FRAMINGHAM, Mass. – Unified communications (UC) technology has garnered a fair amount of attention, much of it due to vendors touting their UC offerings as the answer to problems workers have keeping in touch with colleagues, business partners and customers in a highly frenetic, increasingly mobile business world.
While the technology is delivering benefits to the relatively few organizations that have adopted it, experts say UC is still evolving and vendors need to do more to integrate their various products.
Exactly what UC is depends on who’s providing the definition, but in general it includes real-time communication capabilities such as telephony (including IP), video conferencing, instant messaging (IM), telepresence and data sharing, along with non-real-time services such as voicemail, email, unified messaging and fax.
UC often involves multiple product components that together provide a unified user interface and experience across devices and media types. Among other capabilities, it allows a user to be reachable via the same telephone number over a variety of devices, and to receive messages on the medium of his or her choosing.
The idea behind the technology is to optimize communication and collaboration — enabling workers to more easily reach and be reached by others, and therefore be more efficient and productive.
When implementing a unified communications system, hire consultants or integrators with expertise in the new system as well as legacy telecom systems in place. Knowledge about both will help the installation and transition go more smoothly and avoid integration and compatibility problems.
Tap into resources such as other organizations that have deployed UC and overcome challenges your organization might face, such as cultural change or integration with legacy communications systems. Ask vendors for customer references.
Make sure the vendor, systems integrator or consultant has the resources to set up and test the system in a lab setting before rolling it out within the organization. All functionality should be tested to make sure everything works as planned given the company’s network infrastructure, phone sets, mobile devices, and so on.
Provide detailed training to users on UC features and capabilities, particularly to those who have never used the technology before. Without training and an explanation of the benefits of features, people are less likely to take advantage of them.
If the company has a mix of vendor UC systems (for example, as a result of merger and acquisition activity), ensure that applications can be developed and deployed on multivendor infrastructures.
For very large organizations (e.g., 10,000 users in multinational locations), consider a phased rollout of UC. Implementing the new services in small increments to a limited number of users enables the company to understand how each application works and what support structure it requires before a full-scale rollout.
But despite the promise, uptake of the technology has been somewhat sluggish, according to industry observers.
“We have not seen significant growth in the number of companies doing something with UC,” says Robin Gareiss, executive vice president and senior founding partner of Nemertes Research Group, a research and advisory firm in Mokena, Ill. Based on surveys the firm has conducted, only 4.4% of companies have fully deployed UC.
Two key issues are slowing adoption, Gareiss says. One is that companies are having a hard time establishing a hard-dollar business case for UC, and the other is that vendors are not making integration of various UC components easy.
Determining how much UC will cost can be tricky because of the various components involved. “Much of this depends on how you’re defining UC,” Gareiss says. “Which apps are included? Are they fully integrated to both tethered and wireless devices? The biggest unplanned expenses are integration costs, training/marketing internally to users and management tools.”
Fortunately, UC can be deployed in increments, rather than require a major infrastructure upheaval, says Don Van Doren, principal at UniComm Consulting LLC in Loomis, Calif. Companies can purchase the UC capabilities and licenses as needed. “This means that savings from early improvements can be used to help fund subsequent application implementations,” he says.
Despite the slow growth of the market overall, UC holds promise for organizations, Gareiss says.