Wireless: Do You Know Where Your Employees Are?

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 04-06-2006

Wireless: Do You Know Where Your Employees Are?

 

Problem

Problem

It's 4 p.m. Does your company know where you are, and how to reach you?

It's a sunny Sunday afternoon and you're at Yankee Stadium with your family. The Bronx Bombers are tied with the Boston Red Sox in a game with playoff implications. The Yanks are at bat in the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, two men out.

Suddenly, your cell phone rings. It's some guy from the sales department, with desperation in his voice. He's in Tokyo preparing a big presentation, and he can't connect to your company's network.

He needs help. Now. But how did this guy manage to find you, on your day off, at the ball game? Simple: Your company's presence-awareness system recognized the urgency of the call, saw that you weren't at home or in the office, and rerouted the call to your mobile. Lucky you.

Whether you see it as a productivity enhancement or as an overstepping of boundaries, technology continues to blur the lines between work and play, particularly as companies adopt presence-awareness systems—software that tracks and broadcasts a person's availability, whereabouts, even their activities. Think of presence awareness as a souped-up buddy list that knows the best way to contact coworkers at every moment of every day—online or off—anywhere in the world.

How does it accomplish this task? Presence-awareness software embeds the same simple technology used in buddy lists into myriad applications, from the desktop to the telephone, allowing the system to broadcast not just the fact that you're online, but also what you're actually doing—typing an e-mail, working in Excel, surfing the Web.

Gartner Inc. predicts that by 2009, 80 percent of applications that support business processing, customer relationship management, collaboration, business intelligence and corporate performance management will have presence capabilities.

The result, analysts claim, will be greater productivity—firms will no longer waste precious time playing phone tag, or by putting customers on hold

while agents hunt down answers to their queries. "Say you're working on an SEC filing, and you have a question," says Erica Rugullies, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. "You send an e-mail to someone, or you pick up the phone, not knowing where they are. It's labor intensive and not very efficient."

But while vendors such as IBM Corp. and Siemens AG expect presence to change the way companies operate, the evidence to support this claim is thin, except in rare cases.

That may be because in order to reap the full benefits of presence awareness, companies need to install a unified communications system that ties e-mail, chat, VoIP, SMS, calendaring and conferencing into one platform. Most haven't even begun that process. And of course, there's the issue of employee adoption. Nobody likes to be watched all the time, no matter what the National Security Agency tells you.

In an age where employees are more able to work remotely, improved communication among coworkers is a good thing. And it's not unreasonable for companies to track employee productivity. But before installing a formal presence-awareness system, consider how your company will truly benefit—and how best to get employees to support it.

Ask your IT team:
  • Do we have the right platform to support presence awareness?

    Ask your line of business managers:
  • Which employee groups would benefit the most from presence information?

    Story Guide:

    Wireless: Do You Know Where Your Employees Are?
    Presence awareness lets you know where every staffer is, every moment of the day. But how much do you need to know?

  • Strategy: Don't force presence awareness on your employees, lest they rebel.
  • Value: Savings are largely intangible, even for companies with dispersed workforces.
  • Future: Presence awareness will eventually be helpful in locating expertise.

    Next page: Strategy

    Strategy


    Don't force presence awareness on your employees, lest they rebel.

    Ideally, a presence-awareness system functions as a virtual assistant. By tracking which applications you are working in, it knows when you are on the phone, in a meeting, out of the office or otherwise detained.

    The system makes that information available to a predetermined group, or uses it to route calls and messages appropriately. The more sophisticated systems can even make determinations on when to interrupt you, based on who's calling, the urgency of the message and the rules you define.

    But it's not as simple as it sounds. Without a unified communications system, presence tools are limited to individual applications.

    Companies can still cobble together a presence system by tying in pagers and mobile phones through back-end systems, but it takes a lot of work, and it won't solve the problem entirely. Most older devices can't pass presence-awareness information between them, and vendors are still arguing over which standard will ultimately be adopted.

