Monday, December 04, 2006

SOA, VOIP and BPM - new technology for the phone channel

Sorry, but sometimes I can be too technology driven. A business need is important, but every now and then you see a number of technology developments, link them and start dreaming about the possibilities (while not focusing on a business issue to solve). This time a news-item triggered me: as a result of the move to voice of IP (voip) most modern telephone switches (PBX, the central unit in a company that controls all phones and lines) become open: a set of services.

We are talking about services such as:
- Recognize that someone is calling (and their caller ID)
- Forward the call to an IVR (interactive voice response system) to enable the caller to supply certain information (reason of calling, identification, department of interest)
- Place the incoming call in a queue
- Link the incoming call to a certain phone, and make it ring. Or faster: link the incoming call to a certain headset from a certain call center agent, and inform this agent of the call
- Forward the call to a another waiting queue, another agent, or IVR
- Recognize that the caller said something or pressed a dialtone
- Play a certain message to the caller (a welcome, a question “please dial X” , information “so many are waiting, waitingtime is…”, some music)
- Outbound: dial a number and recognize not answered, busy, answered by voicemail, or answered
- Information services such as number of calls in period X, service level of period (a much used metric in call center land: the % of calls that you were able to pickup and serve that were waiting less than (mostly) a minute)

Hm, so a new set of services. Ah, a set of services that you can include in applications. That gives a whole new meaning to composite applications – now including voice/telephone!
If you combine this with a BPMS (business process management system) that supports workflow and SOA, the VOIP aware applications can support agents and management with things as:
- A call agent can be supported with a simple application in which he can directly control his phone and current caller, including forwarding the call to certain business processes
- A call can be forwarded to a business process engine, following a process model that was setup by analysts. Based on business rules, the engine will know what to do with the call – forward, send to IVR, waitqueue, escalate, etc.
- An IVR is no longer an expensive package. You can do it yourself with the BPMS (a procesmodel with actions as “play message X”, “recognize dialtone”, “determine next action”) and change it easily as well
- Controlling a PBX and integrating it with business processes is becoming a normal IT development task
- Integrated PBX and business process performance information is possible – which allows for better tracking (how many calls resulted in new business?)
- Phone and PC become one. You don’t look up a number on screen, and then dial it – you click dial… (or tell the computer on your headset “dial”)

Is this new? No. So why is this SOA-VOIP interesting from a business perspective? Well, up until recently IT and PBX/Phone services in a company where first of all quite separated. This resulted in
- Separate management information streams
- A phone and a PC, not connected

In addition PBX systems were quite closed. It meant
- expensive software, expensive specialists
- specific software for specific switches, and expensive solutions.
- Different, mostly not integrated solutions for IVR, PBX management, etc.

With a simple open and services based PBX, creating, using and administrate applications that are phone and call aware, will become a much more simple task, cheaper, more standard and less supplier dependent. This means for the business that your next project for a new product, a new service or new organization unit, setting up all the electronic channels for interactions towards your customers becomes one project – for web, wap, paperinput/output and now… phone.
Hope for the future is of course a SOA standard for PBX’s. Some XML-based, OASIS driven standard, that integrates well with the other BPMS and SOA standards. Can the Nortel’s, Ericssons, etc. start talking?

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