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.

This article was originally published on 04-06-2006
eWeek eWeek

Have the latest technology news and resources emailed to you everyday.

Click for a full list of Newsletterssubmit