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Presence and Working Smarter (OR: Enterprises Still Haven't Figured Out How to Use IM)

A story from our West Coast bureau chief, David Needle, got me taking a brief stroll down memory lane. Dave had written last week about distractions -- the bane of getting things done (in both the traditional and the David Allen, initial-caps sense -- and how they plague the modern information worker.

There's discussion of new software solutions, of course. But what concerns me most is how much we've disregarded a great deal of the progress we've already made in developing technology to help minimize distractions. The sad thing is that much of the problem was addressed by software years ago -- but the solutions haven't yet implemented by businesses.

I'm thinking specifically about presence, which most folks think about in terms of IM status and "Away" message. In a larger sense, however, presence involves a user's availability to collaborate.

Is a coworker busy? In a meeting? On the phone? At lunch? In a videoconference? On the road? A fully integrated IM system could let any colleague know at a moment's glance -- and this capability has been around for ages.

For years, major IM systems and unified collaboration systems had been linkable to corporate VoIP or PBX systems, enabling a user's IM status to change to "Busy" or "Unavailable" when the user is on the phone. Additional software from major enterprise vendors can tie IM availability with screen-sharing and videoconferencing services.

By linking IM status to these other services, a user's IM presence immediately becomes a broader indicator of availability, with even more work-changing scenarios possible:
Imagine phone calls being sent automatically to voicemail when you're in a videoconference. Now imagine the same thing happening to IMs, too. On the flip side, imagine knowing at a glance when a coworker is free to chat or to take a phone call.

Imaging being able to tell that when a colleague is away, they're gone to an all-day, high-level meeting. (Not to be disturbed -- dig?) Just as long as IM tools have been capable of integrating with phone and conferencing systems, they've also been able to be tied into appointment calendars in Outlook, Lotus and so on, enabling colleagues (with the appropriate permissions) to get more granular data on their whereabouts. (Here's one of the latest implementations of this in Microsoft Office Communicator 2007)

Add mobile presence to the mix -- another feature whose underlying technology has been long available in major enterprise services and software -- and Buddy Lists can show when another user is accessible only via their mobile phone or BlackBerry (including BlackBerry Communicator). As a result, a colleague knows the best ways to communicate with them at any given moment.

It's also not just about finding when a user is available to collaborate, and then bugging them using the appropriate method. Instead, a number of enterprise IM and UC systems and add-ons allow for a degree of intelligent message routing: Enabling a user to be alerted or contacted based on their preferences and their availability, as determined by their presence.

And isn't being able to choose to avoid distractions while busy what this is really all about?

None of this is wishful thinking: wireless carriers, major players in enterprise e-mail and unified collaboration and VoIP/PBX vendors have offered all of this technology for years now. And for as long as they've been doing so, companies have looked the other way while their employees are victimized by overwhelming distractions.

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