Social Networking, Unified Communications and the Future

Unified communications is a nice term. But, as many people – including myself – have written, it is a term that is in search of a precise definition. That’s been the case since the term was coined, and never has been more true than it is today.

Indeed, it’s impossible to talk about unified communications without overly or implicitly addressing this. For one thing, unified communications is a layer that sits above already existing processes and applications. Thus, it’s fluid and difficult to understand. Secondly, the technology is changing at breakneck speed. That tends to cloud the definition even more.

Social networking, for instance, only recently has entered the workplace. It has, in a very short time, made itself a very important element of the unified communications conversation. Caleb Barlow, the director of unified communications and collaboration at IBM, starts a recent post with a description of unified communications’ benefits with which insiders are familiar. Toward the middle of the post, he fully enfranchises social networking:

Traditional UC strategies include the intersection of instant messaging, video, and audio. Today, UC is evolving to include activity streaming, presence awareness with click to call/click to message, and seamless access and integration to social networks from a wide variety of devices and applications. This new form of UC, “social UC,” provides employees with the ability to take immediate action with their personal and professional network.  

That’s not surprising in the context of what has happened during the past couple of years. But, in the bigger picture of the past decade, planning for things like Facebook, Google+, Twitter and the rest – or corporate versions of them – represents a sea of change.

It’s interesting, however, that social networking is penetrating business in a non-uniform manner. InformationWeek reports on a study by the SMB Group that suggests companies are using social media more externally – to generate business and interface with the public – than internally.

The 2011 SMB Collaboration and Communications Study lists several applications, such as video sharing and photo sharing, that are used internally by less than 20 percent of survey respondents. The pokiness in adoption will continue, according to Laurie McCabe, a partner at The SMB Group:

McCabe doesn’t necessarily see that changing in the near future, particularly for applications and sites such as Facebook that are open to everyone and anyone. Among the reasons that’s noteworthy: Many of those tools are free, which should appeal to smaller companies. McCabe said SMBs aren’t setting aside big budgets for social collaboration. She attributes the gap in part to a lack of trust when it comes to sensitive company information. 

The bottom line is that social networking is part of the unified communications conversation. It is arriving in an inconsistent manner – new technology and approaches always do – but it is here to stay. The definition of unified communications, which will never be settled, has shifted yet again. 

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