Martin Veitch (Global) - Interview: Siemens' Chris Hummel on Yahoo's Homeworking U-turn and UC's Slow Progress

When Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer recently insisted that staff come to the company’s offices rather than work from home many people were up in arms. In the knowledge economy the notion that people should work from wherever they are most effective has become sacrosanct, especially in the tech-web creative hub that is Silicon Valley.

You might expect those working in the unified communications space, selling services that help to do just that, to be among the loudest in the anti-Mayer camp but that’s not necessarily the case. Witness the remarks of Chris Hummel, chief commercial officer of Siemens Enterprise Communications, when I met him recently to discuss the state of the unified communications sector...

“Whatever she did, she did she did for her specific company and I understand the position she’s in,” says Hummel. “She said Yahoo is about collaborating so we have to drive collaborative work. What it said to me was CEOs are focused on how employees are most effective.”

Hummel was even supportive of Mayer’s stance when it was revealed that Yahoo’s decision was partly informed by an analysis of VPN logs to check how often staff were accessing the company’s systems.

“We looked at the badge swipes and in one office we saw one that in the US nobody had swiped in for a week so we closed it down. You have to balance the cost with the reward. The day the Yahoo news came out I was at a dinner and the guy next to me was in real estate and I asked him ‘Are companies kicking out offices?’ And he said the pendulum swings back and forth. People ask ‘How do I make my employees most productive in a team environment?’ We’re all of us switching modes all the time. It’s always collaborative though. You write a presentation here but somebody else is reviewing it there. You have conference calls, IM conversations, emails, huddles, one-to-ones…”

Rather than taking a dogmatic view of what is a “best” mode of working, Hummel says that the reality is more complex.

“Collaboration is not an end unto itself. This ‘kumbaya’ thing that if you collaborate you’re friendly, soft, supportive… not necessarily. Today, everything is fractured because you jump in and out of modes because that’s the world we live in.”

You might assume that this fractured communications environment would drive sales of what Siemens makes, services that let people connect in the most appropriate way at any time, but Hummel is brutally frank about what’s going on in the sector.

“The market over the past couple of years has been flat at best,” he says. “UC has turned into this tech word and [the sector] is at just 10 to 20 per cent attach rate.”

However, he is optimistic about the future:

“Everybody is talking about cloud, video, social CRM and all this stuff that is core to UC. So the market is at best flat but the opportunity is bigger than ever. Companies have cut back, optimised business processes and they’re looking at the next wave of productivity, and that’s putting two or more people together and they have to be more productive. The category hasn’t delivered in over a decade but the promise is still there.”

Elements of UC might have been leapfrogged by consumer-grade services in terms of adoption as bring-you-own-device and consumerisation of IT have changed workplace tools but even this might spur a reinvention of UC, Hummel believes.

“The centre is the individual and the ecosystem. As I heard a CIO say recently, it’s not good enough to deliver to my employees, I have to delight them. If they use Face Time on an unsecured line that exposes my company to dropped calls or even espionage [that’s a risk].”

Siemens is pushing on, introducing more as-a-service payment terms and shuffling its product pack around a theme of “amplified teams”: getting the most out of collaboration by connecting people in ways that are aligned to their business processes.

But, perhaps unsurprising given that his company is majority-owned by a private-equity firm the Gores Group, Hummel is also keeping a weather eye on the possibilities of tie-ups between computing and communications behemoths.

He notes deals of recent years such as SAP acquiring mobile middleware and infrastructure software firm Sybase, Microsoft buying Skype and Oracle’s recent agreement to purchase UC software firm AcmePacket.

Life could get interesting, he notes, if a giant decides that there might be synergy in a true meeting of communications and compute environments rather than taking baby steps. For now though the day job is about helping companies get the most out of their time... and making sense of this fractured working world.


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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