Saturday, January 22, 2005

21st Century Presence

(This article was part four of a series intended to develop a theme for a presentation at the Enterprise Networks Conference 2004, an event which included the CMA Plenary keynote session. See for more details)

When I was in the throes of youth, presence meant actually being there, typified by dear Blondie always being touched by it and Level 42 perfecting it in silence physically.

Charismatic people are sometimes described in terms of their presence dominating the room through force of personality, apparently an essential must-have for MP selection in the days where empathy was less important than staying on message & winning arguments.

Presence doesn’t always mean people, as sung by Alison Moyet going weak in the presence of beauty in 1990.

When the Internet became recognised as a serious business tool, the term presence became accepted to mean having a web site, whether a simple page, a full e-commerce site or all of the variants in between. Indeed a straw poll of ICT people suggests that this is still the general view, although “increased presence” generally relates to improved rankings on the major search engines rather than bigger sites.

From a communications perspective, presence can be thought of as a real-time indicator of likely availability when someone wants to contact someone else. Does this already exist? On some channels but not others.

· With voice, you generally don’t find out if someone is available until you call them, at which point you may get busy tone, get routed to messaging, get answered by someone else or get ignored. In sophisticated PBX systems, the Operator may well be able to see that a user is on the phone or has redirection activated (or possibly has “Do not disturb” with a given reason, such as on holiday or in a meeting). With feature phones, it is often possible to get visual indication of colleague status so that ascertaining when to call is easier. The use of CTI soft phones is making this more flexible but there is still some way to go.
· With mobiles, the likelihood of contacting someone is probably higher provided that they carry their phone around with them in a pocket rather than leave it in a jacket or handbag. However, it still takes a call to find out & there is the possibility of being rebuffed through use of the call reject key, whether a reaction to circumstance (in a meeting, driving etc.) or conscious rejection (I don’t want to speak to him….!).
· With email, the message is sent in hope of being read but there is a certain level of faith involved. An out of office message may advise on non-availability but the reply might come in a few seconds, a few days or never. The same applies to SMS to the extent that if it doesn’t get received immediately it could be delayed considerably.
· With instant messaging, presence is essential- if someone isn’t available then they can’t be contacted. Users create a “buddy list” which is updated real-time showing who is online. Of course, depending upon the implementation, people may be sending messages to users who are showing as available but they aren’t actually sitting at their PC, which may be in screen saver mode.
· With video, the same constraints as voice apply, although once desktop video becomes widespread there is scope to improve this for users not overly hung up about privacy.
· When we take mobility into consideration, another form of presence is whether a user is actively logged on to a specific application or on the network in general. The latter is currently problematic in that whilst we might know when someone last logged on we can’t be entirely certain they still are. Indeed they could be logged on at more than one PC.

So we can see that presence is around but not particularly joined up across the channels. How would we like presence to work?

When we want to contact someone, we make conscious decisions as to what channel to use based on our own perceptions of importance and urgency of the topic. They are influenced by knowing something about the likely response of the other person, i.e. there may not be too much point discussing a complex spreadsheet to someone equipped only with a mobile and a car driving to Edinburgh. They are also tempered by the reality of realising that our own perceptions of importance and urgency may not align with the other person, particularly if there is a seniority deficit.

Sometimes we choose a less than ideal channel out of deference (without even realising).
We may send an email to someone hoping they will ring us because we can’t get past a defensive secretary or we know that they use voice mail as the first line of defence and triage to the level that they never quite get a round tuit. Conveniently wandering past their office often circumvents this but what if they (or you) are 300 miles away or work from home?

Working from home focuses the mind considerably, as that human need to interact with others and feel part of a team is heightened by the lack of contact, even for Agents who talk to Customers all day. Without the comfort of being able to walk around a workspace and see who is in, at the coffee machine, in the restaurant and so on, it is easy to end up feeling detached from belonging. Technology cannot be a panacea for this, but it can go some way to making communication more effective.

How do we want it to work? The instant messaging approach is a good start. We create buddy lists of people we regularly collaborate with and we can see at a glance what contact method is going to work at this moment in time. The traffic light analogy works well-
· red means stop, this method will not be successful (e.g. on the phone, all calls forwarded, currently in a collaboration session)
· green means go, you will almost certainly be able to communicate with the person in real-time. Of course, they may decline to respond due to particular mitigating circumstances (building being evacuated, off for a fag break, don’t like you etc.)
· Amber means warning- it may not be successful as the user is around but not near the phone, logged in but in screensaver mode, mobile switched on but possibly out of contact (poor signal area, in the basement, in a tunnel).
· There is also a fourth state on the traffic light- greyed out (phone unplugged, PDA switched off etc.)

To make this more effective, we want hooks into all of our applications & devices so that it becomes embedded and ubiquitous, coloured entries in our mobile directories, icons in our inbox, even traffic lights on our telephones.

What about people who are pseudo-buddies? Ones we might want to interact with occasionally or on a one-off basis but not to the extent that they are worthy of a constant refresh on our devices. For this we might want the presence equivalent of ring back when free, a check availability button that gives us a snapshot of their public presence status (and preferably not have to pay 10p to use it!)

As someone with a buddy list, this implies making presence information available to others. In this case, it needs to be somewhat Shrek like (Ogres are like Onions) in that it starts off simple at default settings and complexity can be layered to suit so that, for example, during the annual appraisal the only thing that intrudes is the Halon being triggered in the Server Room. Similarly, when generally available, calls from recognised Telesales nuisances go to the messaging equivalent of spamtrap.

There are great claims made for presence- it is suggested that Tel-Tag & multiple contacts can waste up to 20 minutes or so of a typical business day. The reality is more mundane, of course, as that doesn’t necessarily translate to 20 minutes of increased personal effectiveness.

What presence needs to become essential is to prove itself incredibly useful. This means that green lights represent that the other person will definitely see or hear what is sent every time in a timely fashion. How can we ensure this? We could include passive infra-red detectors (or RFID detectors) in our hardware so that there is a high probability that there is someone actually at the desk (or looking at a PDA) when status is green. We can make a lot of the status decisions be based on sensible intelligence- if I am collaborating in a desktop teleconference I don’t want instant messages from the security man asking me if I still have the garden shed for sale (but might want to know if he is telling me I have left my lights on). We have to allow for human error and mitigate against still being on holiday three days after coming back.

What else do we need? The Internet needs to come of age and turn into the Quinternet (the new made up name for the Quality Internet). We need more standards that are designed with presence at their heart rather than the current crop of applications emulating & postulating what is going on across disparate systems. We need seamless integration, Carrier Class ruggedness on hardened Servers, robust software that is particularly resilient in the face of adversity, rather a lot of bandwidth for the vast amount of overhead that all of this burble will generate and a lot of innovation.

There are a lot of things still to get right but if you listen carefully, that grinding noise is the sound of a paradigm being shifted. It isn’t very loud yet but it will turn into a roar.

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