While unified communications has been around for some time, it seems that the time is now ripe to jump on the UC bandwagon. Business Management asked a panel of experts for their views on the business benefits, interoperability challenges and the future of unified communications.
Tom Burns is COO of the Enterprise Business Group and Head of the group’s Enterprise Solutions Division at Alcatel Lucent
Gary Barnett is CTO and EVP of Technical Services and R&D at Aspect Software
Gurdeep Singh Pall is the Corporate VP in the Unified Communications Group at Microsoft Corp
Alina Urdaneta is the VP of Marketing in the North American Region at Siemens Communication
BM. Improved collaboration – between different departments and business units, and with external partners, suppliers and customers – is key to such competitive differentiators as innovation and speed-to-market. What are the key business benefits of a unified communications approach?
TB. We complement communications with two major differentiators: rich presence and content. Rich presence lets you check a person’s availability, avoiding lost voice messages or emails that get no response. Content is tied to institutional knowledge – the collective business intelligence an individual can access anywhere in real-time. We call this ‘connected knowledge,’ which enriches communications with information, either from corporate applications or user-generated content such as Enterprise 2.0 services. Talent management – and associated knowledge management – is one of the major focus areas for companies now and in the coming years. Unified communications is vital to enabling content-driven and context-driven communications between virtual pools of talent for the benefit the entire organization. In terms of easily quantifiable benefits, this also dramatically reduces travel expenses.
GB. Unified communications, when deployed correctly and with the right portfolio of solutions, can result in a number of benefits for all types of organizations. The first of these is increasing productivity. With presence and instant messaging technology, employees can locate other individuals in the organization and have instant communications, instead of leaving a voicemail or sending an email and waiting for a response. This leads to improved resolution of inquiries and increased productivity.
A second goal of companies is to take the guesswork out of operations by creating and implementing clear, streamlined processes. Unified communications can have a profound impact on these activities such as a simplified contract-to-order process; the elimination of time-consuming tasks in the purchase of materials; and cutting, even completely eliminating, order rejections.
An improved customer experience is a third key business benefit of unified communications strategies, and one that could have the most impact on the bottom line. Businesses and consumers both gain when knowledge workers can be part of the enterprise pool of customer-facing employee to best address consumer demands.
GP. Unified communications benefits businesses and individuals in two primary ways. The first is streamlined communications. UC technologies bring all your communications tools – the phone, instant messaging, email, conferencing – together through a software interface, so that people can communicate and collaborate within the applications they already know and use. Customers who are using Office Communications Server and Exchange Server are already seeing dramatic productivity gains today in two ways. First, by giving their people access to world-class collaboration tools, they are seeing better collaboration and communication that speeds the pace of business. Second, technologies like ‘presence’, which permeate Microsoft Office applications, give people real-time availability information that let people make smarter communications choices.
Secondly, reduced IT expense. VoIP is moving from the network-bound PBX to software-powered VoIP, and by unifying these technologies through a software interface, organizations can dramatically reduce the cost and time it takes to manage their infrastructure.
AU. A UC solution can add great value to any organization by reducing inefficiencies, frustration and incremental expenses, dramatically increasing productivity and speed of business. When professionals can reach colleagues when they need them via the right media and device, they can collaborate from wherever they happen to be, delays to business execution begin to disappear. Additionally, UC applications can help enterprises realize their ‘green IT’ goals. A UC solution enables employees to collaborate effectively with less travel through high definition video to the desktop, UC conferencing, teleworking and one-number service. And if these applications are served up from the data center through software licenses, customers can significantly reduce power consumption and carbon emissions.
BM. Are there any particular challenges that need to be overcome for this promise to be realized? What are the main obstacles to the widespread uptake of unified communications?
GB. The main challenge that companies face is a lack of education and understanding of the full benefits of unified communications and of the technologies/infrastructure involved. It’s important for companies to understand that there isn’t one vendor solution to implement for a unified communications strategy. Rather, UC involves a portfolio of solutions, from presence engines, instant messaging, conferencing and IP technologies.
More recently, companies have become more aware of the role that the contact center plays in unified communications strategies, as many of the larger technology vendors have been making key investments in this area. Companies must move past the obstacle of just seeing UC as a way to improve productivity and processes, and recognize the benefits of UC strategies for the contact center and how that impacts the overall customer experience.
GP. There are two fundamental approaches to unified communications – the network-centric approach and the software-centric approach. The networkers view is that UC requires a vendor-specific approach – from the network up – to deliver the full power of UC. This creates a hurdle that many companies cannot surmount, and this approach has dramatically slowed adoption of UC. The software-centric view says that UC should run across any network or voice system regardless of who makes it.
To see widespread uptake of UC, we need to see a greater commitment to interoperability by the legacy voice and network PBX vendors. There are some, such as Nortel and Mitel, who are very forward thinking in this regard; these companies have really set the model for the industry. But there are others who have little to gain by freeing their customers to choose the best and most flexible UC system.
AU. There are many perceived obstacles to deploying a UC solution – primarily misperceptions related to complexity and cost. Many IT managers are concerned that UC requires a system-wide upgrade and replacement of existing infrastructure. In reality, using an open, software-based approach allows businesses to migrate on their own timeline and implement the UC applications that make most sense for them. Many IT managers and CIOs also are sceptical of the hard dollar value a UC solution will bring. But studies have shown that communication delays and lost productivity due to travel and working remotely can have a major financial impact. UC solutions can streamline communications, enhance customer care and improve remote accessibility.
