On June 22, Interactive Intelligence launched Interaction Process Automation (IPA) – a communications-based process automation tool (see the press release here). It leverages Interactive Intelligence’s proven unified communications (UC) and contact center technologies as well as some document and workflow management capabilities originally developed by AcroSoft, acquired by Interactive Intelligence earlier this year (see announcement here).
What is IPA?
The following Interactive Intelligence UC platform capabilities have been incorporated in the new IPA solution:
Contact center-style queuing and routing are used for accurate and flexible prioritization and distribution of process work.
- Enterprise presence becomes “process presence,” indicating availability for a work assignment and speeding processing time.
- Automated escalation functionality ensures that service level goals are met.
- Recording becomes an essential part of compliance for business processes.
- Real-time monitoring provides management visibility into every step of the work process.
- End-to-end reporting delivers the ability to manage and measure each process attribute.
- VoIP provides complete location-independence, enabling employees to participate in businesses processes from anywhere in the world.
With the IPA solution Interactive Intelligence offers a unique perspective on the use of communication technologies for automating business processes. While we have all, jointly and severally, managed to overhype unified communications before we could even define the concept properly, and have also coined the term communications-enabled business processes (CEBP) before any major examples were even commercially available, Interactive Intelligence has managed to identify an opportunity for UC and contact center technologies to provide tangible value to businesses suffering from inefficient business processes.
The Business Challenge
While manufacturing has been pretty much automated since the invention of the assembly line, business processes involving office workers are frequently pretty manual even though a lot of the information retrieval and input are handled using modern computing technologies. It is the hand-off of work items, tasks and responsibilities that is still quite manual (in the sense that it is initiated and handled by humans) and is therefore somewhat random and unpredictable and prone to latency and error.
Just picture a typical day in the life of an ordinary office worker and you will see that it is characterized by information and communications overload and demanding schedules and deadlines, and very much impacted by the efficiency and diligence (or lack thereof) of others. Frequently, the result is poor productivity, management and customer dissatisfaction, stress and, ultimately, a waste of revenue and individual financial reward (bonuses, etc.) opportunities.
There are multiple horizontal business processes – MIS support, new employee on-boarding, etc. – that are very repetitive and fairly simple and can be significantly facilitated and accelerated through some degree of automation. There are also vertical-specific processes such insurance claims, loan applications, etc. that also involve repetitive activities and a hand-off among multiple individuals that make them suitable targets for automation.
A Creative Solution
One of the few office worker processes that has been decently automated is customer care. From the ever-annoying interactive voice response systems (IVRs), which, however, provide some real value to the company, to call queuing and automatic call distribution (ACD), to intelligent call routing, to computer-telephony integration (CTI), to call monitoring and recording, communication technologies have enabled contact centers to make customer care at least somewhat reliable and predictable. These technologies ensure that a customer call reaches the right person (based on skills, time zone, availability, etc.), that the caller receives some preliminary information from the IVR, and that the call center agent receives as much information as possible about the caller.
Interactive Intelligence seems to have found an interesting approach in the application of contact center technologies and UC (mostly presence) for the automation of business processes beyond the contact center. The IPA solution seems well positioned to provide significant value to businesses of multiple verticals facing various inefficiencies. It is, however, mostly a framework and requires quite a bit of customization for each application. If Interactive Intelligence manages to identify the pain points of each vertical and also create an eco-system of application developers that can freely design and test (in a “sandbox”-type environment) easily deployable solution modules and prepackaged applications for different business processes, this solution can help many businesses recover more rapidly from the economic downturn that entailed pervasive workforce reduction and probably left many businesses unable to grow or even satisfy existing customer demand.
Let’s not forget that any business is as strong as its weakest link, which is its most inefficient process. Therefore, each business should take a long and hard look at where latencies and errors occur most frequently and whether certain tasks or activities can be automated for greater efficiency and productivity. After all, our business processes determine our competitiveness and ability to grow – by either improving the productivity and quality of output of existing resources or re-purposing resources for more efficient resource utilization.
Business decision makers should, however, apply a structured approach to business process automation. First they need to map their processes, separate the critical from the non-critical ones, identify the resources involved and the major stages in each process, etc. Then they need to find the weak links and set their improvement objectives in terms of specific return on investment (ROI) and measures of performance (MOPs). Finally, they need to carefully evaluate existing (deployed and those available on the market) technologies and solutions in order to select the one(s) that best addresses their needs.
