Josie Sephton, Computing

There is a lot of focus currently on unified communications (UC) – the integration of different types of communications, such as voice, email, instant messaging, audio and videoconferencing, within a common interface, in real-time. UC is pretty neat, and undoubtedly, it will come to us all – eventually. In the meantime, however and, irrespective of how impressively vendors present UC, some key disconnects and barriers in the market are evident, and until these are resolved or reduced, the road to UC will be a long and winding one.

Confusion – run that past me again, will you?

There are no prizes for guessing that the first disconnect is that UC as a concept is vague, and means different things to different people. Clearly, if companies don’t understand what it is – and many don’t – then it becomes virtually impossible to understand how UC can address business problems. UC has to be defined at a more granular level, in relation to the needs of a particular business. It is not an “all or nothing” offering. Nor is it one-size-fits-all. Unsurprising, therefore, that people shuffle uncomfortably when asked to define UC. It’s a bit like asking for a definition of communication – not hard to guess how many variations that this alone would generate.

Even when enterprises understand UC, many do not know how to scope a UC initiative. Vendors and their channel partners still have a tremendous amount of work to do in this area, in terms of educating and informing the market. UC makes a lot more sense in the context of real-life examples, with a focus on specific elements of UC and how they would work within an organisation. In particular, demonstrating UC alongside other technologies, such as WiFi and radio frequency identification (RFID), can be particularly compelling.

For example, Cisco is running a trial for a hospital using a combination of these three technologies. One of the key objectives of the trial is to increase the time nursing staff spend with patients. This will be achieved by nurses being able to locate other medical staff more quickly through presence, and equipment through the use of RFID tags – less time chasing, more time with patients. Of course, it remains to be seen as to how successful the trial will be.

Infrastructure – I don’t think we’re ready yet

Although vendors can deliver some elements of UC through more traditional telephony channels – voicemail via the email client, for example – it is IP telephony (IPT) that is really driving the wagon, offering easier and better integration, and more scalability. To date, however, enterprises have been exceedingly slow to implement IPT. And no IPT, no UC, at least not beyond the most basic level.

Of course, on the flip side, even a partial IPT implementation provides a target market for UC, particularly for those vendors that are flexible with their offering, and don’t adopt a one-size-fits-all approach.

Internal disconnect – IT vs the rest…

IT professionals can visualise the benefits of UC, and will doubtless be its real advocates. But what about everyone else in the organisation? In many enterprises, business units and departments are simply not asking for UC. Added to this is the challenge of getting different disciplines to work together across networking, software and facilities.

At the heart of UC is presence, whereby users are able to view the online status of other users in the company at any given time. But, to be honest, a postroom assistant really want everyone to know that he was offline for over an hour and a half during the afternoon as he was out of the office searching for a birthday present for his wife? Even when employees don’t find the idea of presence overly intrusive, making sure they update their personal settings will be a challenge in itself. This is potentially a big sticking point, although systems that have rules which change status according to behaviour – for example, if nothing’s happened on your desktop for a while and you start emailing from your BlackBerry, your status can automatically change – will go some way to addressing this.

What’s the business case for UC – haven’t you heard of the credit crunch?

Vendors have clearly documented the benefits of UC – increased user productivity, better business responsiveness, faster and better decision-making – and enterprises generally understand and accept these benefits. However, vendors fall short on the quantification of these benefits, translating them into a solid business case, which is unsurprising, as many of the benefits are difficult to measure. And in the current economic climate, the need to present a watertight business case becomes even more paramount. Additionally, many enterprises simply do not have the time to investigate UC properly and make it happen, and ultimately, feel it is something they can manage without.

Vendors need to identify the killer application for a particular business, and help the business to quantify this. One obvious area is audio- and videoconferencing. These are applications that enterprises use heavily, and where use is increasing because of a clear and measurable impact on travel and associated costs.

Another key area is fixed and mobile calling for remote or distributed individuals, via use of soft-phone or dual-band mobile and WiFi, as this offers big potential cost savings on call charges for more mobile workers. PosTrack Technologies in the US is currently running such a service at a US university, using Siemens’ OpenScape platform with WiFi and dual band (cellular/WiFi) mobile devices. Students and teachers are able to call across the campus using the WiFi network, eliminating mobile call charges, while retaining regular mobile calling outside of the campus. Similarly, from outside, parents can log onto a WiFi access point and call their children. This example, and the one quoted above, illustrate very nicely the use of creative thinking around the area of UC, in terms of how it can be used in combination with other technologies to the benefit of an organisation. They also embody a very practical approach at a vertical level, and it is easy to imagine how these solutions can be translated to other similar organisations across the sector.

Keeping it real…

While the business utopia of an organisation in which communications channels are highly integrated is a very alluring one, it is still, for the many, a long way from being a reality. Very few enterprises have implemented UC either fully or partially, while many still do not see UC as relevant to their business or do not see it as a priority.

Vendors need to work closely with enterprises, in terms of providing clarity around what UC means in the context of the individual business. They need to look at what elements of UC a business requires, where, and how this translates into a real-life scenario for that business, and what commercial benefits it will bring. Above all, vendors need to think creatively, not least in terms of how UC can work with other technologies. Until this happens, the danger is that too many customers will fail to see the relevance of UC, which is a shame because applied in the right way in the right circumstances, it has the potential to deliver significant benefits.

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