Saturday, April 26, 2014

Unified Communications?

Do you yearn for less complexity? If asked could you explain in basic terms? Wouldn’t we all be better off to heed the wisdom of Thoreau and “Simplify?”

Google the phrase “First Rule of Marketing” and you’ll find no shortage of opinions. Results will include the importance of brand, the clarity of message, the importance of customer service, ‘focus, focus, focus’ and many other suggestions. Marketing Week writes, “The first rule of marketing is to segment your customer base and tailor your offering to them.” A common and seemingly self-evident theme is that the customer needs to understand what you are trying to sell them. As pedestrian a concept as this may seem, amid the offerings of the "communications" industry I find many categories that confound. It may be fun in the next few paragraphs to pick on Unified Communications.

Do you think that the term Unified Communications carries clarity of meaning? Try to answer this simple question: If I want to buy a Unified Communication, what would you sell me? A simple straightforward message is illusive. Given all the energies we industry types spend trying to explain the meaning of the term to people, a more important question is, Does the term Unified Communications really mean anything? Especially to actual users and buyers does the term hold a semblance of relevance? Few of us can answer “yes” with earnest confidence.

In search of an easy definition of Unified Communication I consulted Wikipedia. I learned that, “Unified communications (UC) is the integration of real-time communication services such as instant messaging (chat), presence information, telephony (including IP telephony), video conferencing, data sharing (including web connected electronic whiteboards interactive whiteboards), call control and speech recognition with non-real-time communication services such as unified messaging (integrated voicemail, e-mail, SMS and fax). After a contemplative pause I read on.

If that mélange isn’t enough, the article continues quoting a principal of the company … wait for it …  COMMfusion, clarifying that, “UC is not necessarily a single product, but a set of products that provides a consistent unified user-interface and user-experience across multiple devices and media-types.” Okay thank you, I feel a bit less queasy.

This is but one example of how, rather than simple sentences our industry seems to strive for complexity. As if scientists we accumulate components into categories. Not unlike botanists cataloguing so many flora and fauna into Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species we constantly expand our cannon. Google the term Unified Communications and you get more than 22 million responses. This number grows daily and we obsess over these somewhat subjective classifications.

As if biologists discovering previously unknown life forms, we also constantly generate new species. I just learned about one of the latest evolutionary steps: “UCoIP.” I viewed a YouTube video that taught me this stands for, Unified Communications over IP. If that isn’t an enigma wrapped inside a puzzle, I don’t know what is.

We publish wikis, multimedia presentations, magazines, web pages and all manner of digital and print documentation. Yet, we continue to struggle to extract clarity. We come across to the uninitiated as whispering an amorphous murmur.  Don’t agree, here’s a test: How many blank stares have you encountered across the dinner table when answering the question, “What do you do?”

For us industry insiders, Contact Center, Convergence, Unified Messaging, Video, VoIP and other groupings become like our 50 Yard Line, Center Ice and Home Plate. We align ourselves against those categories, we toe the line, touch mitts and faceoff. We dedicate enormous energies to convince one another that often abstract ingredients coalesce into coherent concoctions.  

At times there are revelations. Recently I’ve begun to learn that there may be a distinction between using unified communications and collaborating. If accused of collaboration in an earlier lexigraphy, one would have landed in a lot of hot water.  Now the word carries a cache. Collaboration as an activity has somehow taken on a more virtuous connotation than simply communicating in a unified way. 

I’m really not sure where the demarcation exists between the two acts. Or maybe they are behaviors? I sense that at some point in my communications journey I may cease to be engaged in unified communications as I morph into collaboration. Or maybe I pass through like phases. Perhaps collaboration is yet another transition not unlike adolescence that will yield to some later maturity. Am I on a mystical journey toward some new communications enlightenment? Maybe a mantra is required.

Perhaps unified communications and collaboration exist along a spectrum or do I engage in a completely different activity when I choose one or the other? Maybe these are more like separate phenomena? Maybe they are as if the states of a quantum particle existing both on and off simultaneously? Perhaps we live in a communications multiverse where what you are doing at any instant depends upon who is looking and from what vantage and speed they are viewing? So many questions.

Given that this topic has provided me with an excuse to consume the past few minutes of your attention, perhaps I should be grateful for the milieu. After all I have chosen a career in the “explanation industry.” A ubiquity of confusion only works to my commercial advantage. Maybe I should just close my mouth and not bite one of the hands that feeds me. I can’t help myself. My mild OCD on the subject makes me yearn for simplicity. I have a feeling I’m not alone. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

My Salem State Story: What is Yours?

Salem State’s impact on my life has come into recent focus as my son enjoys his first year at the school. Over time the impact of graduation blended into the fuzzy background of busy life. Jobs, family and community among the layers of life’s responsibilities dulled my cognition of what Salem State has made possible. Visiting the campus, participating in the parent’s council, seeing how Salem State University is growing has caused me to reflect.

