ITExpo Takeaways – Innovation, Startups and Implications for UC
I’m tackling a lot of ideas here, but bear with me as I connect all these dots. This week, I’m attending TMC’s ITExpo, which is their flagship conference, held twice a year, with this edition being held in Las Vegas. I’ve written about their event before, and this time I’m taking a different approach.
Let me start by saying the ITExpo covers the gamut, but there’s no denying that UC is a core theme, both in whole and in part. You don’t have to look far to find breakout sessions and tracks focused on all things related to UC, such as hosted VoIP, cloud services, WebRTC, SIP trunking, video, contact centers, mobile applications, security, conferencing, etc. Taken on their own, any of these can stand alone nicely as topics of interest, but when seen through a UC lens, I think they all fit together pretty seamlessly.
With that as a base, I’d like to focus now on a specific track from ITExpo, and one that happens to draw the strongest turnout across the diverse attendee population. This would be StartupCamp, now in its eighth iteration. In short, this is a pitch contest, where four startups get a few minutes to tell us their story, following which a panel of judges provides feedback. Based on that, the audience then votes for the winner. To get us in the mode for dreaming big, we were treated to a keynote before the pitches from Jeff Bonforte of Yahoo!, where he talked about 12 characteristics that enable organizations to produce meaningful innovation.
Again, when viewing StartupCamp through a UC lens, I think there are some valuable takeaways to share with our readers about the current state of UC. In my view, most of today’s UC platforms are fairly well established, but these offerings aren’t setting the IT world on its ear just yet. The UC value proposition remains fluid – perhaps even vague – and I was hoping that the problems startups are focusing on might kick-start things to give the market some of the missing pieces needed to drive adoption.
In short, I really didn’t see that from the startups on tap at StartupCamp, and if that’s a reflection of the broader UC startup ecosystem, I’d be pretty worried that the innovation Jeff Bonforte was talking about is not permeating these ranks. To be fair, of course, StartupCamp is not focused just on UC, but given that UC is around every corner at ITExpo, you’d have to think it’s on most people’s minds.
Perhaps this is yet another example of how UC is so hard to define, but still, I had to wonder if UC is hitting a wall or even just missing the mark with IT decision makers. The startups we saw are addressing real problems, but they certainly weren’t framed as UC problems, and I’m not even sure if they fit with a UC framework. If these applications end up getting traction, not only will that take budget away from UC, but could also serve as proof points that businesses can solve problems without UC altogether.
Before you draw any gloomy conclusions, let me share a few ideas from Jeff’s presentation that tie innovation to UC. Jeff sure knows about the value of innovation, and that’s what we’re looking for out of the best startups, right? The 12 characteristics he talked about define that value, and I want to touch on four in particular that are right in the sweet spot for UC.
Share everything you can. The need to be transparent may be obvious, but Jeff noted that many organizational cultures don’t share well at all. Data and good ideas are valuable, and by protecting them instead of sharing them, individuals/teams/departments/etc. can build their power bases. This is basic human nature, but by doing the opposite, businesses are far better able to move good ideas along the curve and realize their potential. If this doesn’t define the essence of what UC can do, I don’t know what else does.
Innovation comes from everywhere. I’ve written about this a few times, and I’m a big believer in the notion that we all have good ideas. Nobody owns innovation, and an open culture makes everyone comfortable sharing ideas. R&D produces as many bad ideas as good ideas, and we’ve all heard stories about great ideas coming from the ranks of secretaries and mail room clerks. When all employees have access to UC, it just stands to reason that the process of getting new ideas to bubble up from anyone will be easier and faster.
Engineer failure into your processes and platforms. This is a bit counterintuitive, but the more ideas you can test, the more likely you’ll find one that will last. To do this, you need a flexible organization and infrastructure to share learning from what works and doesn’t work. Communications is very much at the heart of doing this, and again, this is where UC can be a great enabler.
Align your interests with your customer. This really is a given for any successful business, but the takeaway for me was Jeff’s comments about getting internal alignment in place first. Similar to the first item in this list, getting various departments on the same page – marketing, sales, support, engineering, etc. – is not easy to do. This is all about being customer-centric, and UC provides the tools so these departments can communicate effectively to get on that same page.
Coming back to the startups, all of their pitches focused on problems that touch on these and other characteristics from Jeff’s broader set of 12:
Perch – an always-on video application that lets teams in different locations have a virtual water cooler spot for ad hoc interactions. With bandwidth being so cheap, it’s an easy service to offer, and is more social than just sitting at your desk doing video chat.
TextNext – enables text messages over your phone lines. The premise here is that text can be used more effectively if businesses could access it more easily, and this application “makes your landline smarter.” This is a pretty simple form of multichannel communication, but one that some businesses will see value in.
Perzo – a new form of personal network, something in between Linkedin and Facebook. The concept was not easy to understand, but the features are textbook UC – integrating email, real time tools like chat and voice, and of course, presence.
Alice Receptionist – similar to the virtual concierge Cisco has for the hospitality sector. This is for lobby areas of office buildings or businesses that choose not have to a live receptionist behind a counter. Instead, you interface with a terminal or a kiosk, and using a touchscreen, you can contact the person you’re there to see, get directions, leave a message, etc. Not really a rich UC environment, and more person-to-machine than person-to-person, but it’s definitely multimodal.
So, where am I going with this? In my view, there’s definitely innovation here, but would need another post to share my reservations about all of them. When deployed effectively, I think they can all help businesses be more innovative and make individuals more productive. That’s certainly a big part of UC’s promise, but nobody is talking about these things in this way.
I certainly don’t expect these startups to be framing their ideas around UC, and as far as I could tell, the term UC was never mentioned during the pitches. Should those dots have been connected? I’m not sure, but considering this was the StartupCamp comms edition, you might have thought UC would come up once or twice.
As mentioned earlier, if these startups represent the state of innovation in the comms space, UC is getting lost in translation. Clearly, they don’t see UC as part of their solution, even though their core attributes would be right at home with any UC offering.
Maybe we need a UC edition StartupCamp, but am wondering if that’s something I don’t want to hear the answer to. If everyone is developing problem-specific point solutions and not tying them into UC and/or CEBP, then I’m having trouble seeing how UC will evolve beyond the usual suspects we have today. Remember, innovation comes from everywhere, but I’m thinking now that we’re not seeing enough from the UC camp.