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.

This article was originally published on 04-06-2006
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