Unified communications (UC) technology has garnered a fair amount of attention, much of it due to vendors touting their UC offerings as the answer to problems workers have keeping in touch with colleagues, business partners and customers in a highly frenetic, increasingly mobile business world.
While the technology is delivering benefits to the relatively few organizations that have adopted it, experts say UC is still evolving and vendors need to do more to integrate their various products.
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Exactly what UC is depends on who's providing the definition, but in general it includes real-time communication capabilities such as telephony (including IP), video conferencing, instant messaging (IM), telepresence and data sharing, along with non-real-time services such as voicemail, email, unified messaging and fax.
UC often involves multiple product components that together provide a unified user interface and experience across devices and media types. Among other capabilities, it allows a user to be reachable via the same telephone number over a variety of devices, and to receive messages on the medium of his or her choosing.
The idea behind the technology is to optimize communication and collaboration -- enabling workers to more easily reach and be reached by others, and therefore be more efficient and productive.
But despite the promise, uptake of the technology has been somewhat sluggish, according to industry observers.
"We have not seen significant growth in the number of companies doing something with UC," says Robin Gareiss, executive vice president and senior founding partner of Nemertes Research Group, a research and advisory firm in Mokena, Ill. Based on surveys the firm has conducted, only 4.4 percent of companies have fully deployed UC.
Two key issues are slowing adoption, Gareiss says. One is that companies are having a hard time establishing a hard-dollar business case for UC, and the other is that vendors are not making integration of various UC components easy.
Determining how much UC will cost can be tricky because of the various components involved. "Much of this depends on how you're defining UC," Gareiss says. "Which apps are included? Are they fully integrated to both tethered and wireless devices? The biggest unplanned expenses are integration costs, training/marketing internally to users and management tools."
Fortunately, UC can be deployed in increments, rather than require a major infrastructure upheaval, says Don Van Doren, principal at UniComm Consulting LLC in Loomis, Calif. Companies can purchase the UC capabilities and licenses as needed. "This means that savings from early improvements can be used to help fund subsequent application implementations," he says.
Despite the slow growth of the market overall, UC holds promise for organizations, Gareiss says.
In fact, some believe that the boom in mobile communications will help spur demand for UC as a way of tying it all together, and to help enable the promise of anywhere, anytime connectivity across multiple types and brands of devices. Analyst firm Info-Tech Research Group uses mobility as one key factor in its recently released UC scorecard.
Companies that have deployed UC are seeing results. Underwriters Laboratories (UL) of Northbrook, Ill., a global independent product-safety science company, two years ago implemented a UC platform that includes components from Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Avaya.
The company wanted to improve communications and collaboration throughout the organization and at the same time upgrade an aging communications and networking infrastructure, says Tom Boxrud, IT director, global operations at UL.
As part of the upgrade, the company deployed Microsoft's Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007 R2 unified communications platform, which integrates instant messaging, audio, video, Web conferencing and telepresence into Microsoft Office. It also deployed a voice over IP (VoIP) telephony system from Avaya and network-infrastructure components including switches from HP.
"We had outgrown our existing technology, but additionally UL was in a period of transformation, and one goal was to improve communications and collaboration" with customers, Boxrud says.
In addition, the company wanted to reduce travel costs, shorten project cycles and be more agile in the marketplace. "We saw unified communications as a key tool that could deliver that," Boxrud says. The company is in the process of moving to Microsoft Lync, the vendor's latest UC offering.
As a result of using UC and VoIP, UL expects to reduce its telecommunications costs by as much as 50 percent, Boxrud says. Much of that savings comes from reduced long-distance calling costs among its global offices. Furthermore, UL has cut operating costs by 30 percent, consolidating nearly 40 email servers worldwide to just one cloud-based email system.
Collaboration among its facilities in North America, Europe and Asia is much easier and less costly since the adoption of UC, Boxrud says. "When we test products, we might have someone [in Asia] with knowledge about a product UL may be testing that someone in North America needs access to," he says. "Instead of sending that person there we can do point-to-point demos or [Web] conferencing with the click of a button."
But the adoption of unified communications has come with some challenges. For one thing, it's been something of a cultural shift for many people in the organization, who had never used the types of advanced features provided by UC.
"Being that we have an older culture here, the key to the overall implementation [of UC] is having a good [internal] marketing, communications and training campaign -- which we did through our Internet site and self-service tools -- so people could see" how to use UC features, Boxrud says.
The company rolled out features gradually rather than all at once to minimize struggle, Boxrud says. "We did a lot of feedback surveys about how people were feeling about the tools," he says. "Some people had never been exposed to the video capabilities before."
As for financial payback, Boxrud says UL expects a return on investment on its UC technology and other network upgrades within about three years. "That's pretty much on par with what we anticipated," he says.
UC as part of a broader revamp
Another UC user, The Agency Group, a London-based booking agency that represents more than 1,500 music artists worldwide, began deploying Avaya Inc.'s Avaya IP Office 7.0 in late 2010 as part of a telecommunications overhaul to improve communications among its worldwide offices.
Part of the reason for the move was that the firm wanted to upgrade its communications infrastructure from an older Nortel system that wasn't IP-enabled and that the business had outgrown, according to Howie Gold, CIO at The Agency Group.
"We needed more trunking capabilities and more overall features, such as video conferencing and support for iPhone and Android mobile applications," Gold says. But another key reason for adopting unified communications was to achieve the firm's goal of ensuring always-on, real-time service for clients, regardless of their location.
