Thursday, October 1, 2009

Unified Communications: On a clear day, you can see the chasm

Some things never grow old. It's been 18 years since Geoffrey Moore's "Crossing the Chasm" was published, yet his basic premise rings as true today as it did when the book first hit store shelves.'s description puts it well: "[Author Geoffrey Moore's] chasm theory describes how high-tech products initially sell well, mainly to a technically literate customer base, but then hit a lull as marketing professionals try to cross the chasm to mainstream buyers."

But you can't cross the chasm on marketing factors alone. There are interesting human factors involved. And even if the UC industry meets its marketing challenges, the human factors will, I believe, prevent unified communications from achieving critical mass in the marketplace.

That's the bad news. The good news is, these same human factors are driving, slowly but steadily, increasing adoption of virtual worlds in the enterprise. We have to do more formal studies on this, but the anecdotal evidence from our customers is compelling. (And more studies are coming.)

For example, if we're on a one-on-one phone call, the engagement is typically personal and well connected. Obviously, in-person meetings are the best thing. But on a one-on-one telephone call, it's hard for me to lose focus or multitask, and tick you off, because I have a certain level of respect for the human process that's happening. And as part of that human process, it's hard to evade the other caller's sixth sense that tells him or her that I'm not paying attention to the call.

Now, all of the large companies we're talking to are committed to virtual team strategies. And I'm willing to bet that if you ask the CEO of any Fortune 500 company, "Are you committed to virtual teaming?", they'll say, "yes." But are their companies succeeding at virtual teaming? Overall, no. They're going about it through a disjointed, ad hoc series of events.

The first thing companies do are conference calls, followed by massive (I'd say "unmanageable") flows of e-mail. As you move upstream to more sophisticated teams, you start to see WebEx and GoToMeeting sessions. More sophisticated still are teams using SharePoint, blogs, wikis, document repositories in Documentum, or an e-room.

But to a one, we find the process of teaming is fragmented, dispersed, event driven, and non-linear. For example, take a live meeting of, say, four or five people, with another four or five people on a WebEx. A shared PC screen is being projected on a big panel in the conference room.

If you were to observe the meeting through a two-way mirror, you'd see robust engagement among the people physically together in the conference room. You'd see lots of conversation around the table about the topics at hand. There would be a cross-fire of questions, comments, opinions, agreement, objections.

Turn your attention to those accessing the meeting remotely, and you'd find the people on WebEx or on a conference call don't engage as much (if at all) in the conversation until they are specifically asked a question, or their time slot is on deck. They don't feel nearly as connected to what's happening on in the conference room.

Now take that same group of people, and move them all into an enterprise virtual world (such as, ahem, ProtoSphere). You're going to see an equal level of engagement from the entire team, because they're all sharing the same space, all on an equal footing, all engaging with the conversation using the same communication and collaboration tools.

There's another interesting dynamic that customers report happening with our environment, and we think it's related to some of the things they have in gaming where you may actually be more willing to participate because you feel like there's this anthropomorphic sense of self that you've created, sort of pseudo fantasy land between your personality and the other personalities in the room that give you this bubble of safety to actually present ideas and thoughts that you may not have done in person.

I can hear some of you saying, "Well, you can achieve that with video telepresence." Well, no, you can't. Think about it. Video telepresence actually makes most people extremely self-conscious. They're fixing their hair or tightening their tie; they have to make sure they're suited up and ready for their TV debut. Their mind becomes focused more on their presentation and less on their content and contribution.

Contrast that to a virtual environment. Their appearance or physical surroundings are immaterial. They have a perfectly-crafted avatar, providing an element of fun and fantasy that keeps people engaged in games, chat rooms, and consumer 3-D worlds (such as Second Life, World of Warcraft, etc.).

That human factor alone makes virtual collaboration addictive. When was the last time someone said, "Holy cow, this WebEx thing is addicting!" The 2-D collaboration session is not addicting. It's boring. It looks and feels and operates like the same PC screen people stare at all day, only slower. They participate and use it because they have to, not because they want to.

Unlike telepresense, that veneer of fantasy allows users to step out of their uptight selves, and step into a disembodied surrogate. They see themselves like the watcher. It's almost a Zen thing. In Zen psychology, it's said if you can find a way to observe your behavior in real time, and watch it just a split second before you make a comment, your communications could be much more relevant with others, because you would be observing your own behavior.

That changes how you engage with people. And we're seeing this leads to engagement at a higher level. For sales training and role play, people participate more assertively as a 3-D character in a live 3-D environment, versus how they would behave were they physically in a room with others. They're less self-conscious, more participatory.

Of course, I'm not advocating that people should collaborate virtually using avatars with flowing blonde hair and wielding a sword. But the more work we do around the metrics, the more we see a continuum of engagement driven by human factors that are simply not being addressed in any other form of virtual collaboration.

And that's why, on a clear day, you can see the Unified Communications chasm.

1 comment:

trina hoefling said...

Great truth and challenge. The chasm is wide and yet once crossed can expand emotional bandwidtth for more powerful engagement, work collab. Virtual teaming. Most days I build virtual bridges, crossing chasms myself.

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