The current buzz in the unified communications industry is that UC is itself undergoing a transformation, to social communications. In a previous post I talked about the explicit/immediate nature of realtime communications and how that complements the asynchronous nature of social applications like wikis and activities. But the mood of the industry isn’t that UC and social will be side by side, it is that there’s a new thing called social communications — for example, the "VOIP Now" LinkedIn group I belong to changed its name to "Social Unified Communications". More bluntly, ModelMetrics asks, Is Unified Communications Dead?
Let’s look at what some analysts say. Forrester describes the UC –> SC transition like so:
… a new generation of social enterprise apps will finally deliver the productivity businesses desire by systematically grouping and rating people, information, and processes required to answer business needs. By creating a social layer between information workers and the applications and communications infrastructure, social enterprise apps will overcome the adoption malaise that has affected UC&C.
The nugget here is there’s a "social layer" that makes UC more consumable. Gartner, some time back in its "Top 10 Strategic Technologies for 2011" called out a category of Social Communications and Collaboration, consisting of 4 components: Social networking — profile and social-graph capabilities; Social publishing — capabilities like communities and feeds that enable social dissemination of content; Social feedback — ratings services and opinion tracking; and, Social Collaboration — blogs, wikis, file sharing, plus all the functions we know and love as part of UC … instant messaging, online meetings, VOIP, video and more. The net here is, again, that UC gets value out of being part of a larger social machine.
What I can’t tell from this sort of description is whether "social communications" is really anything new, or is just plain ol’ UC with a bunch of social stuff around it. I do think if we’re all going to be using this social communications stuff we ought to start putting down what that means. I get that an IM will always be an IM and a video a video, but there has to be something substantial about social communications, apart from the name.
So, where to start? Seems to me the first place where SC diverges from UC is in organizing and finding people to communicate with. I think we all naturally get that social is about people — it’s who your friends are and who their friends are, and so on. The social graph is what gives social its power — when our network of contacts provides links or other content we generally will be interested, because we tend to like or be interested in the same things our friends like/are interested in.
A social communications capability has to leverage this. First, instead of its own static and unconnected list of people, SC needs to work with the network or networks you already use. Second it has to show you context from those networks — it’s not enough to see the name, you have to see that person’s last post, their last microblog, or their last location. And last, it has to give you access to not just your contacts, but to people in the extended network — for example people who are not your friends (yet) but who respond to your friends’ posts.
Don’t forget that wherever people are, some scheme for privacy is needed. IM products have created a lot of features here; for example in Sametime you can define white-lists — lists if people explicitly permitted to talk to you — or black-lists — lists of people who are blocked from talking to you. We still need that, but we also need to extend these concepts to recognize the social graph — for example I might say my friends and friends of friends can always contact me, but those who are 3rd order contacts and higher get a different experience, perhaps triggering some opt-in prompt asking if I want to grant them access.
To sum up, for a system to provide social communications there has to be some way to leverage the social graph – there’s power in your network and that power needs to be harnessed to help you communicate. In future posts I’ll be looking at other defining properties of SC – meanwhile don’t hesitate to share your comments on this or other UC topics.