As someone who writes a lot about enterprise social software, I kept waiting to hear more about how it fits with unified communications while attending UBM’s Enterprise Connectshow in Orlando.

I got my wish when Alistair Rennie, general manager for Lotus and collaboration solutions at IBM, took the stage for a keynote address. Rennie called social “a fundamental game changer for unified communications,” a technology that has been falling short of its promised potential for years.

Rennie then proceeded to give a speech that was almost entirely about social and very little about UC. The onstage demo he introduced was mostly about the IBM Connections enterprise social network and navigating from conversations to documents, with a brief demonstration of how you can move from a comment or a document to viewing its author’s contact information, reaching out with a Sametime instant message, and escalating from a textual message to a voice or video call. Most of the other speeches and demos at the show were just the opposite, with most of the emphasis on voice and video (and boasts about more flexible and scalable ways of delivering them) and passing references to social collaboration as another part of the picture.

Enterprise Social Networks: A Guided Tour

Perhaps that should not be surprising for an event that used to be called Voicecon and still caters to telecommunications and IT network managers trying to sort out the best ways of modernizing their voice and video infrastructures. Those people arguably have enough on their plates without also having to sort out the implications of social in the enterprise.

I’m not talking about social media in the contact center, as a channel for service and support–that’s been a hot topic for several years. I’m talking about enterprise social collaboration as a way of getting work done internally or with business partners, and whether its implementation is, or ought to be, connected with UC.

Typically, what gets unified in unified communications is the technology for handling voice, video, instant messaging, and email over Internet protocol networks. Although there’s some overlap–for example, with instant messaging often included in social networks–the UC market category was shaped before social media emerged with the prominence it has today. Meanwhile, UC adoption has proceeded in fits and starts, with many enterprises interested in parts of the package like voice over IP telephony, but not the whole thing.

“I don’t think we have any shortage of technology at this point, and most of them work,” Rennie said, but getting people to care about collaboration technology has been the hard part. That all changes with the advent of social software, particularly when an enterprise social networking initiative is aligned with business goals, as in the case of Cemex using social collaboration to cut in half the time required for product development.

Cisco has been the biggest proponent to date of the idea that unified communications and social collaboration should go together. In the Cisco Quad enterprise social network, starting a voice or video call with one of your social contacts is as easy as sharing a link, and voicemail from your Cisco phone can be displayed side-by-side with your social news feed. This year’s Enterprise Connect did offer a session specifically on enterprise social networking, featuring the Virgin Mediacase study I wrote about a few weeks ago.

“The workplace of the future will be way more social, mobile, visual, and virtual,” predicted O.J. Winge, Cisco senior VP and general manager for video and collaboration, notably putting social first on the list. “We have to remember it is not about the devices–it is all about people, and allowing them to become more productive and create more value for their companies.”

Winge didn’t talk much, if at all, about Quad, focusing more on the new version of Jabber, which turns a pretty sociable instant messaging client into a launchpad for voice and video calls.

Microsoft’s keynote presentation from Kirk Koenigsbauer, corporate VP for Office, casually referred to the product line that includes SharePoint and Lync as delivering a great social experience. Microsoft has recently promised greater investment in enterprise social software, where SharePoint in particular is often characterized as incomplete. On the other hand, a more complete Microsoft social collaboration experience, combined with Lync for realtime collaboration, could potentially finish the job Cisco set out to do with Quad. We’ll see.

People I’ve spoken with at pure-play enterprise social networking firms like Jive Software and Yammer tend to think it’s enough to display a profile page with a phone number, without necessarily allowing you to place a call.

Where social is starting to show its face in UC is by letting us see people’s faces. Faces are typically shown in an instant messaging context–during the exchange of messages, if not in the contacts list. I’m half convinced that half the magic of social software is letting us see people’s faces, next to their names, in the context of a conversation. That’s a godsend for people like me who have trouble remembering names.

With the Avaya Flare experience, which includes the Flare desktop device, as well as Flare for Windows and Flare for iPad, you short through a social directory that includes people’s faces and deal selected contact cards into a conference call or videoconference.

Alcatel-Lucent is doing something similar with its OpenTouch Conversation software, to be delivered first on the iPad with versions for other devices and for PCs to follow. Alcatel-Lucent announced the iPad product and demonstrated it at Enterprise Connect, with the product’s release targeted for this summer. In the OpenTouch version, your view of contacts starts by showing you the history of your recent conversations, as well as a projection into the future based on the people you have appointments with on your calendar. You also get a buddy list across the bottom of the screen. As with Avaya’s Flare, you select the people you want to connect with by dragging their contact cards onto an onscreen “stage.” Both products allow you to connect your social networks to your contact list, so that you get a photo and some profile information for that person even if it’s not available in your corporate directory.

“Yes, it’s a little like Flare except clearer and less clunky,” Alcatel-Lucent’s Craig Walker, worldwide director of solution management, told me. So far, Avaya has made only voice calls and conferencing available on Flare for iPad, delivering video only on its tethered tablet-like Flare device for executive desktops.

I don’t want to get any deeper into a feature comparison–my point is only that putting faces next to names is being recognized as an increasingly important part of unified communications. Of course, video calling means always getting to see faces, but with social you can see them even before you place the call.

One of the best indications I had of the face phenomenon was a conversation with Sococo, a startup I like to think of as the bobblehead collaboration company. While hardly a household name, Sococo has proven it’s possible to create a sense of connection and intimacy even with a fairly abstract representation of remote participants. Each person is represented onscreen as a colored ball with just a bit of character. Essentially animated status icons, these avatars signal their availability for a call, videoconference, or impromptu chat visually–for example, by whether or not the avatar is wearing a headset or whether the door to its virtual office is open or closed. Sococo team spaces can also include screensharing and other modes of collaboration.

Sococo’s style of virtual collaboration contrasts with more literal, Second Life-style 3-D collaboration spaces, exemplified by products like Avaya’s web.alive (soon to be renamed AvayaLive Engage). However, Sococo president Chris Wheeler thinks incorporating people’s real faces might not be such a bad idea, after all.

“We are working on a way to overlay faces on top of the avatars. We haven’t done that yet, but it’s one of the most common requests,” Wheeler said. Possibly, the faces could be included in a pop-up contact card, or be displayed when the user hovered his mouse over an icon. The abstract avatars work as “a constant reminder of who is there, physically or virtually,” and as a way of organizing who is or is not available and who is included in which meetings, he said. “At the same time there is no substitute for the face.”

Source: David Carr, Information Week

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