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SOA Transforming Contact Centers with Open Standards

Service-oriented architectures are facilitating the evolution of traditional siloed, proprietary call/contact centers into standards-based, multi-channel doorways into the enterprise. So says Brian Garr, program director and segment manager for contact center solutions in IBM’s software group.

"SOAs connect pieces of functionality and applications over a network," Garr says. "In the contact center, that architecture can be used to integrate applications and provide easy information exchange among applications and/or resources throughout the entire enterprise."

The terms call center and contact center are sometimes used interchangeably, but they're not really the same. A call center is a voice-centric, public-switched-telephony-network-based center where agents handle service calls from customers, partners and employees. And technically, it's one type of contact center. In a contact center, agents handle other types of customer, partner and employee interactions with the company. And they're reached through a variety of communication channels, including e-mail, telephone, the Web, kiosks and even faxes. Contact centers handle any combination of those channels, which are managed by software (similar to the way call-center software routes calls).

Modern contact centers need to be able to reuse business processes and more easily deploy information assets through an SOA to respond quickly to market changes, Garr says. SOAs make it possible to mix, match, add or remove business processes and infrastructure as needed, supporting what IBM has been calling an On Demand environment.

That environment frees enterprises from the need to build and maintain contact centers based on resource-intensive, department-dependent business processes and applications that are difficult and costly to change, Garr explains. "It’s all about starting with what you have and adding additional resources as needed," he says.

Among the key benefits to call centers of an SOA, Garr includes the ability to:

  • represent every application or resource as a service with a standard interface
  • enable applications and resources to exchange structured information
  • deliver flexibility by treating business processes and infrastructure as defined components that can be mixed and matched
  • start small and add services as business needs dictate
  • start today with existing technology

IBM likes to say that it has been supporting SOAs since before that label appeared. Its Global Services division formally announced its SOA Management Practice last year, saying it would draw on the expertise of more than 35,000 IBM consultants trained in the intricacies of SOA to help customers implement service-oriented architectures.

Earlier this year, Big Blue announced it had partnered with Cisco Systems to combine IBM's WebSphere Voice Server and Cisco's Internet Protocol-based Customer Voice Portal to deliver speech-enabled, self-service solutions for enterprise contact centers. Both companies are pushing the adoption of open standards, including Voice XML and J2EE, Garr says. He points to IBM's Reusable Dialog Components, which are open-source, Java-based software components designed to aid in the rapid development of speech applications. IBM contributed several RDCs to the open-source Apache Software Foundation last year.

All of which are fast becoming important technologies for the enterprise contact center, Garr says. "When we talk about the contact center, we’re talking about the doorway into your company," Garr says. "It’s the first thing that people see when they reach out for information, to move money or to buy something. SOAs can support the efficiencies of reuse and deployment of standardized services to the contact center, and in the process provide a good experience for both agents and end users.”

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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