Josie Sephton, Silicon

The evangelists are calling for businesses to implement unified communications (UC), citing a whole raft of reasons – from cost savings to improved customer service and better productivity.

But, although few dispute that the technology can offer benefits, UC uptake still has a long way to go.

It isn’t just anecdotal evidence that tells this story – although plenty of that is available.

When we at Freeform Dynamics asked enterprises across Europe how unified communications had been embraced by their organisation, their responses were very much in line with the anecdotal evidence. Among organisations with 5,000-plus employees, 32 per cent have fully or partially implemented UC across their business. For businesses with 1,000-5,000 people, that figure slips to around 22 per cent.

We only tracked down to 1,000-user organisations but it would be reasonable to assume that resistance goes right down to even smaller businesses.

This is not surprising, of course. Even for large enterprises, implementing UC can be both complex and expensive, from both a budget and staff resourcing perspective. And smaller companies have significantly fewer resources available to them, both financial and managerial. They are also often hampered by limited IT expertise, and tend not to be able to afford pilots and proof of concept studies in the same way as their larger counterparts.

This is especially true in the current economic climate, when business cases have to go way beyond the softer benefits that UC offers around productivity and work/life balance.

Still, this slow uptake in the SME market is arguably as much about vendors not really connecting with smaller businesses’ needs, wants and aspirations, and fully recognising their constraints.

This is a shame because, with less in the way of administrative infrastructure and resources, the potential benefits of streamlining communications are especially significant for SMEs. And, of course, as a relatively untapped market at the moment, suppliers that crack this segment can make significant gains.

There are an increasing variety of SaaS-based UC offerings in the marketplace, including offerings from well known players such as IBM’s LotusLive Meetings, Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite and Siemens Enterprise Communications OpenScape – to name but three.

These services suggest a potentially key emerging model that will make UC much more accessible, and under which it could begin to gain serious traction, not least in the SME space.

So is UC something SMEs should consider seriously?

Well, certainly looking at UC via the software as a service (SaaS) route removes a lot of the issues associated with an on-premise solution. The capex monster shrinks away into virtual insignificance. Deployment is likely to run much quicker and more smoothly. And problems around integration that can typically be associated with pulling various UC applications together will largely go away (although perhaps not exclusively, as there still could be integration issues with internal IP telephony systems).

And, of course, with UC being so connectivity and community-centric, it is an inherently natural application to deploy via the cloud computing approach.

A more palatable UC model is not necessarily enough to drive large scale uptake in the market, however. Despite cloud-based delivery making solutions more accessible, customer understanding of what UC really is, and what it can do for an enterprise still has some way to go.

Our research shows that the majority of large organisations (5,000-plus employees) and smaller ones (1,000-5,000) had either never heard of it or, if they had heard it, didn’t know or only had a rough idea of what it means.

This really isn’t so surprising. Definitions of UC vary from supplier to supplier. This creates the perception that any form of UC implementation is potentially very complex.

On the positive side, for vendors, the shift towards UC is increasingly inevitable. Our research shows users across all enterprise types are increasingly embracing the individual components of UC such as social media, IM, screen sharing and web conferencing. As these individual components proliferate, a need arises to overcome fragmented communications, and ineffective communication and collaboration.

Additionally, there has been a step change in the way that people work. Flexible working is much more prevalent in the workplace than even a few years ago, driven by a whole host of factors such as changes to working directives, cost of travel, green considerations and simply the desire to have a better quality of life. Freeform Dynamics has explored some of these issues in more depth in its recent article, Joining the dots of business communications.

Given its benefits, UC as a service just may be the catalyst that the market needs, not just for the SME space, but providing it is able to perform comparably to on-premise solutions, for larger enterprises too. And if (and this is the big proviso) vendors can tune in to the way in which they communicate the relevance of offerings to the user base, we should expect to see a lot more UC as SaaS offerings in the future.



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