By: Carl Potter, Research Director - Communications, Bloor Research
Published: 31st October 2008
Copyright Bloor Research © 2008
Unified communications (UC) is something that’s currently generating a lot of buzz in the corporate world. Partly because it promises significant cost savings and even competitive advantage through new UC powered business processes. Interest is also growing because many enterprises are not entirely sure what UC entails. Confusion has arisen because the definition varies depending on who you ask and what they are selling. It’s also becoming trendy for vendors to add the word ‘unified’ to their offerings, rather like supermarkets add ‘low in fat’ to everything from apples to washing powder.
UC is all about tying together the different channels of business communication that normally exist in silos. For example, telephone, email, IM, video/ audio conferencing etc. It may also integrate mobility and the Web to support remote and mobile workers. The main potential benefits are cost savings and improved productivity both in terms of how individual workers do their jobs, and in how the company relates to customers, suppliers and partners.
Often the degree of cost savings depends on how bad things were before moving to UC. Organisations spread over a number of geographic locations with islands of communication and aging PBX systems tend to do well in moving to a unified IP Network, often the first step towards UC. They gain from lower cost of ownership and simplified management and lower cost VoIP calls and also improved communications between sites and with customers and suppliers etc. Savings reported over a traditional PBX are typically between four and forty per cent depending on the scale of project and commitment.
However, there are many routes to acquiring a UC system. Some organisations start with a bottom-up approach based on a unified IP network and VoIP, while others prefer to maintain their investment in existing PBXs and layer collaborative UC applications on top of their existing infrastructure. Whatever route is taken there needs to be a firm strategic commitment and the network needs to have the capacity to handle the resulting increase in traffic.
One of the most powerful features is ‘presence’ and is really what can elevate a UC solution from just being a disparate collection of communications tools. In its basic form, presence informs you whether someone is available to communicate. While not everyone may rejoice at the idea of having their ‘presence’ made widely known, the benefits definitely outweigh any perceived inconvenience and users can normally set rules for who is allowed to contact them and when to restrict their availability.
In its richer varieties, presence can also give information on a person’s role, preferred channel of communication, most cost effective means to contact them eg VoIP vs mobile etc. This helps users quickly connect with the right person while avoiding telephone tag. It can also enhance and speed collaboration. Conversations can quickly be escalated from, say, email to IM to a video conference using a drag and drop interface and webcam. Thus workers spend their time communicating or collaborating more effectively rather than wasting time trying manage the technology or tracking down the right person to speak to.
Organisations with more ambitious goals than just cost savings, such as seeking to gain competitive advantage through creating innovative new UC enabled business processes, gain extra benefits. These benefits may be difficult to quantify precisely in monetary terms but can be substantial and include productivity and efficiency gains which may also draw companies closer to their customers, partners and suppliers.
For example, in the banking sector, presence-enabled desk top video conferencing has been used effectively in remote branches to improve customer service, increase sales and make better use of advice from scarce financial experts. Centrally located experts are conferenced-in to sales conversations between staff and customers to offer expert advice and to authorise the sale of specialist financial products. Additionally, they also use the opportunity to cross and up sell other products.
Customers benefit through rapid service and access to expert opinion when normally they would have to make an appointment to see a financial expert. The bank benefits through gaining satisfied customers and an increase in sales. They also make optimal use of their financial experts while reducing their travel expenses as they no longer need to visit remote branches to dispense their much sought after advice—and no longer leaving a trail of messy carbon footprints behind them.
What’s the bottom line? Firms in the financial sector that have reported most improvement through the strategic adoption of UC have claimed an expected increase in profit as high as seven percent. If we consider that a modest increase in profit of only half a percent would be worth $6.1m, on average, to a financial company in the global top 2000 we see that UC has a lot to commend it. It's not just the financial sector that stands to benefit. These types of gains are being made across a broad range of industries, not to be sneezed at in these days of increasing economic slow down.
Posted: 31st October 2008 | By John Sniadowski :
There are tremendous benefits to be had from UC that can be leveraged by both large and small companies. However, as always the devil is in the detail and simply following a cook book or certain methodology to deploy UC is just not enough. Every company is unique and it takes a broad in-depth understanding of the company by those tasked to deploy UC which is alas often not the case. One of the big problems I have encountered is, avoiding cascading dependencies in the systems involved in making UC work. If everything in the business depends on UC then a failure of a component in the dependent subsystems can have enormous consequences for the operation of the business. How do you inform the help desk of a problem when the router into the office has gone splat and every single means of communication – in one instance the mobile phones as well because they were routed via a micro cell through the same broken bit of kit. Only personal mobiles not connected to the same network vendor were the only viable means of communication outside of the office!
Complex networks often have many virtual routes that traverse physical routes that no one person or even company has the knowledge of the physical routing. Thus your network for UC may seem to have all the right alternative routes and backup systems, then one day some digger hauls up a bunch of fibres in some street some way away and suddenly the company more or less stops existing until someone joins back together the broken loose ends. After making it all work, try turning off the utility power into the building one weekend and see what stops working when you switch back on and be prepared for a brown trouser moment! I'll bet it more than just the water cooler in the office kitchen.
The legacy networks that currently provide a very large but shrinking part of our alternative communication routes can provide a bulwark against total and catastrophic communication blackouts. When you deploy UC make sure you still have some string and tin cans in the cupboard just in case!
Posted: 31st October 2008 | By Mike England :
The great thing about UC is that potentially it can deliver both cost saving and increased business productivity which in the current economic climate is as close to the holy grail as you can get. That is certainly the feedback endorsed by the enterprise audiences that I spoke to at the Unified Communications Expo (www.uc-expo.com) show that I was at in London last year.
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