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A decision-maker's guide to unified communications

1st May 2008
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Always in touchOne of the most hyped buzz phrases on the current technology scene is "unified communications". Chris de Silva, managing director of NEC Philips Unified Solutions explains what unified communications means and identifies common pitfalls and how to avoid them.

With the arrival of Microsoft as a leading player in the field, unified communications is rapidly gaining momentum in the IT marketplace. But Microsoft is not the only player - there has been an avalanche of activity from vendors across the IT and telecommunications spectrum.

Unfortunately all this activity, and widespread rebranding of existing telephony and networking technologies to jump on the bandwagon, is causing confusion that is undermining the value of unified communications.

But with the right approach, unified communications technologies can deliver quantifiable benefits in productivity, efficient remote working and cost reductions.

What is unified communications?

UC is about bringing together business applications, voice, video and data communications to provide easy access to data for workers in a single, unified working environment. UC is a philosophy, not a technology. It is the integration of communications to enhance and optimise business processes. In many scenarios, the vision is to build the phone into the office PC and provide a mobile device for remote working. But the real essence of UC is to facilitate efficient communications and collaboration between colleagues, customers and partners, in a secure environment, using the most appropriate means, independent of location, device or application.

The effects can look like this. Usually when someone walks through the door of an office building, they reach reception, and ask to see a particular person. In a traditional setting, the receptionist will pick up a phone and advise you that the person you want to see is busy. You will then be invited to take a seat and wait - and there's no guarantee that news of your arrival will reach the person you want to see.

Within a UC environment, people's availability - or "presence"- can be displayed on a monitor at reception, or on the visitor's mobile phone. The reason you have to wait as a visitor is because there's a barrier. Unified communications is all about breaking down barriers and streamlining processes by getting information through to the right person at the right time using a the most appropriate form of communication.

Collaboration takes UC into even more productive areas. Most organisations often need to drag people to a central meeting point to discuss a particular project - which may mean many hours wasted for those who have to travel. Telephone conferences are useful, but not ideal if you're emailing around documents that can get out of synch. If you have a place you can put the documents online, you can work through them collaboratively - it's like sitting around a table and going through the documents together. Even the most sceptical person can see the benefit from doing that.

The individual elements of voice/data integration, remote collaboration and unified messaging have been around a while, but isolated in their own fields. What is beginning to happen is that all the separate technologies are coming together in ways that are suitable for mass deployment.

Yet it is easy to be misled in a market dominated by hype and misinformation. Below are 10 key mistakes to avoid when assessing the value of unified communications to your organisation.

The 10 Most Common Mistakes

1. "Buying" a product. Unified communications (UC) is not a specific product. You do not buy it "off the shelf" as a standard solution or piece of hardware. UC involves the full spectrum of communication technologies and standards, from business applications and voice to video and data communications. UC deployments in different organisations will involve different components based upon the specific needs of that particular business.

2. Confusing unified communications with unified messaging UC is not the same as unified messaging (UM). While UM technologies bring together voice, data and fax on the desktop and form part of the UC story, they stop short of providing the additional UC functionality such as telephony control, instant messaging, integration and collaboration with business applications. Despite offering productivity benefits, unified messaging never really caught on in the past. The benefits of having voicemail or faxes pop up into the email system were just not strong enough to justify wholesale investment in the technology. But the market has evolved and organisations are now glimpsing the real productivity and cost benefits offered by the evolution from unified messaging to unified communications.

3. Assuming internet protocol (IP) is a prerequisite Without doubt, IP telephony (IPT) will deliver further benefits to organisations of a certain profile, but organisations can begin to take advantage of UC today without any need to rip out and replace their current infrastructure. Despite growing assertions to the contrary, IP telephony is not a prerequisite for unified communications. Many suppliers are using the UC trend as another opportunity to market converged networks. Better communication and collaboration between users can be achieved without buying expensive proprietary hardware components or fully a converged IPT infrastructure. For organisations with numerous remote sites or workers, an IPT deployment could provide additional benefits. But even in these cases, internet telephony does not need to be an all or nothing affair. Instead organisations should consider intelligent models of partial IPT where suitable.

4. Following vendors onto another bandwagon Microsoft’s entry into the market with its Office Communicator and Office Communications Server in 2006 has boosted UC's credibility. But with many voice suppliers under threat from the new software-led solutions, buyers need to look carefully at a prospective vendor’s history and experience in the marketplace. Beware companies with proprietary hardware or messaging/telephone systems that were simply rebranded as "unified" to benefit from the hype.

5. Investing in "repackaged" kit Just as rebranding unified messaging technologies fails to deliver true unified communications, adding an expensive new IP phone to the desktop - however neatly it may fit under a flat screen - is not a prerequisite of any unified communications solution.

6. Buying into handset vendor hype With market share measured solely on number of phones shipped, suppliers are creating ever more expensive IP handsets. New shapes and sizes of all-singing, all dancing IP telephone are not an essential component of unified communications.

7. Adding complexity Why invest in a packaged unified communications solution from a voice vendor if it is simply going to add complexity to the core Microsoft solution? What value will any organisation attain from the additional (and expensive) hardware?

8. Ignoring the business Customers need to figure out - before purchasing and implementing the solution - what business challenge they're trying to solve, and how UC can help. UC can transform how enterprises do business, but only if an enterprise has a good handle on what its business processes are and how they need to be changed. If that understanding is not present, no amount of technology will do the job and any UC adoption will end in failure.

9. Going too fast Organisations also need to be aware that the migrating to unified communications should be done at their own pace - and if that includes the use of existing analogue phones and non IP infrastructures, that is entirely possible. But the industry vision of PC-based IP phones and mobile devices for remote working can be achieved at any pace.

10. Missing the point The drive for this technology is clear: organisations need to be more competitive and efficient, which requires improved communication and collaboration between people. However, by retaining a traditional device-centric rather than user-centric approach, organisations will never get unified communications that transform day to day effectiveness and improved business processes. UC is about the bringing together of a raft of communication technologies and standards to improve specific business requirements and create new, more efficient business processes. Be wary of any sales pitch that is based on the need to replace hardware - it is patently missing the point of UC.

Take a measured approach

Over the past decade many organisations have gained significant cost benefits by adopting converged voice and data networks. Yet people remain the bottleneck in the smooth implementation of a specific business process, for example by not being available, or holding up an email or voicemail reply.

All too often these delays can be costly in both time and in the results of the business. UC can facilitate the effective execution of the business processes. According to researchers at Gartner, 80% of businesses that deploy communication-enabled business processes in the years to 2010 will obtain significant competitive and revenue advantages.

Unified communications is the future of enterprise communications. But as vendors fall upon the "unified" tag like a pack of ravening wolves, their insistence on expensive phones, converged networks and proprietary solutions will put the true benefits of the technology beyond the reach of many organisations looking for a viable return on their investment. But by avoiding simple mistakes described above, the benefits associated with UC can be attained, without incurring huge cost and infrastructure upheaval.

About the author
A trained accountant, Chris de Silva is managing director of NEC Philips Unified Solutions, a 60:40 joint venture between Japan's NEC Electronics and the Dutch company Philips. Although its parent organisations are involved in supplying hardware and communications solutions, NEC Philips Unified Solutions is a systems integrator used to working with a wide variety of systems, he says.


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