Andrew Karpie's Blog

"Unified Communications (UC)": A Technology Perspective Essential to Staffing Firms

The Talent Acquisition Technology (TAT) environment is boiling over with innovation.  And online/video interviews may now be the most “visible” and hottest area. 

White hot, in fact: 

Online/video interviewing may be the killer app that catalyzes more change in the TAT environment that staffing firms inhabit, simply being a “complementor” to already-existing platforms. It may also be a broader, new-entrant e-Platform that joins “major platform businesses” like LinkedIn and oDesk, that have the potential to absorb and reengineer large segments of staffing industry “value-added processing.”

I think that online/video is enormously more than hype:  it is real and significant.  But it and other killer apps emerging in the TAT ecosystem more fundamentally raise the big question of (new, broader) “integration,” which I discussed emphatically in my earlier report “Talent Acquisition Technology (TAT) – What Is It and Where It’s Going.”

Online/video interviewing (along with sourcing solutions like Branchout or Reach), was mentioned in the report as one of the significant emerging “Applications” in the TAT ecosystem.  But the report also emphasized the underlying technologies (such as the Social Networks technologies that Applications like Branchout and Reach leverage/exploit).  Many of these underlying technologies have been hyped and the names fall-off our tongues easily (Cloud, Mobile, etc.).  But one critical area we are much less familiar and conversant with is “Unified Communications” or “UC” (and this is an area that will become increasingly important as online/video interviewing is increasingly adopted).   

So what is UC and why is it important to staffing firms?  Is it something that staffing firms are already leveraging or cannot afford to leverage?  

A great report, accessible to anyone, was recently published by Ziff Davis, “Uncomplicating Unified Communications for SMBs” (Small-to-Mid-sided Businesses)."  This report does a great job explaining what UC is, so I am not going to reinvent the wheel defining it at length here.  But, in brief, UC is a collection of technologies (VOIP/integrated telephone, email, social networks, et al) and integrated approaches that enable business processes—especially those involving human interaction and relationships—within and across different enterprises. 

As the Ziff report puts it: 

         A clearer picture of what UC is—and isn’t—begins to emerge when one understands that, unlike most other technologies, UC is not a specific solution per se, but a strategy enabled by various products that helps organizations to collaborate and communicate more effectively and efficiently. By embracing technologies such as voice over IP (VoIP), voice mail, mobility, conferencing, telepresence, e-mail, unified messaging (UM), and instant messaging (IM), this nascent technology can boost employee interchange and help optimize business processes.

Or, as it is also put in the form of an example:

        “A typical UC session might start with an instant message between two parties that escalates to a phone call or Web conference through a click of a button on the PC screen. That click connects the parties via audio, and another turns the call into video, if desired. If other people need to be added to the conversation, a look at the presence status of people on your buddy list lets you simply click-to-conference to bring them into the call.”

Two important things to note, at this point:  (1) business processes (especially those involving human interaction and relationships) are certainly very relevant—in fact essential-- to the “business” of staffing firms, and (2) the term “telepresence” wedged in the middle of all those other technical terms is very clearly related online/video interviewing.  In fact, one of the durable core competencies of staffing firms is being able to design and execute “business processes (especially those involving human interaction and relationships).”  And as online/video interviewing becomes more and more a part of “telepresence,” the importance of UC, as an integrating framework, will become more and more important. 

Let’s zero in on this crucial concept called “telepresence,” as elaborated very nicely in the Ziff Davis report:

         "Presence" (also known as telepresence) is the backbone of UC solutions. As UC’s primary enabler, presence will be “the dial tone of the future,” Pleasant says. As previously discussed, presence provides real-time notification of users’ current availability and ability to communicate. Pleasant explains the mechanics of presence: “Servers gather presence information from various sources and provide unified presence information to end-users or applications. In a UC world, when we discuss presence, we are going beyond simple instant message presence (i.e., knowing if a buddy is online and available for an instant messaging session) to presence enabling all communications, including telephony.” Understanding the importance of presence provides insight into one of sticking points of UC: lack of federation among vendors. “Most switch vendors today either offer their own presence server and capabilities or integrate with presence capabilities from IBM and/or Microsoft,” Pleasant explains. “The biggest challenge today is the lack of federation, or the ability of these presence systems to work together to allow users on one presence system to see the presence status of a partner or customer on another system.”

For a staffing firm, a firm that is in the specialized business of performing “human talent/labor intermediation,” the relevance and importance of UC should be clear.   But how can staffing firms get their arms around it, and can they afford it?

First of all, many staffing firms have already started down this path –perhaps without realizing it—by deploying VOIP/integrated telephony, maybe integrating it with some other systems.  But probably most have not really thought explicitly about the problem from a UC perspective.  However, though UC is not as hyped and sexy as social, mobile, and cloud, it may be more important ultimately for dividing winners and losers among staffing firms:  the firms that can most efficiently and effectively (with human high-touch) perform “human talent/labor intermediators” (find the efficient and effective ways to integrate workflows and telepresence) may have significant advantage. 

But what about affordability (even if you aree a very small staffing firm)?  The UC technologies (their availability and cost) have changed significantly in the past 15 years.  Many communications vendors and even software vendors, such as Microsoft, have been pushing to make UC available to smaller and midsized firms.  You will get an idea of this when you start to look around and even read just after reading the Ziff Davis report, which states:

          Beyond sheer technical capabilities, UC can help SMBs to gain competitive advantage and to differentiate themselves in a marketplace that, in the past, has been likely dominated by large enterprises due to their size and sheer muscle. Non-regulated businesses, for example, can leverage UC as an effective compliance repository. Gaining access to records of contact in date order, regardless of communication mode, affords SMBs with a simplified first step to dealing with compliance or legal challenges. SMBs with employees who work from home can appear as authoritative as larger businesses, while affording teleworkers anonymity. “On the occasions when you take calls at home, you might prefer customers not to have your home phone number. By giving out only your presence details (i.e. a name) or a mobile which cascades down to a home phone number, there’s no need to give out home/personal details at all,” Technet’s blog explains.... UC further levels the playing field by extending presence capabilities to “roles.” Because UC doesn’t differentiate a worker’s name (“Joe,” for example) from his or her role (say, “support”) an SMB can appear to be a larger outfit than it really is, no matter how many people on staff wear multiple hats. “You can look like a 20-person company, even though there are only four of you,” Technet’s blog explains. “In doing so, you will almost certainly improve your workflow, productivity, and gain transparency into the efficiency of your operations.”

So what should I do if I am a staffing firm? 

First, read this report.  Then start to do a little more research about UC.  Go online, educate yourself, talk to some of the vendors you have never heard about before? Talk to your own software and phone system vendors about UC and how this approach can help your firm to be more successful.  Finally, adopt UC as an explicit mindset and set of requirements for planning and evolving your enterprise technology platform for the future.  Make sure you are making investments that will support the development of integrated, Unified Communications in and outside of your enterprise.

So in conclusion, online/video interviewing is a very important development for the staffing industry.  It’s coming fast, and there is no hiding.  But how it comes into your business will depend upon your understanding of your current and future technology applications from a UC perspective.  It’s my hunch that firms that optimize their technology choices and investments, while maintaining an educated UC perspective, will find more opportunities to be successful in the future competitive and changing staffing industry environment.

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