During the economic downturn, many organizations held onto their old technology as long as they could. But now, aside from facing regulatory and internal audit requirements, employees are overloaded. They don’t want disparate systems. They want one interface and one access point to make their jobs easier.
Unified communications (UC) has a broad impact that affects IT, the business and the end-user community. It’s not just an infrastructure decision, and that’s the biggest departure from the days of IP telephony. With UC, we’re talking about how the business collaborates and communicates, including voice, video, IM and Web conferencing, all tied together by presence (having visibility into someone’s current status).
IT is faced with supporting different types of users with different communications needs; the ability to deploy UC in the cloud or on-premise will also be an important consideration going forward. So it’s not surprising the vendors leading this space are already well established in software and telecommunications, said Jayanth Angl, senior research analyst with Info-Tech Research Group Ltd
. This includes Microsoft Corp
., Cisco Systems Inc
., IBM Corp
., Avaya Inc
. and Siemens AG
A Typical Purchase Cycle
When it comes to UC, there is no typical purchase cycle, and that’s often the biggest hurdle to deployment. Every vendor has its own terminology and value proposition, and while a lot of their solutions have similar functionality, it takes time to figure out the best fit, said Andy Papadopolus, president of Navantis Inc.
UC is a much larger project than, say, IP telephony, because IT has to communicate with the PBX folks, the networking folks and the telco vendor, and understand what impact it will have on their line-of-business systems, such as a call centre or CRM system. The more people involved, the slower the process will be.
When customers start to talk about UC, it’s usually a specific project, like rolling out IP telephony or getting people to use a wiki. To start, you have to do something, said Ted Chong, vice-president of collaboration with Cisco Systems Canada. “A lot of consumer stuff is leaking into the enterprise. One way or another, your people are probably doing something outside your firewall and you may not want all that information out on the Internet,” he said. “If you don’t have a plan, that’s a default plan, and that probably goes to anarchy at some point.”
When considering a solution, choose something that will integrate with your collaboration or UC strategy in five years, said Chong. Include representatives from the end-user community in this process because they’re the ones who will be using it. How simple is the user interface? Will training be required? Is it a new process they have to learn, or is it an extension of what they’re doing? Pick something, start it and get some small wins.
Expect this to be a phased approach over several years, where you add various components of your UC strategy over time. Unlike other IT projects, this is not rip-and-replace. “You can continue to run your PBX for voice and have Office Communications Server sit right next to that for IM and presence,” said Vineet Parmar, product manager for unified communications with Microsoft Canada. “When you’re ready to retire your PBX, OCS can take that over. We also interoperate with whatever you have in your infrastructure today.”
What Goes Wrong
What often delays the purchase cycle is confusion about what UC really means. Cisco, Avaya and Microsoft solutions are all a bit different, said Papadopolus, and clients have to do their research to understand what elements make up each solution. And, since there’s not a lot of time for research and evaluation these days, the buying cycle might take longer than it should.
A common mistake is that organizations see the total cost of a UC solution, say, $50,000, and that scares them off. “What they’re not factoring in is the cost recovery in potentially getting rid of their audio-video bridge conference line and third-party services such as WebEx, plus the productivity gain of end-users having a single inbox and taking advantage of presence,” said Papadopolus. “The telephony part ends up being the smallest part of what you gain value from.”
This is a transformation that’s going to be covered and measured in years, said Rich Skoba, director of worldwide strategy for unified communication and collaboration with HP Services. One mistake is not having a holistic view and plan. Another mistake is going after the technology first instead of understanding the business impact. A UC strategy needs to be sponsored at the C-level and aligned with key business stakeholders and the lines-of-business.”We’re seeing a lot of proof-of-concepts and pilots, and while the technology may work, the user comes in on Monday morning and they’re not happy, they’re not prepared, they don’t understand what’s on their desktop,” said Skoba.
Be a Better Buyer
UC tends to be initiated within the IT department, since they’re able to see the state of their current PBX environment, but there’s the hurdle of understanding and awareness on the business side, said Angl.
“We recommend an organization move forward first with a pilot with a smaller user group, typically an IT department or relatively autonomous department that can get a sense of how these tools might work,” he said. Based on the pilot, you could extend the infrastructure to support more users, but it should be phased in not only to avoid disrupting the user community, but also to ensure you’re addressing any technical or training issues along the way.
Consider the level of integration the business demands, and the additional cost and complexity of building that level of integration. Also invest in training for IT staff. To move forward and deliver the benefits of UC, said Angl, the project has to have support from the business and not be viewed as an IT project. For most organizations, this will involve a significant professional services component. When it comes to UC, you want to ensure you’re working with a partner that has experience with this particular UC solution, has a solid track record with past implementations and can provide references to customer deployments of a similar size and scope. “An organization might have a Microsoft or Cisco partner, but that partner might not have the same level of experience with the given UC solution as one of their competitors.”