Is My Baby Ugly?

Honest feedback is hard to find. The word collaboration implies a two-way exchange of ideas. Collaboration tools allow presenters to present ideas using rich media such as audio, video and web. PowerPoint makes it easy to communicate ideas in a compelling way, often well organized and sometimes even beautiful. Room-based video conferencing systems immerse the participant.

But immersed in what, a monologue?

Innovation is one of the most powerful assets any business can possess. Much of Michael Porter’s work as a professor at Harvard Business School focused on the links between creativity, innovation and competitiveness. Successful businesses invest in good ideas. They let the not-so-good ideas wither or they put them back in the oven until fully baked.

The trick is to know which ideas are good. It’s impossible to have one individual decide. The depth and complexity of any organization’s products and services are too broad for any one person to master. But the collective intelligence of the workforce has the answer.

Unfortunately, presenters usually use collaboration tools for only half of the innovation birthing process. Pride, fear, political dominance and plain old-fashioned good manners get in the way of gathering critical feedback. In order to collect honest feedback, participants need to feel free from negative repercussions.


“Is my baby ugly?” is the polling question I pose during my Microsoft Lync demonstrations to emphasis the power of the polling feature. Lync polls allow the presenter to gather anonymous feedback. They are easy to set up in advance or on the fly. It’s easy to interject polling questions during a presentation at just the right moment. The presenter has the option to share the results with the participants or keep them hidden. The results can be saved in a spreadsheet format (Comma Separated Values or CSV) for later analysis. This makes it easy to gather feedback from a very large group.

Getting critical, honest and immediate feedback is necessary to promote the best ideas within an organization. The polling feature of Microsoft Lync is often overlooked but powerful, enabling complete collaboration with a noticeable impact on business.

Have you seen projects get green-lighted at your organization when the majority of coworkers knew the project was a bad idea? Do you have an example of successfully using anonymous feedback to promote innovation? What was the effect on your business? Please share your experience.

Unified Communications Defined Redux

I’m taking another swing at a definition for UC.  In this version I want to capture the advantages to the user at the client-end but also capture the advantages to the IT team at the back office server-end.  I use the term data center because of the increasing influence of cloud technologies.  Back office systems are no longer necessarily in the back office – they may be in the cloud or a combination of the two.  Choices about location, administration services and asset ownership are becoming more numerous, fluid and flexible.  If you are an end user of unified communications or a manager of unified communications infrastructure, this is a great time to be alive.
Okay, enough hot air, here it is…

Unified Communications represents the natural progression and convergence of traditional but separate communications and collaboration systems such as phone systems, voice mail, conferencing and email.  In the data center, unified communications dramatically reduces the cost and complexity of communications by leveraging a common data network, common security infrastructure and common administration interface.  For end users, unified communications allows for the elegant integration of communication and collaboration features into desktop productivity software, mobile devices and web based systems resulting in productivity gains and competitive advantage.

Microsoft vs. Cisco

Microsoft vs. Cisco.  This is what I keep reading in the industry propaganda.  Of course providing information to customers to make informed decisions is the goal of vendor propaganda.  But do these two vendors create a point of mutual exclusivity?

Ever since the ‘P’ was put in the PBX the debate has raged about which vendor to choose.  Hidden in that choice is a question: is there any benefit to selecting more than one vendor?

Well before there were data networks as part of “communications”, there were only phone systems.  And at that time brand loyalty came in three big chunks that companies tried to consolidate under.  First the core call processing — the PBX and related phones — came from one vendor.  Next the messaging system — voice mail — could be permitted to be from another vendor; a Nortel PBX and an Octel voice mail system for example was a very popular combination.  And third, a call center could be from yet another vendor if need be.

I will not address the desktop PC wars.  I’ll just assert that Microsoft is the dominant PC desktop platform for business.

Nor will I address the data network wars.  Again, sorry to boil it out to such a macro scale, but Cisco is the dominant LAN/WAN vendor.

And now we look at the telephony battle today… dramatic music… we have Microsoft pushing into the telephony space, Cisco pushing into the telephony space, and the telephone guys already in the telephony space.