For more information on the IPA solution and business process automation, please join us for this webinar on June 25, 2009.
It’s only a few months after Microsoft finally put its Response Point (RP) System in the spotlight with the release of SP2 and John Frederiksen’s keynote speech at ITEXPO East in February 2009, and the wings of the entrepreneurial RP team seem to have been cut. It is clear that the latest wave of Microsoft lay-offs has impacted the RP team and some cryptic statements on the official Response Point Team Blog indicate that Microsoft wishes “to take a good look at the next version of Response Point and ensure it addresses the needs of Small Businesses.”
I contacted John Frederiksen, General Manager for Response Point at Microsoft, and he responded to my concerns with the following somewhat re-assuring comments:
The company will continue to support Response Point version 1.0.
We will continue to support our current OEMs, Service Providers and resellers that are selling Response Point version 1.0. Customers will continue to be supported through their OEMs.
We will also continue to promote the product online and spotlight compatible 3rd party services and add-on products.
The team is evaluating the strategy for the next version of the product and will continue to investigate the opportunity in the small business market.
The Response Point team has not been moved to another division.
Two years ago, when RP was still in beta trials, I thought it offered some interesting features and capabilities and I believed Microsoft was going to leverage this innovative solution to aggressively pursue the SMB customer segment as another entry point (vis-à-vis OCS) into the telephony market in general (see my article here). I did wonder if there was going to be some conflict of interest between OCS and RP and the respective teams, but ruled out that possibility assuming Microsoft had sufficient resources to support both lines of business as they seem to serve fairly distinct market segments. Today, the economic recession seems to be forcing Microsoft, not unlike other IT and communication vendors, to make tough choices. I am still unsure if the decision was made on the basis of comparing the respective potentials of OCS and RP, but RP has definitely fallen prey to Microsoft’s efforts to cut down expenses where short-term revenue and profit prospects are less certain.
Response Point Value and Market Positioning
In a more recent article discussing the release of SP2, I stated my belief that Response Point is uniquely positioned because of it features including the speech recognition capability and the Magic Blue Button (voice-controlled auto attendant and dialing), but mostly because of its ease of installation, use and management. It is as close as it gets to an affordable, plug-and-play telephony solution for small businesses, and thus in a category of its own, since most other small-business systems are neither as simple to use nor as inexpensive. Generally, it is hard to find an IP telephony platform that can provide a cost-effective communication solution for a business of less than 20 users, or a larger business with geographically dispersed sites of that size. SP2 offered some valuable enhancements such as analog phone support, intercom, VPN and multi-subnet support, an after-hours receptionist setting and more robust audio. The anticipated release of version 2.0 is supposed to make it an even more robust business-class solution that competes head-to-head with platforms offered by traditional telephony vendors such as Alcatel-Lucent, Avaya, Cisco, Nortel and Siemens.
However, what I believed was going to be Microsoft’s (not so) secret weapon in the battle for the small-business space was its extensive channel of VARs, resellers, specialists, etc. The traditional vendors use channels that have mastered the skill of marketing, implementing and managing more complex solution for medium and large businesses. Very much like the vendors themselves, these channel partners have a vested interest in pursuing larger implementations that produce greater margins and help them scale and grow more rapidly. Response Point, on the other hand, is well positioned to enable multiple Microsoft specialists and consultants to add a new revenue stream to their business and offer a more complete portfolio of business solutions to their small business customers. Response Point customers have indicated that they appreciate the features and lower cost of the solution, but their trust in Microsoft’s continued support and extensive channels represents a major factor in their decision to select Response Point versus open-source or some other less mainstream solutions. Yet Microsoft is currently failing to re-assure its channel by sharing a clear vision for the future of the Response Point system.
I talked to several RP resellers about three months ago and I was really impressed by the positive feedback. They seemed to believe that the features, though not on par with those offered by traditional vendors, were sufficient for most of their clients. A phrase that frequently came up in partners’ comments was: “This time they got it right from the start. It just works.” Also, partners appreciated the continued interaction with Microsoft allowing them to contribute to the development and addition of new capabilities that would further enhance the value of the RP system for small businesses. They were eagerly awaiting release 2.0 as the more compelling solution that would indeed enable them to compete successfully in their target market. My conversations with resellers as well as the blog entries I have read on various web sites dedicated to Response Point and Microsoft’s eco-system of partners indicate a very strong confidence in Microsoft’s ability to deliver and its commitment to this product line.
The Channel Awaits Microsoft’s Official Statement
As the rumors spread about the fate of the RP team and Microsoft delays making an official statement on the future of this products, disappointment and doubt are beginning to creep in among the partner ranks. For some of these small outfits RP had just opened up opportunities that now seem to be closing without proper notice. Not only the income, but also the reputation of these specialists and consultants is on the line since they have promised their customers a certain roadmap of product viability and evolution.
Further, partners are now having second thoughts about the quality of the Response Point system. They see more clearly some of its disadvantages in light of Microsoft’s hesitation to continue investing in further product development. Most of them continue to believe that, given continued development, this product is right for them and for their customers. Yet others are quickly beginning to look for competitive products to add to their portfolio in order to be able to sustain their competitive position in the small business communication space.
Finally, partners are now questioning the nature of their relationship with Microsoft – is Microsoft really committed to supporting its partner network or are they after quick and guaranteed profits only?
Speculations Abound at Times of Uncertainty
I saw speculations about the possibility of Microsoft integrating RP with OCS. I don’t see why they would want to do that. Microsoft can use certain elements of RP for call control with OCS if needed, but OCS is not a suitable solution for small businesses. If a business needs inexpensive telephony and/or IM client, they have other options. The value of OCS and unified communications is in their ability to integrate multiple applications from IM to voice to UM to conferencing, but in order to deploy all these capabilities, a business will need several servers with a significant price tag.
Others are speculating that Microsoft is planning to focus most of its efforts in the communication space on cloud computing and communications as a service (CaaS). I believe that Software as a Service (SaaS) and CaaS have some potential for delivering business applications and communications to SMBs. Similar to existing hosted telephony services, it alleviates all implementation and management hassles for small businesses typically lacking in-house technical expertise. However, SOHOs and very small businesses are likely to continue to prefer the least expensive consumer solutions. On the other hand, small businesses at the upper end of the range – 20 to 100 users – may actually benefit from inexpensive premise-based solutions such as Response Point.
In my opinion, Microsoft should certainly pursue profitable opportunities as that would eventually be best for both itself and its partners. I do believe, however, that Response Point has a good market potential. As I mentioned earlier, it is competing against traditional vendor platforms, many of which are just too expensive and difficult to manage for small businesses of up to 50 users. Hosted IP telephony has failed to gain much traction throughout its nearly decade-long existence, although it is touted to be a most suitable alternative for this particular market segment. Open-source telephony, on the other hand, is becoming a more viable option, especially with Digium and others focusing on developing a channel, something that was considered one of their major weaknesses so far. Consumer vendors such as Google and Skype are also vying for a piece of the SOHO and small business market and are likely to eventually gain some penetration. However, Response Point has the advantage of having been developed as a business system from the start and the channel has already been trained.
Overall, I believe that Response Point is a viable solution for the small business market. As with any technology, however, its success is largely dependent on the vendor’s execution plan, and I’ll repeat myself – “It’s all about channels”. Given the right marketing efforts, it will sell, and given the right vendor and channel support – it will thrive; without those elements, it is not going to make it on its own. The small business market continues to be under-penetrated and to offer tremendous opportunities. While the competition seems to be intensifying in this market segment, the various solutions seem to offer some distinct advantages and disadvantages thus basically catering to slightly different sub-segments. As some of Microsoft’s partners seem to believe, more extensive marketing efforts may be needed (TV commercials, end-user webinars, etc.) with a strong marketing message that clearly identifies the benefits of Response Point in order for Microsoft and its partners to be able to keep Response Point sales afloat in this challenging economy.
On April 16, Mitel launched a range of new capabilities as part of its series X portfolio. Acknowledging the challenges of continuously increasing worker mobility, Mitel has looked for some unique solutions to provide businesses with greater flexibility and cost savings in accommodating their mobile employees. As stated by Mitel, mobility can have various aspects – from corridor warriors to frequent travelers to permanent telecommuters. Deciding what endpoint devices would best serve the needs of the different users and integrating those various devices with the corporate network and applications can be an expensive and risky endeavor.
Mitel offers a solution to the growing mobility challenge with the concept of external “hot desking” marketed as a Dynamic Extension capability. The Series X software enables Dynamic Extension through the Mitel Personal Ring Group and hot desking. Users can assign up to eight devices to a Personal Ring Group. These devices can be any internal or external endpoints, including mobile, IP and TDM phones. The other component required for this solution to work is the Mitel 3300 Communications Platform (ICP) or the extracted software – Mitel Communications Director – that can be deployed on a number of industry standard servers. In essence, non-Mitel customers can use the Communications Director as a gateway next to their existing telephony platform to enable dynamic extensions.
Mitel also launched two new features – Group Presence and Handoff. The group presence feature allows members of a hunt group or ACD group to set their status as “absent” or “present” in a group and thus allow or avoid calls coming into the group. The handoff allows calls to be “pushed or “pulled” between group member devices thus allowing calls to be transferred among members of a group.
In simple terms, Dynamic Extension works the following way. A mobile employee can turn any device into a corporate network endpoint by just calling into the system and identifying himself as a user. As a result, the endpoint that has been added to that user’s Personal Ring Group, now has access to all corporate applications. The mobile employee can use abbreviated dialing for internal calling, access the corporate directory or voicemail by just pressing a simple key combination, indicate presence status if part of a UC group, etc. When placing outbound calls, he/she appears as if calling from one and the same office number regardless of the endpoint used.
Situations where this capability would be most useful include people occasionally working from home and wishing to make their home or mobile phone appear as a corporate endpoint. In cases of natural disaster and relocation (should the telephony platform with the Mitel Communications Director be functional), employees can continue making and receiving calls with minimal disruption. When travelling, running errands or under unusual circumstances (illness, disaster, etc.), users can turn their hotel room or hotel lobby phone, an airport paid phone or a hospital phone into corporate endpoints. Certainly, long distances charges apply, but there is the benefit of maintaining a certain “identity” when communicating with partners and customers and also the value of using various useful applications. Further, while the cost of the call from the endpoint to the nearest corporate PBX is not eliminated, a portion of the long-distance charge could be reduced since the call goes through the PBX first. Think of a scenario where the user and the newly added endpoint are in Toronto connecting to a server in San Francisco and making a call to Bangladesh. The long-distance charge from Toronto to San Francisco is paid by the user, but the international (more expensive) call is on the PBX.
The handoff capability is also valuable when moving around or working remotely. Since true fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) with an automatic call handoff capability presents numerous challenges and has taken off very slowly in the enterprise space, the manual handoff offered by Mitel provides a convenient alternative. Users can easily switch from one device to another in their Personal Ring Group by just pushing a key and thus continue calls when moving around. Further, in a scenario where an employee is travelling internationally, the ability to take a call on a mobile device and quickly switch to a landline phone can help save exorbitant roaming charges.
Mitel’s solution seems unique in terms of the actual approach taken. However, it appears that Dynamic Extension will really benefit those most mobile of modern professionals that frequently need to switch from one device to another. While the solution seems fairly inexpensive and easy to implement with the extraction of the Communications Director representing a clever move, there simply appear to be other solutions that will serve the purpose without necessarily offering all the benefits and flexibility of Mitel’s solution. “Find me, follow me” capabilities that have been around for a while enable incoming calls to chase a users across multiple devices. I agree that “find me, follow me” does not impact outgoing calls in terms of identity, cost and applications, but it provides a very inexpensive and convenient solution for occasionally mobile individuals or those that wish to be found any time, anywhere.
Further, most people typically use either their mobile or home phone 90 percent of the time when they are not at their desk. True, a soft client will be required for the mobile phone to become a permanent PBX extension in most other architectures (Avaya, Cisco, etc.), but the cost of mobile clients, softphone clients and other user interfaces is increasingly bundled with the desktop phone for a single license fee making it fairly convenient for both MIS and users to enable their most used endpoints as corporate extensions. Also, with mobile communications becoming increasingly affordable, as far as cost is concerned, users will have no limitations on using their mobile phones on an ad-hoc basis when needed.
It should be noted, however, that there are certain verticals that can derive greater benefits from this solution. Consultants, public accountants, on-site technical support from a third-party firm, business managers spending lengthy periods of time working in various office, etc. will need a new extension every few weeks or months and the business can realize cost savings from reduced mobile calls and/or fewer desktop phones by using a larger number of the latter for hotdesking. Further, in contact center settings, or hospitals – doctors or nurses changing locations during their shifts or from one shift to another – or other situations requiring some skill-based or profile-based (or other-criteria-based) intelligent routing, identifying a user as himself or as belonging to a specific group becomes quite important from an incoming call point of view. Yet, doctors and nurses have pagers, mobile or VoWLAN phones; contact center employees are typically either at their office or their home desk …
The handoff capability is very useful and if it really works, it can help mobile employees stay connected on the go. I personally believe in setting limits to the time spent working rather than making it an endless continuum of business communications, but I know there are others who think differently.
I see the biggest value of this new technology in what Mitel calls “legacy rescue” situations. While many alternative mobile solutions exist in next-generation architectures, legacy systems cannot easily convert multiple endpoints into their extensions. Therefore, the extraction of the Mitel Communications Director into a software capability than can be placed on a generic server and used as a gateway between the PBX and the endpoints is going to be quite valuable to both business customers and Mitel as it will help it get its foot in the door where it has not been and may not be able to deploy its own telephony solutions. The software not only provides the flexibility of adding endpoints but it also overlays advanced IP features on top of a legacy switch and dumb endpoints (e.g. simple home phone). As businesses look to retain their existing infrastructure as long as possible (because of the recession or unamortized value or simply because it “still works”), Mitel’s solution helps them bridge the TDM and IP worlds in a fairly elegant way.
Further, Mitel offers Dynamic Extension with its TotalSolution/FrexTel Program which includes a buyback option for depreciating assets as part of a managed services offering. Needless to say, such programs re likely to appeal to most cash-constrained businesses.
The jury is out on this new approach to mobility. I am curious to hear about implementation scenarios where Mitel’s solution can prove/has proven most effective.
I will admit, this is a bit of a silly comparison but the truth is that I have had a few customers (and some analysts) asking for some clarification on the new Google Voice offer and how it may compete with Response Point when coupled with an ITSP. The fact is they really do not compete in any measurable way and they could easily compliment each other.
The obvious major difference is that Response Point is a small business phone system, Google Voice is really a service offering targeted at individuals.
When we combine Response Point with an ITSP (Internet Telephony Service Provider) we start seeing some similarities in the services between the two offers but they are really meant for 2 distinctly different purposes.
Response Point offers an actual premise-based system with a base unit, handsets and features like; auto-receptionist, DID integration, hunt groups, voice mail to email integration etc. All of the things one would expect when purchasing a small business phone system.
Google Voice service is an overlay service on whatever you have today, so if your existing phone system is simply not cutting it, it’s unlikely that Google Voice is going to be able to transform it into the system of your dreams. It’s true that Google Voice will allow you to take advantage of certain features but don’t expect to find a Park, Hold or Transfer or anything fancy like speech recognition.
Google Voice is an inbound-centric service. Most features can only be used with an inbound call, that includes call recording and call joining.
How they play nice together
One could use the Google Voice – simulring feature to call your Response Point phone number and at the same time it could call your mobile.
Google Voice – call recording is a handy feature that is currently not a feature offered in the Response Point system.
Google Voice – voice mail transcriptions is a handy way to receive visual voice mails via email and SMS.
Google Voice – call widgets allow users to put callback widgets on a website. This will allow the visitor to put in their phone number and the system will call them and then it will call your Google Voice number.
Google Voice – SMS is a cool way to compose, accept and manage text messages while maintaining control over the devices associated with that service.
The Google Voice service is only available in the US. Even US subscribers can only forward/simring their Google Voice numbers to other US numbers but that is likely to change to include international countries in the near future.
In theory, the Google Voice call should go wherever the media is sent. Call Routing results may vary depending on the Response Point ITSP you choose.
When calling out, your existing phone number (Caller ID) will be presented to the callee unless you use the dial-out feature, which is (IMHO) a bit of a hassle. This causes some problems as most of us are used to calling people back on the number we last saw from them. Fortunately, many ITSPs (unlike the conventional phone companies) will allow you to change your Caller ID number to match your Google Voice number.
Google Voice does not address LNP (Local Number Portability) at all right now. Which means you can not bring your existing numbers to Google Voice, you have to choose a new number.
