Wednesday, January 19, 2005

21st Century Communications

(This article originally appeared in CMA Newsline March 2004)

This article is one of a series intended to develop a theme for presentation at Enterprise Networks 2004, an event which includes the CMA Plenary keynote session so it will be well worth attending, see for more details.

There is a sea-change in communications coming, a tidal wave of sweeping innovation poised to invigorate our businesses and make knowledge working truly effective. The technical solutions already exist, the software has reached the marketplace, the standards are open, convergence is the launch pad and collaboration software with presence functionality promises to offer the renaissance of the information age. Unified Communications and Information (UCI) is the next big thing (TNBT). We either ride the wave, or get swamped by the tsunami. If you want to stay in business, get your cheque book out.

It sounds good, doesn’t it? (Apart from the bit about the cheque book). Let me dampen the daydream, bring you back down to earth and buy you a large virtual double espresso. Make sure you add sugar to sweeten the bitter reality pill. Now take a deep breath and smell that coffee…

When I hear the terms “paradigm shift” I reach for the buzzword bingo pad. When I see the word “leverage” I now mentally tune it out and replace it with the words “make use of”. When I read that the business case for something is compelling, I open my filing cabinet, go back three years and read the same words on the same subject, only with less caveats. When I speak of a “fractured communications landscape”, I want to give myself a good slap.

You can probably tell from the above that I am rather British in my outlook, scepticism is my middle name. I wouldn’t call myself cynical, just a practical pragmatist with a healthy streak of realism.

However, the space cadet in me is screaming for the stuff of sci-fi. I want a virtual personal administrator that organises my day for me, prioritises issues and preferably offers me solutions as well. I want instant transportation so that I can have an ad-hoc meeting anywhere in the world at short notice (or indeed go on holiday if the whim takes me). If technology can’t transport my atoms then I’ll settle for 3D holography via Joe 90 specs, or an RJ45 (or better still fibre optic connector, I’m a bit wary of Wi-Max) via spinal implant. I want to be able to express ideas to my Secretary when something occurs to me, be always in touch for people I want to be in touch with & have instant access to information as needed. I want to interact with others, share ideas, enjoy quiet time when I want to just think or relax. I want communicate effectively so much more and I want to push the technology barriers out of the way. Quick, more coffee…

The title of the article, 21st Century Communications, is the name of a book co-authored by Siemens and Bob Emmerson, an ex-pat Brit journalist living in the Netherlands. The book is a jolly romp through futurology targeted at senior management, so naturally enough, it isn’t at all technical. Bob appeared to invent the term UCI, which is the convergence of communications applications and information systems in order to make communication so much more effective.

The trouble with these visions comes with the unpleasant reality check- they all rely on software engineering, which remains a 20th Century discipline without centuries of embellishment, unlike, say, thatching. The trouble is, when you build a bridge, it can be measured, analysed, stressed, destruction tested and pronounced fit for purpose. When a Company produces a software product, it only does what it says on the box because lawyers write weasel words ensuring that the definition of what it is suitable for are non-specific enough to be as slippery as black ice.

Software Engineering has evolved considerably over the last 20 years, however doing it right requires a clear specification, robust design, vigorous testing, tight management, disciplined enhancement and a reliance on tools and applications from others also doing what they say on the box. Couple this with commercial reality and it is no wonder that IT projects often fail to deliver the three essentials- on time, on scope, on budget. More anon!

No comments: