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Bridging the collaboration age gap with unified communications and Web 2.0

This article appears in the issue June 2007, [Vol 16, Issue 6]

If you haven’t noticed it yet, you will. The younger you are, the more likely you generally favor real-time time collaboration tools over asynchronous (non-real-time) ones. Young adults who are already or will soon be in the workplace prefer tools that can deliver immediate results with no waiting.

According to an online survey, conducted in the fall by the Associated Press and AOL, almost half of teens use instant messaging (IM), and almost three-fourths of teens use IM more often than e-mail, while less than a quarter of adults use IM, and almost three-fourths of adults who use IM use e-mail more often than IM.

What does this tell us about the future of collaboration in the workplace? With the work force getting younger, does this age divide mean that IM, along with other real-time collaboration tools such as voice and video over IP, toll the death bell for e-mail? Should workers expect to see their e-mail clients fade into the sunset as IM and IP softphone and video clients rise in prominence?

For some workers, the answer will be emphatically yes. Due to the recurring scourge of spam and parasitic malware accompanying e-mail and the need for faster, real-time interactions, some adults will be joining teens and younger workers in choosing IM over e-mail. Only the stray e-mails from people unaware of those workers’ preferences will force them to maintain e-mail mailboxes. Demand for real-time collaboration tools generated revenue of $1.3 billion in 2006, which represented nearly one-quarter of all collaborative application revenue.

Unified communications

However, the majority of workers and their organizations will recognize the continued validity of e-mail’s
value proposition as the easiest and ubiquitous way of exchanging information with anyone, regardless of that person’s current availability or network. The majority will also recognize that using the right tool for the job is nearly always the best approach.

According to the AP-AOL survey, even e-mail and IM are set aside and the telephone is used by both teens and adults for sharing serious or confidential news. For effective collaboration, this means that workers would benefit from easy access to a single toolbox containing a wide variety of different types of tools for communication and coordination. Which tool gets chosen at a particular time will depend on a mix of factors including the specific business process at hand, the number and location of people collaborating, the degree of iteration/back-and-forth needed, the worker’s personal preferences, and his or her organization’s compliance and corporate governance requirements.

Unified communications (UC) is the name that IDC (idc.com) and the vendor community are using to refer to those rich toolboxes that will be available from within existing e-mail and IM clients as well as new clients and application platforms. The latest UC solutions from one or multiple sources bring together unified messaging (single inbox for e-mail, fax and voice messages), advanced IP telephony calling and management, Web, audio and video conferencing, instant messaging, and pervasive presence management and awareness—all accessible through speech-enabled, unified user interfaces for desktop and mobile devices.

Unified messaging

Those new UC solutions are poised to drive widespread adoption of unified messaging (UM), as well as IM and conferencing applications in the workplace, as part of UC deployments targeted at upgrading aging voicemail, fax and telephone systems. UC offers a much broader range of benefits for both information workers and IT staff than the individual applications offer alone, by delivering asynchronous and real-time collaborative applications as part of a comprehensive set of IP communications services, available within unified user interfaces and contextually within next-generation enterprise workplace applications, to workers of all types and roles.

Asynchronous collaboration is also making a comeback in Web 2.0 applications such as blogs, wikis, application mashups, bookmarking/tagging and social networking sites. While those lack the immediacy of real-time interactions, they help people to access and share community and user-driven content. The new tools have the cool factor to appeal to younger workers and the ease of use and relevance to appeal to older workers, whose collaboration needs are not being met by existing IT solutions available in the workplace.

Instead of real-time collaboration tools replacing asynchronous ones in the workplace, UC and Web 2.0 applications will enable all workers to move easily and quickly among various collaboration tools and modes, choosing the most appropriate one for the particular task at hand. 


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