Hiding in Plain Sight: The Problem With Presence

In my role with Avaya, I’m frequently asked about my views on unified communication. Often what people really want to know is how important is presence and IM and how is this evolving in the market. This is a difficult question and I find different leaders may give different answers depending on the focus area or use cases.

I recently spent a week with a number of customers and had some time to share my personal views on this topic – which is now the subject of this blog. To my surprise nearly all the executives I spoke with hadn’t given much thought to the bigger problem with presence – one that I believe is right in front of them.

Let me begin by saying that the presence/IM model is initiator centric. What this means is that a person has a client that represents the state of a set of other people. The client indicates a change in the state of a person who is part of this set by changing icons, or colors, or reordering contacts. I decide to contact a specific person based on the indicated represented state, which opens a dialog window for text exchange – or IM. This IM may be escalated to voice or video or web-collaboration at a later time. Since I initiate a session based on this client dashboard – we refer to the model as – initiator centric.

On this dashboard, however, a person is attractively present – or available — when they are typing away on their computer. They are less attractively present when their keyboard has been idle, they are using a phone, they’ve been logged off the network, their computer is off, or they are known to be using a mobile client. A person is most present when they are actively typing on their computer.

The problem is this: In my book, a person typing away on their primary productivity platform is being productive, engaged in a mental flow resulting in documents, communications, and system updates. In a word, they are productive. When a person is being productive is when I’d least like them to be interrupted. It seems somewhat problematic to indicate that a person in the middle of a productive flow is attractively present.

Thus, the problem with the presence/IM model is that it seductively puts the power of collaboration in the initiator’s hands. The initiator gets immediate gratification, the recipient can hardly claim ignorance of the request with the blinking notification at the bottom of their screen as the recipient is published as being available right now on the primary productivity platform.

The result is that the productive workflow is interrupted. Is there a different model?

The obvious answer is yes. Both email and SMS provide a model where the message is crafted without respect to the recipient’s presence. The drawback to email is that the message does not receive the priority or timely response the initiator desires since it goes into a bucket with many other messages. . With SMS, the drawbacks are that delivery is best effort and requires a link to a device the recipient has, it might not be secure, but should be more immediate than email.

Is there a better model than this?

I assert that the answer to this question is a presence-aware model. This model would be totally different. Instead of focusing only on satisfying the needs of the initiator, it would focus on method of message delivery based on the needs/desires of the message recipient.

In a presence-aware model, for example, the recipient’s presence would be less attractive when he or she is in the middle of a productive work flow. I would change contact method when the recipient is in a meeting, with restrictions when the recipient is hosting a meeting, and even further restrictions if the recipient is presenting from the primary productivity platform while hosting a meeting. If the recipient is talking on a phone, sitting next to the primary productivity platform, I might change the notification method. If the recipient is away and on a mobile platform, I would want an iMessage or SMS delivery. Same might be true in the case that they are presenting whilst hosting a meeting. It would be easy to imagine changing notifications based on who is initiating and if they’ve marked the message as urgent (perhaps with even levels of urgency).

The point of the new model is that the needs of the recipient are respected and integrated with the needs of the initiator. A system built for this model would be aware of presence, device states, calendar state, location, and even productivity flow. A presence-aware model is more encompassing, reflecting a potential evolution of presence/IM systems that solves some of the flaws inherent to initiator centric dashboard style systems.

Before we define unified communications with a productivity-killing model as its base, we should collectively consider the impact to workflow and balance any unified communications approach to the needs of the initiator and recipient. Lets not just be present, lets be smart, lets be aware.

Until next time …

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