Knowledge workers communicate with each other using a variety of desktop and mobile communication technologies and tools: desk phones, email, instant messaging, mobile phones and handheld devices, plus web-based communities and hosted services available via the so-called Web 2.0. By enabling quick sharing of information even across time zones and geographies, these technologies and tools make it possible for knowledge workers and their organisations, to work together, i.e., collaborate.
The need for collaboration is becoming greater and more urgent in today's digital networked economy, where time lags and bumpy business processes translate into missed opportunities. Not surprisingly, an increasing number of enterprises are asking if the various disparate communication technologies they use can be unified.
The answer: It's already happening.
"PBX is moving to IP telephony and softphones. Email, calendaring and directory services are blossoming into rich desktop communications.
Voicemail is becoming embraced within unified messaging and separate conferencing for voice, and video and web are converging onto conferencing and collaboration tools. In addition, instant messaging has become the base for rich presence applications as voice becomes routinely embedded into IT applications," says Geoff Johnson, research vice-president of communications & applications, Gartner.
Unified communications, he states, is accomplished via convergence of the physical communication channels, networks, devices and systems, and through consolidation of controls over them. Unified communication systems may be made up of a standalone product suite or a portfolio of integrated applications and platforms. Their value to enterprises will be realised in several ways, says Johnson. First will be the simplified and more effective use of the increasingly broad range of collaboration options. Second will be the improved responsiveness of individuals and groups to events. Third will be an increased integration of collaboration functionality with applications.
"The real value is in discovering new ways to work together, changing the way people and businesses communicate. It's more about behaviour than technology. In many cases, it's not additional hardware or software that is required but rather integration costs for linking the communication applications with the business applications."
The importance of the shift to rich collaboration services should not be under-estimated, Johnson says. By the end of the decade, he states, users will routinely employ an integrated set of collaboration tools, moving between them to reach the highest value combination of interaction services-both inside and outside the firewall, including fixed and wireless networks. Presence services will be a vital unifying tool, and shared team spaces will provide temporary and persistent repositories for interactions.
Johnson states Mitsukoshi, a high-end department store chain in Japan, as an example of an enterprise that has successfully unified its communication systems. The company wanted to improve its customers' buying experience without significantly increasing floor space or attendants. It installed Cisco Unified IP Phones with radio frequency identification (RFID) readers in the fitting rooms. If the jeans a customer was trying on do not fit, he or she can scan the RFID tag and the IP phone will provide the store's inventory sizes and colours for those jeans. The IP phone can also show the inventories in other stores. If the customer would like to try on another pair of jeans, then they can use the IP phone's help button to call an attendant and request another pair.
And the Mitsukoshi results have been astounding. Within the six-month pilot, there has been a 113 per cent increase in sales, the overall buying process takes 33 per cent less time and customers are spending 20 per cent less time in the changing rooms. Mitsukoshi plans to roll out the unified application to all its stores by the end of the year. It will also investigate enhancing the application to offer up-sell and cross-sell suggestions.
Another example of a company that has embraced unified communications is Cisco Systems itself. The company recently completed its acquisition of WebEx, whose technologies and services allow companies to engage in real-time and asynchronous data conferences over the internet as well as share web-based documents and workspaces.
"We closed the deal in eight days; the norm is 45 days. Among the collaboration and communication tools we used in the virtual due diligence process were instant messaging, text messaging, the WebEx application itself, and online data rooms," says Charleston Sin, general manager, Hong Kong & Macau, Cisco Systems.
The networking leader outsources 95 per cent of its manufacturing to more than 1,000 suppliers located across the globe. The use of collaborative technologies to interact with these suppliers has enabled Cisco Systems to reduce the number of manufacturing-related trips by more than a quarter, allowing it to realise savings of about US$4.2 million in its last fiscal year.
The new work
"In today's connected world, the expectations of how users perform work have changed. Increasingly it's less about where you work, and more about how you work. Against this backdrop, businesses have to think about how and where to provide access for their users, suppliers and customers," Sin adds.
Agreeing, his colleague Sharat Sinha, director - operations, service provider, Asia Pacific at Cisco, says the line between work hours and business hours is becoming less distinct.
"We are moving from the concept of continuous 'working hours' to fragmented 'working moments'. Enterprises, for competitiveness and productivity reasons, are supportive of this blurring. Likewise for employees, who get to enjoy the flexibility and quality of life this brings," he says.
In this new model, work is increasingly project-based and organised around functional communities that span various geographic locations. This limits the ability of enterprises to support traditional information sharing processes such as ad-hoc interactions and meetings. Cultural differences may also lead to a greater confusion and misunderstanding. For today's workers to perform productive work, they need intelligent and flexible tools. Multiple devices and a wide spread of communication technologies, however, often hinder instead of help.
"According to Forrester Research, more than 50 per cent of the companies they surveyed said that communication inefficiencies have become status quo-so much so that they experience project delays on a weekly basis. These delays result in missed deadlines, missed delivery dates, and missed revenue opportunities. Ineffective communications also result in missed revenue opportunities because businesses are not prepared to quickly react to market changes," says Sinha.
Starting the journey
What approaches should enterprises take to achieving unified communications?
Start by recognising where it brings value, Gartner's Johnson suggests.
Value from unified communications can be seen in three functional areas, he adds: Personal unified communications is geared towards supporting individual or personal productivity; workgroup unified communications is oriented towards supporting collaborative and team efforts; and enterprise unified communications that adds value and is justified at the enterprise or division level. Synergistic benefits may also emerge as functionality, used in one area, assists in achieving objectives in other areas. Not everyone needs to be given the same set of tools though, Johnson says.
