Contextual Communications

I sometimes feel as if interruptions define my work life. My days are an endless stream of emails, instant messages, SMS text messages, telephone calls, and voicemails.  They are all like doorbells that won’t stop ringing.  As soon as I respond to the first, the next visitor is at the door demanding my attention.  I could ignore the bells and knocks, but how would I know that I wasn’t missing something extremely important?

I’ve come to realize that unless I quit my job and sit at home watching soap operas, this deluge isn’t going to change.  So, instead of constantly complaining, or allowing my productivity to come to a grinding halt, I do what I can to make those interruptions meaningful.  In other words, I allow the important interruptions to capture my time and energy and I send the less meaningful, or meaningless interruptions to the back of the line.

The trick to adding meaning to interruptions is finding the relevant context of those interruptions.  This allows me to categorize, prioritize, and appropriately manage the barrage of communications mediums that fill my day.

We already do this to some extent with email today.  First, there is the subject line that may help me decide at a glance whether this email is important or not.  Next, there is the preview pane that gives me the first couple of lines.  There are also the disposition indicators such as forward or reply.  All of these allow me to discern the context of an email without having to actually read it.

Those same categorization aspects can be applied to other forms of communications.  Imagine knowing why your phone is ringing before answering it.  We already have calling line and calling name identification, but they are only the tip of the iceberg.  Knowing that Mary Smith is calling is important, but it doesn’t tell me why she is calling.  Did she pick up the phone and simply dial my number?  Did she do a click-to-call from an email I previously sent?  Was it the email that asked for last month’s sales reports or the one asking if she wanted to do lunch on Friday?

Let’s take this further.  Would it help me better categorize the call if I knew that she was calling from within a document I posted on a SharePoint site?  What difference might it make if I knew the exact document?  Would I be more apt to answer her call if I knew that it was placed from the parking lot of our biggest customer?   The more I know about the context of the phone call, the better prepared I am to determine the meaning of the interruption.

Here in the age of multimodal communications you can be reached in many different ways and context can and should be applied to every one of them.  If context is important to an email, it’s more important to real-time forms of communication where time to answer and reply are more critical.  The more information you are provided at the time of the interruption the better – for you and the caller.

This kind of context processing is important to me, the desk jockey, but imagine someone who works in a high stress, life critical job.  Imagine a doctor being able to tell exactly why her phone is buzzing before responding to the phone call, text message, email, or voicemail.  Imagine how the quality of her care would go up if she were able to intelligently ignore the unimportant interruptions and spend her time responding to critical matters.

Now, before you start making calls to your favorite systems integrator, it’s important to know that not every one of these context classifications are possible with today’s unified communications products.  As far as I know, there is no system that can tell you that a call is being made from a parking lot.  However, it’s not that farfetched to imagine a time when that feature exists.  The goal of this blog is not to tell you what you can buy today, but rather what is possible and may be on the market tomorrow.

Think of how context allows you to make better decisions.  Think of how much more productive you are when you are able to sort interruptions by importance.   This is the future of communications.  This is what makes unified communications “workflow relevant.”

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