5 Things You Need to Know About Unified Communications

Updated: May 24, 2010

Unified Communications involves a lot of complex technology, and that type of analysis is outside the scope of a Focus Brief. There are other important components besides technology, and all of these need to be considered to achieve the best results for your business. This Brief examines five things we believe you must understand and account for in your decision-making process.

1. UC is whatever you want it to be. This sounds like a simple statement, but it's true, and it cuts both ways. Most businesses have a universal set of core communications needs - telecom, email, IM, fax, etc. The scope of UC can easily be limited to this set of tools, and would still deliver good value. UC, of course, can include a far greater range of applications, and will continue to evolve over time.

There really are two elements to consider here for UC. First is the number of communications applications being integrated. Some people within your company may only want to work with a handful of these, while others will push the envelope and try as many modes as possible. Second, however, is the way these applications are integrated. The permutations for mixing and matching are endless, and the value of UC really depends on how far you want to take this.

In this regard, it's a good thing that UC is a fairly elastic concept. There really is no bar set as a minimum every business must use when deploying UC. Instead, you should look at UC as a toolbox that can help you build whatever you have in mind. The structure can be simple or complicated - whatever you deem to be best. This also means businesses should take vendor claims with a grain of salt, and if you feel you're being sold on too many features, then it may be time to look at other option. The flip side, however, means that the onus falls on the buyer to do their homework. Otherwise, you're just as likely to choose a low-end solution, thinking that you're getting a full-fledged UC platform - as you are to go with a comprehensive solution that is over-engineered for your needs.

2. UC is a moving target. It's very important to not let traditional telephony thinking drive all your decision-making around UC. First and foremost, UC is essentially software, while phone systems have traditionally been hardware. For businesses that have used legacy telephony for a long time, there tends to be a fixed and narrow mindset around this. These phone systems have very few moving parts and are typically used for 15 years or more. Aside from durability, enhancements or innovations are few and between. They pretty much work today the same way they worked one or two decades when first installed.

These qualities make telephony systems an ideal capital investment, but UC is very different. In most cases, UC will interface with that very same telephony system, but also with several other endpoints. More advanced UC offerings will bypass the desk phone altogether, moving call control over to the desktop, and integrating voice into a rich multimedia communications environment. Perhaps more importantly, because of the limited upgradability of legacy phone systems, their value with UC will quickly diminish. Their capacity to adapt to UC will be reached early on, while all of the new applications will be developed for modes that are simply more compatible with UC. This is a very different value proposition, and decision makers need to think about UC as an open, constantly evolving solution, rather than a tangible asset that is fixed and durable - but only in a physical sense.

3. UC is not an ROI play. Similar to the above item, UC requires a different way of thinking in terms of its investment merits. For the reasons outlined above, businesses could develop a clear ROI model upon which a buying decision could be made. However, unlike legacy phones, UC is not a capital investment. Determining its fixed life for amortization purposes is futile, and the benefits for the business really are quite different. Legacy telephony supports the consumption of a utility-like service, and its usage can clearly be measured. This element is part of UC, but so much more is possible.

When UC is effectively integrated with business functions and processes, there are opportunities to both lower costs and increase revenues. These outcomes are simply not part of the legacy telephony ROI equation. It is still early days for UC, and more modern performance metrics have yet to be established. In this regard, decision makers need to re-assess the importance of ROI, and view UC in a broader scope. UC can very much help bring telecom costs under control, but can player a bigger role in making the organization more efficient and the business more competitive. Thinking along these lines, UC is more of a strategic decision than an investment decision.

4. UC will produce results quickly. Related to the ROI angle, it must be understand that UC delivers value very differently from conventional telecom. In the world of TDM and legacy hardware, ROI is often measured in years. Phone systems are long term investments, and in a static environment, ROI is meaningful metric. As the world shifts from TDM to IP, static gives way to constant change, and 24 months is about as far out IT is willing to plan for.

Long term ROI scenarios become very difficult to justify in this world, and innovation is the key for sustainable value creation. UC plays very well into this model, especially since it becomes a central hub for all communications. This ability to connect so many people in so many ways is what allows for results to be seen more quickly than any legacy system could support. While it may be difficult to quantify all these benefits, the improvements will be evident in many ways, and businesses simply must know what to look for. UC solution providers can help identify these parameters, and the important thing to recognize here is that benefits will be realized quickly. UC is not about planting a seed and waiting for it to grow - as quickly as employees adapt the tools, the results will come.

5. UC is harder to do than it looks. While the above outcomes sound promising, UC is still a work in progress, and businesses do not understand it well enough yet to make it truly mainstream. As mentioned earlier, this Brief is not a technical analysis, but there certainly are technical challenges around UC. Much of this is simply because UC is new, and vendors typically take a distinct approach. Without standardization, it becomes difficult to compare across vendors, but aside from that, there are still technical issues around making all the elements work together.

Interoperability is a simple way to explain this, and vendors still have a lot of work to do here. This is largely to be expected since vendors seem to take their own path, but in time, they will band together to move the space forward together. The same can be said for mobile applications. Integrating mobility with the desktop is a key value driver for UC, but again, it's harder to do than it looks. Aside from technology, businesses must also get end users on board for UC to be effective. To varying degrees, this will require some new behaviors and skills, and businesses must consider UC training for a successful deployment.

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