Many factors are making it important for organisations to consider the move towards Unified Communications (UC), whether the transition is made today or in the future. For example, customers are demanding simpler user experiences and faster service delivery and response times. Employees, especially new-generation workers, have higher expectations around connectivity and response times. Both customers and workers want anywhere/anytime/anyhow access to information and services, translating into more pressure to enable real-time interaction. While the current rate of adoption of UC is low, the need for it is growing. The previous generation of PBX technologies is reaching end of life, and the era of time division multiplexing is coming to a close. This, combined with the rise of Voice over IP (VoIP), is forcing organisations to grapple with an array of new hardware and software offerings from a wide range of vendors.
Thus, the evolution toward UC is necessary for many organisations to effectively manage their communications. Gartner estimates that through to 2010, 80 per cent of businesses that have deployed communication-enabled business processes will obtain significant competitive and revenue differentiation. And a Forrester survey of financial and professional services industries found that UC provides numerous improvements in business communications and delivers an essential business tool for companies seeking quantifiable productivity improvements throughout their organisation.
In order to understand the role of UC in keeping the organisation competitive, it is important to look at what it provides. First, it adds real-time capabilities to existing communications applications and collaboration software, thereby accelerating business processes and delivering a common user experience across all modes of communication. It also reduces management and maintenance costs through the integration of telephony, audio conferencing, Web conferencing, video conferencing, messaging (email and instant messaging), presence status and contact list management. As well, it improves access to applications and resources through a single interface, and provides anytime/anywhere access for users through their desktop and mobile devices.
Many IT managers are uncertain about the terms UC and convergence. According to a recent study by Forrester Research, 55 per cent of 2,187 North American and European surveyed said there is "confusion" about the value of unified communications to their company. Only 11 per cent of the firms have already deployed UC, with another 16 per cent rolling it out and 57 per cent evaluating or piloting it.
In simple terms, UC involves the practice of merging all communications that facilitate real-time interaction on a single platform or through seamless integration of multiple platforms. UC then provides access via a single interface in order to enable collaboration or a business outcome in real time. Convergence, on the other hand, is the merging or intersecting of different technologies, leading to new capabilities, functionality or experience not previously available.
These tools include IP telephony, unified instant messaging, audio/video/Web conferencing, presence management, email, calendars/directories and mobile applications.
The essential distinction between these two terms is that convergence refers specifically to the technical platform, while UC is focused on the uses/outcomes of converged and/or integrated technologies. In other words, convergence (including VoIP) is seen as a way to achieve UC.
GETTING THE TIMING RIGHT
Achieving UC doesn't have to be a 'rip and replace' proposition. In fact, organisations can reach the same ends over time without the need to make a wholesale technology shift.
A key step is working with voice services specialists with in-depth experience in developing voice evolution strategies that allow organisations to protect their infrastructure investments while laying the groundwork for full-scale, enterprise-level unified communications, delivering tangible business value over time.
The tipping point in moving to a UC strategy for most organisations is not related to the availability of technology. The real issue is deploying the technology in a way that delivers an acceptable return on investment. It is imperative to understand how to address the enterprise's emerging communications needs without driving up capital costs.
While UC may be the end point for most, it is not necessarily the next step. So how does an enterprise know when the time is right for UC? CIOs need to think about UC strategically. Does the organisation need all these benefits immediately? If not, how much does it need now, in six months, and over several years?
Once the business benefits have been identified, it's time to determine the rate of change required. What capabilities are really needed? What technical options best meet these needs? How do these options integrate into the current infrastructure? How can resources be managed to meet SLA requirements? What's the true ROI? And how effectively can the organisation manage and grow its options?
Improving communications is a transformation requiring an effective strategy that considers the users and the infrastructure, current and future business and technical needs, and overall impact and cost. This is a highly customized process that can mean many different things for different organisations.
ELEMENTS OF SUCCESS
A significant change like this takes time and must be carefully planned and executed before moving forward with other convergence initiatives. Migration to IP telephony and VoIP must start with evaluating and leveraging existing legacy products, services and infrastructure as its foundation.
An in-depth resource page is critical to implement a UC strategy in a way that makes good business sense and delivers tangible value. Too rapid a transition will simply drive up infrastructure costs and not deliver the expected return on investment. Too long a delay and the enterprise runs the risk of lower productivity and loss of competitive edge.
A great deal of the CIO's decision-making will, therefore, revolve around understanding the enterprise's specific business challenges and priorities, and how a UC strategy can help the business. This entails developing a clear path from the current communications infrastructure to the desired end state, and establishing the phases and timing needed to make the transformation. Doing this requires creating a strategy that is all encompassing.
Key elements of the strategy will include: Understanding the current technology infrastructure, capabilities and investment; having a goal with key objectives; aligning respective business owners who will play a part in achieving business goals; identifying next steps, and strategies for acting upon them; examining ongoing management of the infrastructure and understanding how to blend existing infrastructure into the plans; using pilots to encourage early adoption and evangelization of the results; and partnering with suppliers that can help guide the enterprise on its journey. As well, it is important to embrace the change and encourage employees to do the same by clearly communicating the strategy and showing the benefits beyond the dollar value.
PUTTING UC ON THE MAP
A strategic roadmap is a critical building block to evolving a communications infrastructure. It can provide the blueprint for introducing a suite of UC capabilities that allow organisations to improve productivity, streamline business processes, and enhance customer support, while managing the cost of adoption and ensuring a solid ROI. Ultimately, a strategic roadmap will allow CIOs to improve service and customer satisfaction by providing greater access to information and support personnel. It will ensure reliable voice/data services. It will increase efficiency and/or productivity through real-time sharing of information, which will speed product development, improve communications with global/remote workers and empower the mobile workforce.
Perhaps most importantly, a detailed roadmap will help CIOs and their organisations understand the true value of the evolutionary process by providing a clear picture of capital requirements and total cost of ownership, and balancing those with the business benefits to provide a true ROI. For organisations looking to evolve their voice communications, there are many options available. The key to successfully evolving voice services is gaining an understanding of the appropriate direction and timing that will leverage the best of existing resources while laying a migration path for the future.
Ian Wineberg is Associate Director, Unified Communications Solutions, at Bell Enterprise.
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