    That means, for example, that calls to a mobile phone or beeper won't be rerouted if the call isn't answered. It also means that users must manually tell the system what they are doing. "There are definitely some obstacles," says Rugullies. "If I am on the phone, for example, I have to set my presence indicator to say that I am on the phone. The system doesn't know that automatically yet." The time it would take to continually log activities into a presence indicator would likely cancel out any time savings the system was meant to achieve. And employees are not likely to oblige.

    Adding to employee hesitation is the Orwellian notion of being constantly monitored. "We're already hearing about the privacy issues," says David Mario Smith, an analyst at Gartner. "It's scary." IT departments have been capable of that kind of monitoring for years, of course. It's putting the information in the hands of middle managers that sends chills down the average worker's spine.

    To gain support for presence awareness, go grass roots. Let employees adopt it at their own pace—and give them the power to control what information about them is shared.

    That was the strategy at Washington, D.C.-based ­America-Mideast Educational and Training Services Inc. (AMIDEAST), a nonprofit organization that provides English-language classes and educational services to the Middle East and North Africa. With 300 employees worldwide, AMIDEAST needed a better way to connect with personnel in far-flung locations. Telephone calls were costly, and scheduling last-minute virtual meetings was practically impossible, says Ugur Usumi, AMIDEAST's director of IT.

    But Usumi was concerned that employees wouldn't embrace the technology. "You don't want a negative impression of the system, because for this to work, people need to use it regularly," he says. So when Usumi installed Siemens' OpenScape communications software 18 months ago, he identified a small group of IT people he knew would be successful with it. Those employees spread the word, and slowly the system caught on. Half of the organization's 300 people will be onboard by spring's end.

    Usumi says phone bills have decreased by roughly $1,000 per month as a result of presence awareness. "But the real value for us is the ability to collaborate," he says. "Presence allows us to make faster decisions, and makes operations more efficient."

    Once employees begin using the system, be mindful about the information being broadcast, and how it's secured. "One company used presence to list what city their salespeople were in, so the executive team could track their people," says Francis deSouza, vice president of the enterprise-messaging management group at Symantec Corp.

    But because the presence information was displayed on a public instant-messaging system, the company's competition had easy access to the data—and sent their own salespeople out in hot pursuit. The lesson? "Protect presence information like any other asset," deSouza says.

    Ask your telecom manager:
  • How close are we to unifying our communications platform?

    Tell your chief security officer:
  • We have to secure presence information just like any other digital asset.

    Story Guide:

    Wireless: Do You Know Where Your Employees Are?
    Presence awareness lets you know where every staffer is, every moment of the day. But how much do you need to know?

  • Strategy: Don't force presence awareness on your employees, lest they rebel.
  • Value: Savings are largely intangible, even for companies with dispersed workforces.
  • Future: Presence awareness will eventually be helpful in locating expertise.

    Next page: Value

    Value


    Savings are largely intangible, even for companies with dispersed workforces.

    For some companies, presence awareness can provide obvious value. At Intellicare, a South Portland, Maine-based medical-services outsourcer, presence awareness is key to its operations, says Jeff Forbes, the company's CIO. Intellicare (recently acquired by PolyMedica Corp.) serves more than 250 hospitals, healthcare providers and employers nationwide, providing call-center services such as remote disease-management and telephone triage for chronically ill patients. Nearly all of its 250 nurses work remotely from home offices, monitoring patients and answering urgent customer calls.

    Using presence tools from IBM, "a shift leader can see who is online without having to call anyone or send e-mails," says Forbes, "and we can see who's logged in throughout the shift."

    Presence also helps nurses answer patient questions more quickly and accurately. "Some nurses have strong expertise in cardiology, others in pediatrics," Forbes says. So if a nurse has a suspicion about a symptom, he or she can IM a peer and ask a question. Forbes can't tie any hard metrics to the presence software, though he does say that "the value to [Intellicare] is to provide a higher level of quality to the consumer."