So, now, what are the big chunks that companies should try to consolidate under?  From reading the vendor marketing propaganda I think we are led to believe that companies should choose one of the “new” telephony entrants.  Companies are expected to endure the proverbial “forklift upgrade” to get on the new technology because the new technology choices can’t coexist with one another.  But if you look closely you will see differences in the position taken by the new technology vendors like Cisco versus the position taken by Microsoft.

Cisco is taking a clear position as the new telephony vendor.  Mutually exclusive.  Cisco’s pure IP solution has no digital/circuit-switched baggage so characterized as a liability in the competitive 21st century.  Characterizations aside, I think Cisco’s solution is excellent and if you already have a Cisco data network, you’re that much closer.  It’s not going to work well on another vendor’s data equipment.

Microsoft, in contrast, is positioned much more as being coexistent with an existing telephony system.  It’s about the experience at the desktop.  It’s about the user.  It’s about software.

Take dial tone as an example.  If you pick up a Cisco phone handset, what do you hear?  Dial tone.  If you pick up a Microsoft phone… wait a minute!  The predominant client for Microsoft is their soft client Office Communicator.  You might have a headset but there’s no dial tone.  It works more like your cell phone.  Yes, I know, Cisco has a soft client and you can get third party phones that work as Microsoft phone handsets.  This is why the subtle yet profound differences can be lost in a sea of brochures and data slicks.  And if you use Microsoft Office, you’re that much closer.  It’s not going to work well with another vendor’s email client, word processor or spreadsheet software.

I really think Cisco has created a great phone system.  And if that’s what you’re looking for you will really have to compare them against the traditional telephony vendors – because the traditional telephony vendors’ products are very strong.  And you’ll have to make a choice.  Mutually exclusive.

So when it comes to Unified Communications — in a user centric software powered sense, not simply voice over IP — Microsoft is the only choice.  If you happen to have a Cisco phone system, Microsoft will work with it.  If you have a Nortel or Avaya phone system, Microsoft will work with that too.  Mutually inclusive.

Cisco OR Avaya OR Nortel = Voice over IP
Cisco AND Microsoft = Unified Communications
Avaya AND Microsoft = Unified Communications
Nortel AND Microsoft = Unified Communications
Microsoft = Unified Communications

Unified Communications Defined

What is Unified Communications?  It seems there are as many definitions as there are pundits, analysts and experts.  So why not one more?  Here’s mine:

Unified Communications is a user-centric communications experience.

My definition focuses on user-centric because that’s the result once the various communications transport silos are unified at the client.

• One Inbox
• One Number
• One Presence

One inbox of course refers to email, faxes, voicemail accessible from the same interface.  Notice I did not say single client.  In fact, having multiple clients behaving in a predictable way is part of the unification.  A user can read an email from a cell phone or PDA and see the same message on the PC change from Unread to Read.  The inbox is all about communications in a disconnected state.

One number refers to real time communications – the ability to be reached on any client or many clients simultaneously – whether by phone call or instant message.  If someone calls you, you should be able to pick up the call on your desk phone, PC soft phone, cell phone, or have all three ring simultaneously if desired.  Being reachable by one number is all about real time communications.

One presence means that your state of “willingness and ability” to initiate real time communications is coordinated between any client you choose to use.  If you pick up the desk phone, the presence indicator on all other clients should simultaneously change to busy.

With this definition, consider what is required to achieve it.  Do you have unified communications at work if you have a desk phone and Skype for a soft phone?  How about a Yahoo! Instant Message client?

I think the last client to tame is the cell phone.  Having a separate voice mail account on your cell phone is not unified communications to my definition.

Do you agree with my definition?  Share your own version.

Wideband Audio

Wideband is one of those much talked about features of UC that are only truly appreciated once you experience it.  CD quality sound on a telephone call is something your brain can logically understand but is so surprising when you actually hear it.  We’ve all gotten so used to “toll quality” and then it’s downhill from there for cell phones.

I think it’s cool when musical artists manipulate their voices using a standard telephone compression filter and switch in and out of it during a song.  That flat tinny quality is so striking when compared against high quality audio.

Using MS Office Communicator connected to Office Communications Server 2007, and a supported headset, I get a great wideband experience.  Now it’s true that if I call outside my organization over the PSTN I lose the wideband quality.  But today’s office world is full of conference calls, it’s a lot easier on your ears hour after hour.

Have you experienced wideband phone calls?  Let me know your thoughts.