I remember that graduating from Salem State opened doors for me that most likely would have remained barred. After high school like much of the country in the late 1970s I was on a downward trajectory. My future much like the economy seemed in freefall. Jobs were increasingly scarce. In the decade previous we had seen our military retreat, a president leave office in disgrace. When we looked for leadership, adjectives including “malaise” had come to permeate the language of those who traditionally would have provided inspiration.

I had attended Salem full time for a couple of semesters after high school. The effects of an accident caused me to put my education on hold. I fell into a series of short lived jobs. I pumped gasoline, worked in a retail store, worked in food services, repaired cars and engaged in other undertakings that didn’t suit my temperament.

One day I was contacted about a possible job by a friend with whom I had worked a summer during high school. Out of his favor I landed a full time position with a well-known regional company. The job was entry level. I spent my days stocking shelves in a warehouse. It was a great place to work. The job gave me solid wages and comprehensive benefits. The benefits included tuition assistance.

Here is where my path led back to Salem State. The warehouse was on Jefferson Avenue in Salem. I met the women who would later become my wife. Michelle was then finishing her associate degree at North Shore Community College. She planned to matriculate to Salem.

I would never say that there is any lack of nobility to the work I was doing. I worked with great earnest people. Without material logistics and the talented people who do that work, our economy would grind to a halt. For me, I just needed more.

With the financial help of the company I went back to campus. Nights, weekend, summers I studied while upholding my work responsibilities. Nearly ten years passed from the time that I had first studied at Salem State until the day when I proudly strode across that stage in the Rockett Arena to claim my diploma.

Things moved fast from that point on. The company management wanted a return on their investment for the money they had paid in my tuition assistance. I moved from wearing warehouse coveralls to wearing a dress shirt and tie. I was given responsibility for management of a region wide computer network. The computer science skills I had obtained at Salem served me well. My days as a supplies attendant were behind me. Other skills from my business administration major at Salem would take me even further.

In the years since passed I have had many great adventures. I went on to study and graduate from an Ivy League university. I have had the opportunity to meet a president of the United States, celebrities and thought leaders. I have led teams paving the way to new uses of innovative technologies. I have testified before congressional committees and the Federal Communication Commission investigating the response to Hurricane Katrina. I have served on executive boards and joined with colleagues and friends to help people less fortunate.

Becoming reacquainted with the institution of Salem State University has caused me to wonder how many of these milestones may have been possible if not for the foundation laid at the school. Where would I be if not for Salem State?

My story is far from unique. For many Salem State alums the experiences, skills and knowledge attained have contributed to corresponding upward mobility and civic contributions. Curious about how big our impact may be I did some recent research on the professional social network, LinkedIn.

Among the nearly twenty thousand Salem State students and alumni who have LinkedIn profiles there is a spectrum of success stories. In the many thousands we Salem State Alumni list ourselves in the fields of education, entrepreneurship, government, healthcare, operations, sales and many other categories.

I learned that as valuable economic contributors we span the country branching out from New England to every corner of the United States and internationally. We are professionals, civil servants, executives and leaders. We are in fields including finance, information technology, human resources, marketing, consulting, art, media and communications. We lead companies. We are members of congress. We serve in the military and in public safety. We shepherd agencies, bureaus and ministries.

Impressive as is the information from LinkedIn, it represents only a segment of the positive impact that Salem State contributes our communities and our economy. Salem State has educated people for than one hundred and fifty-seven years. We are among over fifty thousand living Salem State graduates. The school serves over ten thousand undergraduate, graduate and continuing education students annually.

There are Salem State students who follow the traditional path from high school graduation to a Salem State degree. There are students who take advantage of Salem to continue their education, maintain professional standing and pursue graduate degrees. There are people like me who followed the less traditional path working full time while studying at Salem seeking to improve life for themselves and those who depend upon them.

Too often Salem State does not receive the deserved credit. Too often the uniformed may speak of Salem as a second choice to the better branded intuitions. We are too often thought of as a “safety school.”

This perspective is belied by our stories. Juxtaposed against the costs to both the individual and to society at large, Salem State is a bargain. There is an ill-defined but important metric. When you consider the economic and civic contributions made by the institution to the fabric of our community and what we alumni have contributed to the world at large, the quotient of Salem’s value to the societal investment ranks high.

Maybe the reason Salem State University’s value remains less well recognized is because of the nature of our alumni community. Predominantly a commuter school, it has been difficult over time for many of us to form the kinds of bonds that those who have been through the archetypical campus experience may achieve. For me, the Monday after graduation was another day at work. Although regrettable in hindsight, my workplace life was far more important to me than any bonds formed with the campus.

That being said, it is possible for us to change people’s perspective on Salem State University. Are not what our Salem State experiences have meant worth greater attention and more general respect? Don’t our Salem State experiences mean individually and collectively more than just so many entries at the bottom of so many résumé pages?

Social media is one tool to change this perspective. How about you? What is your Salem State story? Let’s use the power of social media to change the conversation and tell the true story of Salem State University.

What has your Salem State experience meant to your life? Because of Salem State, how have you contributed to the world? Take a few minutes to tell your Salem State success story.

Ways to use social media to connect with Salem State and fellow alumni: