FALL 2008 VOL. 9 NO. 2

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Unified Communications

In today’s information-driven economy, it’s not enough to gather and synthesize data. You also have to do it quickly to gain and keep your competitive advantage. More than ever, developed and developing nations need to implement a communications strategy that uses technological advances to better integrate their citizens into the global community, and to allow government and industry to provide an array of advanced services to all sectors, says Sandor Boyson, research professor in the logistics, business and public policy department.

“Unified communications” is the term that describes this growing ability to integrate real-time communications with business processes and presence technologies across multiple devices. And the push for unified communications is growing in part out of technology developed in the Supply Chain Laboratory in collaboration with Smith School corporate partner Avaya Corporation. Boyson lays out a new paradigm for achieving truly unified communications in a paper “Unified Communications: Leading Advances in Global Decision Making and Economic Development,” co-authored with David Boyer, senior communications architect with Avaya. This paper was published in the World Economic Forum’s Global Information Technology Report 2007-2008, which reviews the network readiness of 127 nations and recommends policies to accelerate national technology development.

Boyson and Thomas Corsi, Michelle E. Smith Professor of Logistics and co-director with Boyson of the Supply Chain Management Center, worked with Avaya to create a portal linking flight line mechanics at Air Force bases in Oklahoma and Texas to aerospace engineers at General Electric in Cleveland in real time, so that the mechanics could quickly get the answers they needed for technical repair questions. But the truly amazing aspect of the technology was that problems in the aircraft engine could be diagnosed wirelessly by the portal, which would then automatically activate problem-solving solutions and bring the mechanics into contact with the engineers who could solve the problem.

Based on this experience, the center developed a portal for hospitals that combined real-time diagnostics and alerts. It used an Internet-enabled drug dispensing cart that could identify potential drug interactions right at the moment when the nurse was dispensing the drug, and wirelessly contacted a specialist to immediately address the issue, potentially preventing medical errors before they happened.

All these were business-process-level technologies. But it became clear to Boyson that this technology could be expanded to an industry level. Finance and banking, for example, could benefit from the opportunity to get information to traders in a split-second, or from faster and more effective ways to get customers connected with the services they require.

Boyson is also enthusiastic about the potential for the technology to be utilized for even larger and more complex systems, like those used for disaster response. Unified communications could link sensor systems across the globe that tracked storms, wind and sea-level rise. The sensors would be linked to communication networks of experts, first responders, and government agencies to provide a fast and effective way to mass mobilize when a tsunami or hurricane or typhoon is on the way.

Some of these technologies clearly have the potential for enormous social good. Japan’s telecom giant NTT has a pilot program where the cell phones of elderly people are equipped with military-grade sensors that detect heat and motion to track their owners’ respiration and heartbeat. The data is sent to a server and, based on information provided by the person’s doctor, alerts the doctor or other medical caregivers when breathing or heart rate falls outside acceptable parameters.

Issues of interoperability present serious challenges to the development of truly unified global communications. And it’s not just a matter of technology — creating the infrastructure for unified communications will require a significant investment from both the public and private sectors. But Boyson argues that “the potential value of this technology for the social good and for business transformation is so profound that it is worth pursuing.”

And it’s important to pursue it fast. Boyson says that this kind of technology will also provide the economy with an edge in managing supply chains, providing powerful new services, and spurring innovation and discovery. And those rewards will go to the nations that are the earliest adopters.

The paper describing this new paradigm for unified communications was showcased by the World Economic Forum, an independent, international nonprofit organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging leaders in partnerships to shape global, regional and industry agendas. The World Economic Forum is one of the world’s premier think tanks for public and private sector economic policy. Its annual meeting of top business leaders, national political leaders (presidents, prime ministers and others), and selected intellectuals and journalists is usually held in Davos, Switzerland.

For more information, contact sboyson@rhsmith.umd.edu.


Copyright 2008 Robert H. Smith School of Business