"Categorise users based on the types of employees they are, the time they're away from their desks but still in the office, and the time they spend working outside the office. Then build a communications and IT solution set for each category. This matrix should be used to give the largest feature set affordable to the appropriate user-the one who will benefit from the capability. In the past, features or capabilities may have been doled out based on title, department or business unit, not on whether they were actually needed to do the job."
The communications requirements matrix can also be used as input for a request for proposal to vendors. The responses can then be tuned by category and cost, but may need to be refined as the budget is defined. The benefit is that an organisation can easily adjust the solution across an entire category, as opposed to making cuts on a departmental or individual employee basis.
Justifying unified communications can be difficult, Johnson states: it spans technology, market, and application areas, there is a lack of proof points in actual deployment, there is limited experience with best practices; and finally individual and group requirements vary enormously.
"The business case for unified communications is about productivity improvement, business process acceleration, operational improvements, competitive necessity, and changing the way people and businesses communicate. Justification should be based on a few primary benefits per user group or type. Don't try to justify it with a complex business case; it's unconvincing and unlikely to succeed," Johnson adds.
Before they begin their journey to unified communications and the greater collaboration it engenders, enterprises need to first align their communication strategies with their business processes, says Nathan Bell, head of convergence marketing, Asia-Pacific, BT. They also need to make sure every business process owner is aware of the impact of the change they're looking to make, no matter how small. Enterprises that fail to make the necessary changes at the organisational level will be less competitive and, over time, risk failure. "Collaboration is a journey that requires a big-picture view and developed communication and collaboration strategies that cover people, structure and communication-enabled business processes to meet not only today's changing requirements, but also prepare for the needs of tomorrow," Bell adds.
Concurring that the corporate mindset needs to be addressed, Michael Mah, vice- president of IT, AIA says the CIO has another role to play here-that of change agent cum evangelist.
"Ultimately unified communications is about how people behave when communicating with each other. At the early deployment stage, it's about getting users excited about technology and technology change, defining guidelines, getting quick wins, securing buy-in, and so on," he says.
Be that as it may, enterprises need to continually remind themselves that they should focus on the processes and methodologies that collaboration technologies streamline, facilitate and enable, adds George Wang, group head of the chief architecture office, Asia and global head of technical policies & standards, Reuters Singapore. The company operates 10 development centres across the world and is able to resolve time-zone and cultural differences across these centres with the help of collaboration and communication technologies. The information provider offers an instant messaging and presence collaboration service called Reuters Messaging for the financial services industry. Wang's office has just sponsored a global study on how the Reuters development centres can collaborate further.
BT recommends that enterprises start their unified communications journey by identifying trigger points for limited-scale, manageable projects with a high chance of success. These trigger points could be the opening of a new site, a new flexi-work initiative, or the upgrading of legacy systems or applications.
Johnson, from Gartner, recommends little tactical wins that do not require heavy investments and offer good potential for quick, obvious returns.
"Choose important, time-sensitive but not mission-critical tasks for pilots, and favour projects with communication-intensive processes and multiple communication channels. Our advice is to go tactical, use existing systems to measure tactical incremental improvements. If you don't achieve any, move on to the next project and try again," he says.
While the endpoint is a single, global communication system for employees, partners, suppliers and customers, Bell says, enterprises need to be mindful that unified communications is not a point solution that can be implemented in, say, 12 months.
"It isn't going to happen. You need to break it down into sizeable chunks that the business can digest and recognise benefits from so it can gain confidence throughout the business to continue along that path of evolved communications."
Credit Suisse Group is a case in point. The leading financial services company wanted to connect its Centres of Excellence in the US, Singapore, India and Poland such that staff members in the four countries could work better together, regardless of their location. A secondary objective was to reduce operational cost of communications by US$302 million per annum by January 2008.
The roadmap that BT crafted for Credit Suisse to achieve a fully unified communications environment, took three years and 22 separate projects that involved the consolidation of 400 separate telecom contracts from over 250 suppliers into one, a global network outsourcing deal across 500 sites in 60 countries, remote access for 15,000 users, messaging for 55,000 mailboxes, and IP-enabling 21 call centres.
BT, a Cisco Gold Partner, is itself walking the talk and using united communications technologies to enable further collaboration. Among the solutions it now uses is an ultra-high quality video conferencing solution that combines BT networking and conferencing capabilities with advanced technologies from Cisco.
The value that unified communications bring can be difficult to measure, especially in a high-growth region like the Asia-Pacific, says Santosh Nair, chief information officer, Siemens.
"The Asia-Pacific is a growth basin. Given this, tracing and attributing growth components to the deployment of unified communications technology or business expansion can get very hard. Productivity gains, too, are very hard to pin down to hard facts when a company and its industry are experiencing high growth rates. Still, it's a nice-to-have 'problem'."
Need for speed
Those enterprises that are convinced of the benefits of unified communications need to quickly start their journeys lest they get left behind, states Johnson and Bell.
Gartner recommends that they immediately build or update their communication strategy, create business process and mobile communications centres of excellence to look at what people are already doing in communications, and solicit bottom-up ideas, and take a closer look at their business processes.
Then, over the next one to two years, they need to complete IP telephony plans and begin or continue implementations, try out unified communications applications, and identify early communications-enablement opportunities.
During the third to fifth years, they should ensure that IP telephony and unified communications application implementations are well under way or complete, and implement early communications-enablement opportunities with early experiences to help to identify major next steps.
"Communications-enabling businesses will happen: Lead rather than react," Johnson advises.
"If you accept that we're already collaborating today; if you accept that we can be better at how we collaborate, unified communications doesn't have to be an inevitability. It's an opportunity that we can embrace, to drive change, drive growth and empower how we do things on a day-to-day basis. If you work on the assumption that it's just another illusion, another hype, another fad, you could get left behind," Bell adds.
This executive seminar was produced in association with BT and Cisco.
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