The recession that is strangling the economy is forcing enterprises to reduce the dollars available for both capital and operational expenses, and potential unified communications projects are not immune to the financial pressures.
Given that, customers looking for UC solutions need to stay focused on the business objectives behind the initiative when considering products. They need to avoid cutting corners that could thwart the UC project out of the gate.
On one level, businesses are looking at UC to improve and extend communication tools to match how people work today. A UC deployment needs to reflect users’ expectations for multiple channels of communications that can be accessed and utilized no matter where they are, what network they are currently using, or what device is currently in use.
Having such tools in place promises to meet the expectations of employees-particularly younger or newer employees used to such capabilities in their personal or professional lives-ideally keeping them motivated and engaged.
However, from a business perspective, a UC initiative should be able to bolster business objectives, delivering critical transformations in how the company performs its core competencies. Depending on the origin of the UC initiative within the company (i.e., which business group is driving the project), the UC deployment should affect reductions in travel costs, increase user productivity via improved collaboration and conferencing capabilities, improve operational efficiencies via presence and integration of business applications, or streamline interactions with customers and partners.
In a down economy such as the one we’re mired in, there may be a tendency to try to make do with what is currently in place. However, that strategy may thwart those underlying business objectives. Sticking with existing equipment won’t save money if databases and business applications cannot be integrated within the system without prohibitive development costs, if workers do not have access to the tools they need when out of the office, or if the infrastructure can’t support the new modes of communications and types of content-particularly video or HD voice-that the company wants to leverage. Indeed, for most companies, new tools will be necessary, but those tools must be able to meet the upfront goals while delivering a fast return on investment.
In a recent report, Forrester Research analysts predicted that the enterprise UC market will grow from a $1.2 billion market in 2008 to around $14.5 billion globally by 2015. To meet this expected need for new communication tools for enterprise customers, telecommunications vendors have been falling all over themselves to create new technologies or repackage existing solutions branded as UC.
The Need for a UC Project Champion
In a 2007 article titled “5 Steps to Unified Communications,” I wrote that a “project champion will help keep the project on target, not losing sight of the business-goal forest-through-the-technology trees.” The argument was that a UC project champion needs to be high up in the organizational chart-not from within IT, but from the business unit that had the originating need for UC capabilities in the first place.
It is the champion’s duty to ensure that the solution resolves the needs that drove the project from the onset, without losing focus by trying to deliver appealing-but ultimately pointless-features that won’t save money or transform business practices.
In the time since I wrote that article, I’ve seen just how valid this statement can be, as UC products I’ve seen or tested have proved great at providing easily graspable demonstrations of sexy features, but not so good at showing how those features will lead to savings or improved practices.
For example, the Unison Server and Desktop UC suite (see review, Page 20) seems compelling because it merges a decent mix of features at the desktop with an attractive price point-free for those willing to accept advertisements on the user desktop. Users view all their messages in a unified mailbox, and they can move communications easily between VOIP (voice over IP), instant messaging and e-mail-based on built-in presence information.
In that same article from 2007, I said that a comprehensive UC strategy needs to extend services to four buckets of endpoints: devices (PC, phones or smartphones), business applications (ERP, CRM), network types (office versus home, wired versus wireless) and operating systems. When measured against those criteria, Unison at best delivers to only two buckets-and neither well.
Of devices, Unison delivers functionality to PCs, but not mobile devices that continue to gain utility for most businesses today. And of operating systems, Unison extends to Windows and Linux (albeit in beta), but not to Mac OS X, which is likely to have greater penetration than Linux in the corporate desktop. The other two buckets are largely ignored.
Without video support or document collaboration/whiteboarding, will such a solution save on travel costs? Without clear-cut partnerships with business application vendors or an architecture open for application development, can businesses automate services? These kinds of features might be on a product’s road map, but without them now or in the near future, such a project should be a nonstarter.
This limited scope of UC offerings is hardly confined to smaller vendors. A UC strategy ultimately will likely comprise a number of solutions with different aims that work together toward the encompassing goal. This is why partnerships among UC vendors and open-or at least accessible-development architectures should be key evaluation criteria.
For instance, Microsoft’s OCS (Office Communications Server) delivers all of the same features (plus a lot more) as Unison, although at a drastically higher price point for licensing, installation and upkeep. OCS itself may not deliver on all the transformative business capabilities you may need for your UC strategy-its mobile story was weak out of the gate, for instance. However, due to Microsoft’s position in the industry and on the desktop, many other UC companies have integrated their offerings with OCS, providing a fertile ground for integration of additional services.
Instead of settling for a lower-cost alternative that does not deliver the features or architectures that will help meet your business objectives, UC customers should instead consider limiting the scope of a UC deployment to those business units that initially drove the need for the UC initiative. Doing this, while also planning for future expansions to the deployment, could open the door for new possibilities.
For instance, when targeted for only a subset of your employee base, hosted UC solutions may become an attractive alternative. ??
Senior Technical Analyst Andrew Garcia can be reached at [email protected]