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Shell Stays Aggressive On UC Plans

Early on in the VoIP migration, you heard, "Voice is just another application on the network." Then you heard it wasn't; it was tougher to do and more mission critical. At VoiceCon Amsterdam next week, an executive from Royal Dutch Shell will say, in essence, that voice actually is just another application.Royal Dutch Shell is probably the most prominent UC case study out there, and one of the most aggressive in its plans to migrate from PBX-centric architectures to the new software-based model, in their case based on Microsoft Office Communications Server (OCS). In a keynote address at VoiceCon Amsterdam, Johan Krebbers, Group IT Architect at Royal Dutch Shell, will update us on progress as Shell moves to an OCS-based communications system, and give some perspectives on where voice fits within the communications picture at Shell.

And from reviewing Mr. Krebbers' slides, I can tell you that Shell doesn't appear to be backing away from the ambitious plans that it first made public in late 2006-early 2007 (including a VoiceCon Orlando keynote by Krebbers). What's more, voice is "not treated as special anymore," Krebbers notes in his slides. He calls this a "mentality change, but mostly an IT issue." Specifically, voice now "gets the same availability as any of the other P2P facilities."

Let that sink in. As I noted at the beginning of this blog, there's a lot of talk back and forth; people toss around statements like, "Dial tone is a God-given right," etc. But that's all talk. The way you reveal which communications applications are important is by how you provision your network to deliver those apps. And Johan Krebbers is saying that Shell has adopted the philosophy that it's just as important to be able to use IM or e-mail -- or even video -- as it is to have access to voice.

This isn't to denigrate voice, or to exalt other media. What's clear is that Shell really does look at communications and collaboration holistically, as a collection of capabilities that need to be available ubiquitously, deployed flexibly, and usable in the way that's best suited to the user, task, and geography. Shell is really taking the long view, and it's clear that the company is as committed to its vision today as it was a year and a half ago, when I wrote this after hearing Krebbers in Orlando:

Why is Shell crafting such a bold vision, however long term? Johan Krebbers says it starts with the nature of Shell's workforce and its business. It turns out that Shell is looking at a major turnover in its workforce in the next few years, because of what happened to the oil industry a decade and a half ago. With oil prices at record lows, the industry shed jobs, and those who remained are now approaching retirement age. Krebbers expects that within a few years, he will be supporting a very large cohort of employees who really are those storied younger, collaboration/social-networking oriented workers whose coming has been foretold to us.

What this means is that voice is, Krebbers emphasized, one among many communications channels that Shell will have to support.

A further point that Krebbers makes in his slides for next week's talk is that it isn't just a matter of new workers preferring new media; social networks' ability to improve employees' knowledge sharing conforms nicely with the turnover in expertise that the energy giant faces.

The big question hovering over Krebbers' talk in March 2007 was whether Microsoft OCS -- which had just been announced -- could really provide the primary voice capability for an enterprise-grade communications network. In his slides for next week's Amsterdam conference, Krebbers reports that, "OCS Voice capabilities are developing pretty fast," adding that the "basic capabilities are there."

Now, that last comment will draw jeers from traditional PBX/telecom people, who will point out that, in their view of things, OCS's voice capabilities are nowhere near sufficient. And they could be right. For them.

However, Shell is very clearly taking the position that whatever OCS can deliver today and in the near future is pretty close to being adequate for Shell. You may think they're crazy, but they're moving ahead on this.

Another interesting part of Krebbers' presentation is his discussion of Shell's approach to video. Here, as with voice, they're buying into the Microsoft vision. Shell expects to deploy telepresence in fewer than 10 sites, opting instead for a broad-based peer-to-peer (i.e., endpoint) deployment.

The bottom line is that Shell is convinced that, for its business -- a sprawling multinational in which 80% of teams are global teams, many of them a mixture of Shell and non-Shell employees -- UC is the essence of the communications vision that it needs to function as we move ahead into the future. Collaboration, mobility, standard interfaces, flexibility, and diversity of media are the fundamental requirements.