With all the hype about Unified Communications and its productivity benefits, it is imperative we remind end users of the tremendous integration challenges they are bound to face when looking to integrate a large set of disparate applications. While vendors claim they have ensured interoperability with various partners and competitors, the market is still so nascent that the hassles may very well exceed the benefits for many businesses seeking to deploy a complete unified communications solution (IM/chat+telephony+VM/UM+conferencing, etc.).
Therefore a hosted UC service seems to offer a major benefit – a service provider has already dealt with all integration challenges and can deliver a package of applications that it also continues to manage, upgrade and enhance as the technologies evolve. Add to this the flexibility of a hosted offering (the ability to drop or add users as the business downsizes or grows) and a hosted UC solution seems perfect for the current economic climate.
It is not so simple, however. In a scenario where all applications are hosted, the assumption is that the customer has no or limited premise-based infrastructure. Otherwise, the service provider and the business face the same old interoperability/integration challenge. That holds particularly true if the IM/chat/UC platform is hosted. Most UC platforms (MCS, OCS, Sametime, etc.) do not scale to multiple premise-based PBXs. Which basically makes hosted UC highly correlated with customer demand for hosted telephony.
So far, the North American hosted IP telephony service market has experienced slow growth due to multiple factors including greater customer familiarity with premise-based platforms and a large installed PBX base, fragmented competitive landscape with limited involvement of established service providers, and lack of aggressive marketing resulting in low awareness of the value of hosted IP telephony. Frost & Sullivan estimates less than one million installed hosted IP telephony lines as of the end of 2008, which is fairly insignificant compared to a total of over 100 million business telephony lines (hosted and PBX) in North America.
Over the past couple of years, equipment vendors made significant efforts to enable the integration of their premise-based platforms with other communication and business applications in complex unified communications (UC) and communication-enabled business process (CEBP) environments. These technology advancements and the respective marketing efforts have greatly popularized the benefits of premise-based IP telephony and have driven high adoption rates. Hosted IP telephony providers, on the other hand, continue to market their services primarily as cost-effective voice communications, which has limited their value proposition for business customers. Therefore, hosted IP telephony penetration remains limited to small businesses of less than 50 users.
Going forward, hosted IP telephony services will continue to offer a somewhat limited value proposition until integration with hosted or premise-based communication and business applications becomes more common across providers. In the meantime, premise-based IP telephony offerings will make a significant progress in terms of features, integration with UC platforms, CEBP, and cost-efficient branch-office integration. Combined with customers’ historical preference for premise-based solutions and familiarity with PBX vendors and their VARs, as well as with vendor and VAR creative leasing and financing programs, this trend is likely to determine a general preference for IP PBXs versus hosted IP telephony among business customers (the few that may choose to make an investment in this climate).
In North America, hosted UC accounted for about 20K lines at the end of 2008. As I mentioned earlier, hosted UC will be highly correlated with hosted telephony. I do, however, expect some service providers to choose to host only OCS or another IM/presence/UC client and integrate with either hosted telephony services delivered by other service providers or with premise-based telephony as interoperability improves. There could be other scenarios, where the telephony is hosted and OCS is premise-based. I believe such hybrid implementations will be rare in the near future, but the latter kind will gain traction more rapidly.
I can only make an intelligent guess about the size of hosted UC (combined pure network-based implementations and hybrid ones) going forward since there is no historical evidence of adoption rates. I believe, it is reasonable to expect hosted UC to penetrate one million users in North America within the next five years. Based on my forecast for North American hosted telephony, hosted UC will then account for about 30% of total North American hosted telephony and a negligible percentage of total UC users.
I am staring my first blog ever and I am very excited. Even though I have been an analyst for 9 years, I just never found the time or the opportunity to create a blog.
Maybe a brief introduction is appropriate. My name is Elka Popova and I manage Frost & Sullivan’s North American Unified Communications practice. My expertise is in hosted telephony, unified communications (hosted and premise-based), voice and unified messaging, telephony CPE implementation and management services, speech technologies, VoWLAN, enterprise telephony headsets, and recently, Response Point.
I would like to thank Mr. Erik Lagerway for letting me contribute to this site. I hope my future blogs reach an audience that finds them informative and somehow useful.
An article on hosted UC is coming up soon!