How to Launch a Plan for Unified Communications and Collaboration in Three Steps

Posted 2008-04-10

How to Launch a Plan for Unified Communications and Collaboration in Three Steps

By: Bob Hersch

Despite the wealth of gadgetry at our disposal-phone, e-mail, instant messaging, videoconferencing and diverse software-too often we hit communications gridlock.

Colleague X learns of a new sales opportunity with a key client and needs to quickly review a pitch presentation with Colleague Y in New York and Colleague Z in London.  This type of intelligence has a quick expiration date. Unfortunately, both Colleague Y and Z are unreachable via mobile phone, and Colleague X does not have any other way of contacting them.   A time-sensitive deal falls through.

Such disconnects, especially for global enterprises, can kill efficiency. They also have a negative ripple effect on revenue and customer satisfaction. Global competition calls for fluid connections among people, partners and customers.  Seamless collaboration across time zones, locations and devices is key.

That's why companies and government organizations are turning to a promising new strategy, dubbed "unified communications and collaboration."

Unified communications and collaboration are not new technologies. Rather, they are ways to get more bang out of existing communications and data channels-to squeeze more value out of everyday interactions among people. Applied properly, it promises to make information sharing more secure and operationally efficient, to improve productivity and business value.

Computer servers can instantly choose a communications channel based on who's available where. A technician's IM system blinks "unavailable," for instance, and the server automatically creates a voice version of the trouble ticket, delivering it to the technician's mobile phone.

Unified communications and collaboration is an undeniable trend, and it's building momentum. IDC estimated a $19.3 billion market in 2006; Faulkner Research predicts $40 billion in a few years. By starting to plan now, organizations can reap the benefits just as this trend turns into a competency we can't do without.

It's important to think strategically about unified communications and collaboration technologies, however, and not simply rush to implement them. Dazzling as its promises are, the lights will dim quickly if it's not adequately integrated into the business. Superior technology may be available to all, but superior results are reserved for those who make the best use of what they have.

Here are three important first steps to ensuring that you actually realize the promise of unified communications and collaboration:

1. Determine Network Readiness

Much of the groundwork for unified communications and collaboration may already be done. That's because these technologies are simply the next logical step in a technology convergence we're already witnessing within many enterprises. The IP has established itself as the bedrock technology for all data and voice communication. It's only prudent now to integrate all communications into a single channel with one interface.

So the first step is to ask, "Just how ready is our network?" Assess your topology and information flows, and the robustness of your network intelligence and data center. At minimum an organization needs end-to-end, MPLS (Multiprotocol Label Switching) technology and VOIP (voice over IP) to be able to converge all traffic onto a single network.

Consider the Migration Approach, Decide How to Source

2. Consider the Migration Approach

The whole point of unified communications and collaboration is to let people share information the way they want, at any given time. When each user device logs onto a network, the network shows a record not only of the "presence" of that person, but also of that individual's contact preferences. Collaborators can switch channels seamlessly while communicating-like from teleconference to Web conference to viewing electronic documents.

In the second step of planning, therefore, you'll need to gain an understanding of the business-driven features and capabilities your organization requires. Whose presence needs visibility, and which business processes will that serve? Which people and data need to be connected to meet business objectives?

As an early adopter, your organization probably has some combination of people handling communication-intensive and time-critical business processes, mobile team members with shifting preferences for communications channels, specialized or distributed work forces, or flexible business-continuity options. You'll need to consider the impact on the business during the migration of various users, and issues such as how to maintain network stability during the migration process.

3. Decide How to Source 

Although some degree of unified communications and collaboration technologies may already be in place, an organization likely will need assistance developing a holistic strategy to combine technologies and providers into a common architecture. Decisions need to be made about whether to seek a fully managed service or a standard package from a vendor.

Unlike most IT projects, where the goal is to isolate the user and the business from the disruption of the change, migrating to unified communications and collaboration technologies requires the involvement of users and the business as a whole. It fundamentally changes how people communicate and conduct business. Projects must focus on streamlining business processes and generating value. This can't be done in a technology vacuum or solely by information technologists.

It's advisable to select long-term technology partners, not just the most economical, short-term vendors. True partners will help your organization integrate tools and systems within the context of business objectives, and connect unified communications and collaboration strategies with your line-of-business applications.

Following the above three steps will give you a foundation for harnessing the full potential of unified communications and collaboration-not just adopting the latest technology solution.

From here you'll be able to develop a detailed planning and implementation in three phases. (See my companion article, "How to Adopt Unified Communications and Collaboration: Three Phases.")

When the race to adopt a strategy for unified communications and collaboration is upon us, you'll already be through the gate.

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