    Still, presence awareness isn't suited for every company—at least not yet. "In the trading business, every millisecond counts,"

    says Steve Rubinow, CTO of NYSE Group Inc., which operates the New York Stock Exchange and NYSE Arca (formerly the Archipelago Exchange and Pacific Exchange). Even though traders use IM with basic presence capabilities, Rubinow doesn't see the need to expand presence awareness beyond that.

    "I haven't heard anyone tell me how presence awareness could provide value for us," he says. "Trading people are always at their desks, and our people know what's expected of them in terms of response times. So it probably wouldn't be much of an enhancement."

    Ask your call-center manager:
  • Would presence tools have a significant effect on resolution times?

    Ask your executive team:
  • Are we the type of company that could derive strategic value from presence technology?

    Story Guide:

    Wireless: Do You Know Where Your Employees Are?
    Presence awareness lets you know where every staffer is, every moment of the day. But how much do you need to know?

  • Strategy: Don't force presence awareness on your employees, lest they rebel.
  • Value: Savings are largely intangible, even for companies with dispersed workforces.
  • Future: Presence awareness will eventually be helpful in locating expertise.

    Next page: Future

    Future


    Presence awareness will eventually be helpful in locating expertise.

    Despite the difficulty in identifying quantifiable value, no one expects presence awareness to disappear. In fact, "it's quickly becoming part of the software infrastructure," says Forrester's Rugullies. She envisions a companywide presence engine that runs through all applications.

    And presence tools won't be limited to internal applications—provided that vendors settle on a standard that will let presence systems interoperate. That will help companies such as Intellicare offer more services by linking other companies into the system, Forbes says.

    Already, Intellicare is considering partnering with a medication-therapy management company to add pharmacists and therapists to its presence network. "That way you can leverage that expertise and get much more out of the system," he says.

    It's that ability to find experts that will make presence awareness truly valuable, says Gartner's Smith. For example, a presence system could be linked to a searchable employee database that details each worker's areas of expertise. Even Rubinow of NYSE Group concedes that would be helpful. "With our newly merged company, there is a huge number of trading experts, and I don't even know who they are. So there may be an opportunity for us there."

    In fact, it won't be long before coworkers can tell not only what you're doing, but where you're doing it, using GPS and sensors embedded into mobile devices that are then connected to presence systems.

    At IBM, for example, location awareness not only can tell employees where their coworkers are—it also can inform them, among other things, where the nearest printer is at any given time, in any office worldwide.

    But don't be too concerned about having

    your whereabouts monitored just yet: According to a study cosponsored by the American Management Association and the ePolicy Institute, only 5 percent of U.S.-based companies currently use GPS to track mobile phones.

    As companies deploy more and more technologies that can monitor worker activities every moment of every day, CIOs need to develop sound strategies that protect sensitive data—and employee privacy.

    "The line between work and home has evaporated," says Jeremy Gruber, legal director of the National Workrights Institute, in Princeton, N.J. "People are doing more and more work on their own time. Meanwhile, we're seeing a rapid increase in employee monitoring and surveillance. It's a 20th-cen tury mentality for a 21st-century workplace."

    At some point, he says, these issues will need to be resolved through legislation.

    But until that day arrives, screen your calls on weekends.

    Tell your HR manager:
    Presence awareness can help us identify expertise within our organization.

    Ask your legal counsel:
    What kind of legal issues would arise with the use of location awareness?

    Story Guide:

    Wireless: Do You Know Where Your Employees Are?
    Presence awareness lets you know where every staffer is, every moment of the day. But how much do you need to know?

  • Strategy: Don't force presence awareness on your employees, lest they rebel.
  • Value: Savings are largely intangible, even for companies with dispersed workforces.
  • Future: Presence awareness will eventually be helpful in locating expertise.