The Fuzzy Future – and Present – of Unified Communications

Monday Feb 8th 2010 by Carl Weinschenk

Communications-enabled Business Processes (CEBP) are the future of unified communications. That isn't surprising, since CEBP is, in a sense, UC's past and present as well.

Communications-enabled Business Processes (CEBP) are the future of unified communications. That isn't surprising, since CEBP is, in a sense, UC's past and present as well.


Unified Communications (UC) is a sea of slightly fuzzy terms and acronyms. CEBP fits firmly into this vague landscape since a business process – with or without CEBP capabilities – offers alerts and finds other ways to keep people and other processes informed of its status and progress. CEBP, a term attributed to Gartner, pushes the envelope by embedding communications functions deeper within business processes and making them more proactive and integral to the task at hand.

Suppose, for example, a CRM suite is CEBP-enabled. A person using the product would be able to identify folks needed for an emergency or impromptu meeting, get the details of their presence status and establish the meeting. This can all be done from a menu or some other user interface resident within the program itself. In a non-CEBP scenario, these tasks would need to be performed manually by different programs. It is, quite simply, a more cumbersome and inefficient approach. CEBP also facilitates communications in which one or both of the communicating entities are machines.

Dan Miller, the senior analyst and founder of Opus Research, uses a mortgage processing procedure as an example of CEBP's capabilities. Processing a mortgage involves several layers of communications performed over an extended period of time, and often has interim and final deadlines that can't be missed. People must speak to people; forms must be sent out, completed and returned; and various visits and meetings must be set. Some steps can't begin until another is completed. In some cases, third parties must be called in. This all can be done manually. However, a variety of automated person-to-person, machine-to-person, person-to-machine and machine-to-machine communications processes will undoubtedly speed the process considerably.

The basic premise is similar to computer telephony integration (CTI), an earlier vintage technology that found – and still finds – use in data centers. Bern Elliot, a vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, suggests that a clear distinction be made between CEBP and CTI. He suggests that CTI focuses on voice communications, while CEBP runs the gamut of communications channels used in any UC environment, inside or outside the contact center. CEBP, he points out, is more deeply enmeshed in the process and able to provide far deeper functions to users.

More Than Semantics

This is more than a semantic debate. The lack of specificity in the terms and how they relate to each other – particularly in the case of UC and CEBP – suggests that the industry is extremely unclear on how the future will unfold.

CEBP now generally is seen as a subset of UC. One school of thought is that the two will diverge. “We are at a fork in the development,” says Patrick Murphy, the vice president of Business Development for North America for VoiceSage, a company that offers online messaging tools. “I really believe UC is the next iteration of the PBX. It's being sold for the most part into the enterprise by the same folks selling [telecom] equipment to enterprises for ages.”

CEBP, he suggests, will be closely tied to the UC infrastructure – but have a home in the business processes, not the telecom network. Said Murphy:


“Where CEBP is clearly going is in the business process management, the business logic and business intelligence sort of direction. That's where it will be playing in the enterprise. I'm not saying that it's there yet.”
Indeed, this dichotomy – in which CEBP and UC are closely related but distinct – can be seen in the context of the tense relationship that exists between the IT and telecom worlds ever since the ascendance of the Internet protocol led the two formerly separate discipline to share quarters on the same network.

You See, It's UC-B and UC-U

Finding the dividing line between UC and CEBP is not the only way in which the industry slices and dices UC. An increasingly popular approach – and one that apparently originated with industry observers and consultants associated with UC Strategies -- is to split UC into two subgroups, UC-U and UC-B.

UC-U, unified communications, user-oriented, is the set of customer-facing tools that are most readily identified with unified communications. UC-B, or unified communications, business-oriented, represents the ways in which communications can be built into business processes to wring inefficiencies out of back-end processes. These most closely track with CEBP.

The bottom line is that technical capabilities are evolving quickly, and the conceptual thinkers – technical folks who have to harness those capabilities and marketing people who have to sell them – are struggling to make sense of the new realities. Opus Research's Miller says the economic slowdown has enabled organizations, which were not as engaged in revenue-generating activities as they would be during other times, to push the envelope on the underlying enablers.

One enabler is the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), which allows devices and software to communicate. The telecom and IT industries also created application-programming interfaces (APIs) and service-oriented architectures (SOA) that promote creation of sophisticated platforms.

These advances enabled communications tools from different areas to be knit together in more creative ways. Just as importantly, it enables the platforms to be created by folks without the technical abilities that were necessary for similar tasks in the past. “So it's easier than ever before for solution providers, application developers [and others] to choose best of breed technologies from anywhere in the information and communications stack,” he says.

The semantics of UC is very interesting. To some extent, distinctions are overstated. Don Van Doren, the president of Vanguard Communications, sees beyond UC-B or UC-U. “Irrespective of which terms you are using, the important concept is that both refer to conceptual ways of thinking of communications in business. Some people like to say UC-U and some people like UC-B. In my view, it is a pretty artificial distinction. The whole industry is shifting.”

The companies that control the message are the ones that will thrive. The importance of aligning terms – UC, CEBP, UC-U, UC-B and others – may be to enable the industry to organize itself and enable vendors, service providers and current and prospective customers to understand more clearly where it is and where it is heading.

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