Our communication today is richer but more fragmented than ever before. During a normal day, I can use any combination of: WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Skype, Keevio, Hangouts, SMS, IRC or Slack, any one of Google’s three messaging apps, or plain old phone calls to communicate with friends and family, colleagues, business partners, customers. Each tool is successful on their own, but they’re all siloed and lack universal interoperability. This experience is anything but unified.
And really, ‘Unified Communications’ is an empty promise as communications have never been unified and probably never will be. Apart from the addition of a headset and the possibility of seeing others on video, the first wave of Internet real-time communication didn't really make any meaningful impact. If I want to Skype someone about a document we’re working on, I still have to switch context to a separate communication app or tool.
The sheer number of apps I may use in a working week makes this context switch even more time consuming. And people are notoriously bad at context switching. It interrupts flow and, like a computer reset, the brain needs to re-contextualise to a new task. It can take an average 25 minutes to resume a task after being interrupted, according to Inc.
Unnecessary phone calls as productivity disasters
There is another dynamic at play here too. The unnecessary phone call is one of the biggest culprits for interruptions, especially for those on the receiving end. It is a productivity disaster for receivers as they choose whether to accept or ignore the urgently ringing phone in just a few seconds with zero context about what conversation will then take place. We only have to look at the way the more comms-savvy generation sidestep this socially by using much more easily accommodated chat: freely moving partial concentration between chats and tasks, then arranging group voice or video chats at mutually convenient times.
This efficient movement between low intrusion asynchronous chat and high concentration, synchronous audio conversations only when essential for definitive outcomes is probably the biggest change in human communication in the last decade. In some commercial situations where communication efficiency gains can be monetised - such as in contact centres - some really successful, smart solutions which remove the context switch have been in use for decades. For instance, computer telephony integration (CTI) gave call centres a way of automatically firing calls at their battery farmed operatives' headsets with maximum efficiency.
This eliminated the need for them to switch focus away from their screens to involve themselves in the attention-diverting act of dialling a number. All of this was very specialised, but also esoteric and tied to a contact centre telephone, so of no real help to most people for whom communicating is an essential part of their daily lives, rather than the entirety of their job. The main way that most of us communicate, especially in a work context, is around specific tasks or questions where we are sharing a job context with team members or wanting to engage easily. These tasks invariably happen within a cloud-based web app that can be accessed easily by the team, or by people inside and outside of the organisation.
So it makes sense then to enable rich interactions where we can communicate seamlessly with each other *and* the application. I don't need your phone number or Skype/user ID - or indeed to switch out of a task - if I can just seamlessly message, voice, video or screenshare directly from within the page or app we are working on. The key technology that opens this up is Web Real Time Communication, or WebRTC. This is a disruptive technology that enables real-time communication over peer-to-peer connections via a common set of protocols.
What that means is communication applications like video conferencing, file transfer, chat and desktop sharing can happen from within web browsers, applications and even IoT and mobile platforms, without plugins. And this means a fundamental shift in how people communicate. According to a recent Markets and Markets report, the global web real-time communications market is projected to grow from USD 569.2 million in 2015 to 4.45 billion by 2020. Disruptive Analysis says that by 2019, there will be more than six billion WebRTC-supporting devices and two billion individual users (that’s around 60 per cent of the total Internet population).
All applications generally have an element of communication and it’s the ‘chatty’ ones that can add the most value. These will quickly deliver beautifully designed interactions which perfectly meet their users’ needs on whatever device they are choosing to interact. This gives rise to what we call ‘Contextual Communications'.
Developers, innovators and product designers are already busy building WebRTC applications aligned to how customers and employees are working, and intending to make communications integrated and immediate. There are some applications for which integrated comms are a natural progression, for example adding video and screen-share in a support environment.
Others enable entirely new services to be created, for example within forward-thinking units of the NHS who have already started to explore how they can revolutionise mental health provision to young people with remote counselling. Housing associations, and other organisations that provide accommodation to vulnerable people, are already improving daily contact for thousands of people with real time communication software.
By analysing patterns of communication, they can identify when the cognitive state of an individual is changing, and give a predictive assessment about the needs of every resident calling in to them before that call is even answered. Successful companies will create processes based on data analytics and what they know about their customer in a similar way. All of this will ultimately hide ‘communication’ as it will be integral and inherent within applications. We won’t even think about it as a distinct, friction-bearing operation.
Rather, it’ll simply be something that happens as we move in and out of the collaboration or communication phase of a task. The best contextual applications will provide this in a work environment by meshing in all the information needed to effectively exchange real-time and non-real time communication flows which are appropriate to the phase of each task.
Build it or buy it in: communication will become a core differentiating value add. Some application developers will see this as sufficiently core that they skill up to develop unique capabilities from scratch. This is very hard, and building a world-leading team isn't for everyone. Another alternative is to partner with organisations that have the skill and experience to build unique value in an effective way.
Rob Pickering, founder and CEO, IP Cortex
Image source: Shutterstock/Bloomicon