The worlds of telecommunications and IT have been colliding for more than a decade, but that loud crashing noise may be reaching a crescendo thanks to SOA (service-oriented architecture).
As with mainframe applications, what was once the isolated, proprietary office PBX, then the IP PBX, has started evolving into a set of abstracted software services for unified communications that can be interwoven with business app services and processes in an SOA, without specialized telecom or VOIP expertise.
How long will this evolution take? Probably a few years or more, as both SOAs and unified communications mature in the enterprise. But PBX vendors Siemens and Avaya, as well as data upstarts BlueNote Networks and Ubiquity Software, are laying the groundwork today. Back-office service and application providers such as Salesforce.com and SAP are also jumping on the bandwagon, communications-enabling CRM and ERP applications, along with enterprise integrators such as IBM Global Services and Accenture.
SOA-enabled unified communications are not just another form of CTI (computer-telephony integration), more of the click-to-call and customer screen pops you’ve seen in the call center for years. The interactions between voice and data may well pervade the enterprise and will harness presence, “find me/follow me” (which tries multiple communication channels for a single user simultaneously), Web conferencing and video conferencing, and other advanced unified communications features to enhance collaboration, decision-making, and customer service. Applications will no longer have to access these functions directly through the specialized CTI protocols, such as TAPI, JTAPI, and CSTA, of yore. Business developers will no longer need to learn the intricacies of SIP. Instead, they can build applications that access unified communications in loosely coupled fashion via Web services protocols.
“CTI was never designed for the average developer,” says Anne Thomas Manes, Burton Group vice president and research director. “You needed people who were well experienced in the integration between the business application and all that archaic telephony networking stuff. BlueNote, Avaya, and Siemens are encapsulating the arcane features of telephony and making them available as software services exposed through an open protocol interface that is much simpler for an application to consume.”
Aside from being easier and quicker for business developers, encapsulation means that telephony services such as presence, click-to-call, call routing, and Web conferencing can be combined with other communications and data services to create innovative new composite apps and services that can be recombined and reused to create still other new apps and services. “It’s part of the IT-ification of telecom,” says Ron Gruia, program leader of emerging communications at Frost and Sullivan. “No more rip and replace. Make it all modular, interoperable, and reusable.”
Voice-enabled processes No single, killer app will drive widespread integration of unified communications into business processes. Instead, expect developers to discover hundreds of little ways to increase efficiency. Typically, the biggest delays in business processes involve human latency, when a process cannot continue until key people are found, contacted, and informed, and they take the appropriate action, such as giving approval. Unified communications functions such as presence and find me/follow me excel at bringing the right people together quickly, wherever they are and using whatever communications medium is available. Moreover, Web conferencing and videoconferencing enhance collaboration to accelerate decision-making. SOA makes it easier to weave these functions directly into data applications and process flows, rather than requiring human beings to switch to separate communications applications or devices.
The simplest example is the application-generated voice alert. Instead of pinging the customer service department to an important change in a customer account or portfolio, a back office financial application might kick off an event that alerts the customer directly through a telephony Web service and voice recording. Take this a step further and the process could ask for a recipient response via touch tone (IVR), speech, IM, or SMS and move on to the next step in the process based on the response.
If the recipient is internal to an organization or partner organization, the application could invoke presence and find me/follow me services to find the recipient on the current preferred medium or device, or via IM if presence indicates that the recipient is currently on a phone call. If an appropriate response doesn’t come, the process might escalate the alert across time to others who can cover for the recipient, or a supervisor, or eventually broadcast to everyone with the authority to handle the situation. Or, if a stock falls below a certain threshold, an event processor might automatically invoke a combination of presence and conferencing services to find and bring all relevant, available decision-making parties into a video/Web conference.
Find me/follow me information can be invaluable when an immediate response is required. “If there’s a mismatched part that has shut down the production line, an ERP application could [use unified communications services to] reach out to the plant manager, head of quality, inventory guy, and seven other people wherever they are at 2 a.m.,” says John Hart, vice president of product line management at Ubiquity.
Siemens has been working with Salesforce.com, SAP, and others to embed context-sensitive presence lists and click-to-call services in their CRM and ERP applications. For example, if a customer has a question about a particular order, the rep would be able to bring up a list of all available people from the relevant account team, along with their voice and IM presence information, right alongside other transaction information, then reach them via IM or phone call to their preferred device at the click of a mouse.
Presence lists could also incorporate roles-based information contained in other back office systems. A broker with a client on the phone, for example, could use a roles-based list to quickly locate and contact an available specialist with appropriate expertise, such as “Rhode Island taxes.” A rules engine could even qualify roles-based lists with different customer tiers. “If I’m calling, the list might get me the college student with the summer job, but if Donald Trump calls, the account information would obviously pick someone higher up,” says Gartner Research Vice President Bern Elliot.
Add location-based services, and some processes can be further accelerated. “When the assembly line breaks down, the software could use network information to find the specialized tech guy who is online in the same building as the specialized equipment needed to repair it,” Elliot says.
How many times have you found yourself explaining your tech support problem three, four, or five times as you’re transferred among different departments? “Today there’s no notion of maintaining a customer session,” says Ron Schmelzer, ZapThink senior analyst. “The phone system may route the call but often nothing is done with the database.” An SOA could integrate call and customer information and maintain the entire customer session as