Bullet-point Brief: Six myths about unified communications

Tim Passios knew for sure the marketing hype about unified communications was out of control when he saw that a headset manufacturer was billing itself as “the voice of unified communications.”

“It’s a headset,” he snorts. (While Passios declined to name the company, a quick Google search reveals it to be Plantronics Inc.) “That’s just jumping on the bandwagon.”

Concern about hype isn’t what you’d expect from someone whose title is director of solutions marketing for Interactive Intelligence Inc., a unified communications vendor. Interactive launched in 1994 as a call centre company, then branched into enterprise IP telephony and messaging. About 2001, voice over IP became practical and convergence of the network began in earnest, he says.

But since Microsoft Corp. entered the market, there’s been an explosion of vendor interest in UC. “Unified communicatons has been marketized to the point that it’s confusing for the IT buyer,” Passios says, wondering aloud if “marketized” is really a word.

Buyers have to look at the technology, not the hype, Passisos says, and lists six common myths about unified communications.

1. Unified communications is a new, breakthrough technology. Actually, much of the technology that makes up unified communications – presence management, instant messaging, conferencing and the like – evolved from call centre applications. When VoIP quality became usable, bringing those apps together ushered in the era of UC.

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2. Everyone in the org chart can benefit from all of the features of UC. There are workers who’ll simply have no use for the features. “Joe sitting down in the warehouse … what can he do with instant messaging?” Passios asks rhetorically. “Not every benefit of unified communications is going to be applicable.”

3. Unified communications will always save you money. Research firm Gartner Inc. recently released a case study on Indiana University’s implementation based on Microsoft’s Office Communications Server platform and Nortel gateway. (Full disclosure: Interactive was an unsuccessful bidder on the project, though the company did create the university’s call centre.) The kit list boasts 17 servers and three gateways for the 1,800 users of the system. “Where’s the ‘U’ in that?” Passios says. “The big money you’re going to spend is on integration,” let alone overhead and maintenance down the line.

4. UC adoption has no cultural implications. Presence management is a great tool for routing calls to the right device, seeing who’s available to collaborate and calling ad hoc conferences – IF your employees don’t forget or refuse to use it. “That’s a cultural shift,” Passios says. There are supervisory tools to help enforce and automate its use, but at the end of the day, “the employee has to be responsible for presence.”

5. It’s an ROI generator, not a productivity waster. “There certainly are areas where you’re going to find hard ROI,” Passios says. But there are also applications that can suck productivity out of the office, like instant messaging half the morning to discuss the previous night’s hockey game.

6. “Jump in, the water’s fine.” UC comes with its share of challenges. There are multiple vendors and multiple boxes to integrate. Your infrastructure has to be up to snuff – have you got enough bandwidth? “There’s integratation with back-end systems … there are economic and functionality issues that will arise,” he says. “It’s not the nirvana it could be…CIOs are spending too much time trying to force-fit the latest trend.”

The real value of UC comes when it starts to automate business processes, Passios says. Grant Thornton LLP, for example, has 300 accountants on the east coast whose calls are tagged with account numbers, says Interactive’s Canadian country manager, Jo-Anne Finney. Those tags automate the billing process. And Research in Motion Inc. has been processing trouble tickets through Interactive’s UC tools.

“Contact centres have been automating business processes for a long time,” says Passios – intelligent call routing and follow-up surveys, for example. But the list of potential automated processes is long: processing applications and claims, handling performance reviews, managing customer leads, etc. It’s bringing together these business processes on a communications platform that holds the true potential of UC, Passios says. Presence functionality becomes not about having a buddy list, but about availability to perform a process, queueing tasks and ensuring proper follow-up.