at a code level to make them work right within your enterprise. As an industry we are still sorting through what is a good practice for that, and certainly vendors are still struggling. These are early days. But, one thing this isn't is infrastructure: You can't buy it, nor should you implement it as infrastructure. It has to be very contextualized within your enterprise.

Another big difference is that unified communications tends to be primarily synchronous, or “real-time,” as the UC folks would say, while social collaboration has been characterized as asynchronous, or non-real-time collaboration. There is some intersection, and where it does get kind of interesting is around presence. The collaboration tools that embrace more real-time interaction, including chat and instant messaging, presuppose presence and are beginning to wander into asynchronous video. That is not nearly the same thing as desktop conferencing, but you can see where one is inching toward the other.

Do you see UC and social collaboration converging?

Byrne: I don't think there is a master convergence. If anything, there is a kind of fight going on around presence. The big collaboration vendors want you to use their presence infrastructure. What you can't do on these big platforms is use somebody else's presence with hooks into another UC infrastructure, unless you do a lot of jerry-rigging and custom development.

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My wish would be that that all of these vendors would make it possible to have a separation of concerns. So, if I had a collaboration platform and I already had a UC platform, particularly one that had built-in presence and messaging, I could inject one into the other, so I am not locked down. What's happening now is we're seeing places where an individual employee has to have two or more [instant messaging] clients because they were built into the systems and applications they are using, as opposed to the IM being a layer that could live under a variety of applications.

You said the ROI in UC is pretty clear-cut. How about the ROI for networking and social collaboration tools?

Byrne: On the more new-fangled collaboration and social computing side of the house, both the vendors and the technologies are still in something of an emergent phase. There is clearly a business case for it. There have clearly also been a number of failed pilots. Many of the firms that have been most successful at this did not become successful until their second or third attempts. And there certainly are challenges taking departmental pilots and then expanding them enterprise-wide. But some enterprises have done it.

It's not clear to me that the technology has lived up to all the hype that it is getting. And I don't believe the hype that this is the future and your company is going to go the way of the dinosaur unless you figure out social networking. But it can have both tactical and strategic value for the enterprise. A prudent enterprise is going to be making investments in these areas. I would argue that they make these investments carefully and [that] they don't just jump in whole hog without knowing what they are doing and, in particular, without doing careful due diligence on the vendors, because many of the vendors are so comparatively immature, relative to other software segments that we are all familiar with.

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Will text-based social collaboration platforms (and BYOD) render UC obsolete?