The Agency Group also wanted to increase productivity among its employees, improve collaboration, save costs and reduce travel -- and it has achieved those objectives with the new system, Gold says. Perhaps most important, UC enables the firm -- which also has offices in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Sweden and Nashville and has a large number of highly mobile employees -- to have a cohesiveness that it lacked before.
"Our chairman's main focus for IT was to unify the company, to enhance our level of communications and to get people from different offices to share information," Gold says.
Other immediate benefits for users included increased convenience and greater efficiency with managing communications. The system allows people to make calls to anywhere within the organization by dialing four digits. That eliminates the need for cumbersome international dialing, Gold says.
"We have a lot of communications between agents in the U.K. and Canada [for example], and they now have the ability to just pick up the phone and dial a four-digit extension and reach someone 4,000 miles away without any concern that it's a long-distance call," Gold says.
Even in this age of electronic communication the agency relies heavily on phone connections, Gold says. "You can do so much with email, but our business is a relationship business that requires personal communications," he says. "It's better if people can get a feel for a person's sense of humor or their excitement about a band."
The system has an application that allows users to send instant messages and see a colleague's presence, among other functions, from a Web-based portal. This allows mobile agents to remain transparently available to clients, regardless of their location.
UC has also allowed the firm to save money through reduced long-distance calling and the avoidance of hotel calling charges, Gold says. While he wouldn't quantify total savings, Gold says executives and agents can avoid calling costs of as much as $3,000 for a single overseas trip.
"There are so many different levels of savings that if you [consider that] and factor in the enhanced level of communications that goes with it, it's hard to say what the total value of the technology is, but it is exceptional," Gold says.
Without concerns about calling costs, people are more inclined to make calls they need to make to do their jobs. "One of the senior VPs told me that [in the past] when he would travel he would make a call to the office and then bounce around to different people in the office so he wouldn't have to make separate calls," Gold says. "Now he doesn't have to get it all done in one call to save toll charges. It raises the level of communications because in the past people might have tried to avoid making calls."
Some IT executives see UC technology as a work in progress, with improvements still needed.
"There is a need for more well-defined standards and protocols for communication between technologies, thus enabling simple integration," says Jim Spicer, executive vice president/group executive and CIO, Wells Fargo Corporate Technology and Data, at financial services firm Wells Fargo & Co. in San Francisco.
For now, he predicts, this integration improvement will happen in only "a subset" of UC areas, because most vendors see competitive advantage in having proprietary formats. "We would hope that as the capabilities evolve [we] might see this improve."
Within UC, "there is a need for more well-defined standards and protocols for communication between technologies, thus enabling simple integration," says Jim Spicer, CIO of Wells Fargo Corporate Technology and Data.
In addition, Spicer would like to see UC products better support the data archiving and discovery needs of companies, which he says are growing and currently require much custom integration and effort. Many companies need this archiving capability for regulatory compliance purposes. "Convergence across some of the vendor products in the market to make this simpler and less costly would be valuable," he says.
Wells Fargo implemented a UC system -- which Spicer declined to identify -- in part to increase productivity and collaboration among staff and to meet demand for instant, real-time communication.
The firm has seen benefits, such as the ability to connect teams across diverse geographical areas in a more real-time way, and in the future expects to see gains including reduced need for travel, the ability for users to see each other face-to-face in real time for interactive discussions, and more effective team meetings conducted remotely.
Providing a compelling UC business case can be a challenge when trying to justify the deployment across a large organization such as Wells Fargo, Spicer says. "Obviously, not everyone within the bank needs UC to get their job done well," he says. "As the benefits continue to climb with new and more streamlined capabilities and the costs continue to fall with better integrated products and higher capacity infrastructure, the ROI will become easier to support."
UC will continue to evolve, experts say. Gareiss expects to see more integration with mobile devices, or the ability to access a consistent set of UC features from any device. She also predicts more video on different types of devices, and more integration of the various video systems (telepresence, room-based, desktop, and mobile).
And, as with so many areas of computing today, the cloud is having an impact on UC.
"Cloud-based UC is gaining interest, but not huge adoption yet among all sizes of companies," Gareiss says. "For now, we see small and midsize companies, those with fewer than about 1,000 endpoints, making the strongest business case for cloud or hosted UC services."
UC "is not an IT project that is truly ever 'completed,'" Gareiss says. "It's an evolution, and IT staffs will always add new communications, collaboration, enterprise and mobile applications to an overall UC framework."
Best practices for UC adoption
- When implementing a unified communications system, hire consultants or integrators with expertise in the new system as well as legacy telecom systems in place. Knowledge about both will help the installation and transition go more smoothly and avoid integration and compatibility problems.
- Tap into resources such as other organizations that have deployed UC and overcome challenges your organization might face, such as cultural change or integration with legacy communications systems. Ask vendors for customer references.
- Make sure the vendor, systems integrator or consultant has the resources to set up and test the system in a lab setting before rolling it out within the organization. All functionality should be tested to make sure everything works as planned given the company's network infrastructure, phone sets, mobile devices, and so on.
- Provide detailed training to users on UC features and capabilities, particularly to those who have never used the technology before. Without training and an explanation of the benefits of features, people are less likely to take advantage of them.
- If the company has a mix of vendor UC systems (for example, as a result of merger and acquisition activity), ensure that applications can be developed and deployed on multivendor infrastructures.
- For very large organizations (e.g., 10,000 users in multinational locations), consider a phased rollout of UC. Implementing the new services in small increments to a limited number of users enables the company to understand how each application works and what support structure it requires before a full-scale rollout.
Bob Violino is a freelance writer in Massapequa Park, N.Y. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This story, "Unified communications still fragmented" was originally published by Computerworld.