TB. One challenge is taking a one-size-fits-all approach. Business benefits start with user benefits, which are diverse. The needs of a salesperson are different from those of an assistant in an office or a supply chain manager in a warehouse. Each has different requirements for mobility, collaboration and devices. So you turn user needs into user profiles. We have defined five profiles, which probably cover over 90 percent of the market, and provide them with solutions.
Next, don’t underestimate user training. For some, dialing into a conference call is not simple. Imagine that conference call is now a videoconference with document sharing and integrated chat. Training isn’t really time or money consuming, and it eases adoption. If users reject a new technology, a company will never get the benefits it expects.
BM. Without interoperability, the different phone systems, conferencing applications and instant messaging applications inside most companies remains just that – a group of unconnected technologies. So what are the key considerations for companies looking to achieve a truly interoperable communications system?
GP. Companies should ask vendors three key questions about interoperability. First, do you use SIP and do you publish your interfaces? SIP is the TCP/IP for voice and unified communications, and companies who are not using it are trying to lock their customers in. Second, who do you interoperate with today and who has validated it (beyond you)? There is a lot of talk about interoperability, but not nearly enough action. Through Microsoft’s “UC Open Interoperability Program”, we walk the talk, and an independent 3rd party validates our interoperability. And third, how much does it cost? Some vendors actually charge their customers to interoperate. At Microsoft, you can interoperate without any additional or hidden charges.
AU. Siemens believes that an open, software-based approach is key. Unlike bolt-on proprietary approaches, it allows customers to evaluate, design, integrate and support multi-device, multi-media and multi-network solutions easily and effectively. It is not a ‘rip and replace’ approach, but an evolutionary approach that enables you to optimize, enhance or transform your communication environment, managing the change at a pace that optimizes your ROI. Because Siemens solutions such as OpenScape Voice Application and OpenScape UC Application use open interfaces and standards-based technologies, they can converge seamlessly with a customer’s existing infrastructure to make the most of their legacy investments. By using open industry standards and protocols, like SIP, embedding real-time presence status and device information into commonly used business applications, enterprises can accelerate decision-making, reduce process latency and improve collaboration, easily and cost-effectively.
TB. Companies should look closely at the interworking capabilities of different technology providers. Many claim to rely on standards but, in reality, use proprietary layers in addition to standard functions. For example, we are considering SIP to achieve interoperability, but we recommend sticking to the standard even though it doesn’t address all the needs today. We are confident the standard will be enriched over time and are taking a careful approach. This is how we deliver on the promise to partner with our customers in their transformation, while protecting their investments in the future. This approach makes us different and aids our success in the market.
GB. Standards-based solutions will play the biggest role in unified communications considerations. Standards-compliant solutions, such as those leveraging session initiation protocol (SIP), will ensure that a number of unified communications solutions will easily interoperate in the contact center and across the enterprise. Companies should be demanding standards-based applications from their unified communications vendors to ensure that solutions are IT-ready and can easily fit into any existing enterprise architecture. With unified communications, the onus is on technology vendors to develop technology that is standards-compliant, services-based, reliable and secure.
BM. As most people are unlikely to give up their favorite communication medium any time soon, some commentators believe the short-term outlook is for solutions that make existing communications mechanisms work together to generate most interest initially. Do you agree with this forecast, first of all, and do you think it will hold for the long-term? And what do you see as the Holy Grail for unified communications?
AU. Making existing communications mechanisms work together is exactly the point of software-based UC solutions. By integrating an employee’s preferred method of communication into business applications and making it easy for co-workers to identify the best way to reach them, businesses can realize greater productivity and stronger collaboration.
So for the short-term, the value of UC is in tying together disparate communication systems that a business is already using, making them more effective and efficient. UC can also bring applications such as videoconferencing throughout an enterprise where the benefits can be felt on many levels. Another advantage of a software-based approach is as new communication tools take off, it will be simpler for businesses to integrate them into their UC solution.
TB. We lead the enterprise communications market in stressing the importance of ‘the new business generation.’ These hyper-connected and tech savvy employees influence new technology adoption in the enterprise, bringing in their consumer expectations. Either you ignore them, and risk losing talented, innovative people, or you evolve and tap into their benefits. At Alcatel-Lucent, we believe in the latter. This new generation drove adoption of broadband, wireless technologies, web-based collaboration and accessing applications from mobile devices.
Dynamic enterprises need to anticipate these needs and make sure unified communications bring value on top of users’ favorite applications instead of pushing legacy interfaces that inhibit their productivity.
We believe that enabling real-time communications directly from the application with presence and connected knowledge will be a breakthrough to improve business efficiency. Add the element of any device, anytime, anywhere – that is our definition of the Holy Grail.
GB. I agree on the importance of making existing communication mechanisms work together. Certainly, communication channels are very personal to users and every individual has their preferred method. For this reason, CEBP, or communications-enabled business processes, will be critical to a successful unified communications strategy. Considering CEBP will enable organizations to enhance unified communications for the contact center strategies across all business processes – be it service, sales or collections. CEBP can help companies make interactive, multichannel capabilities, including video, easily available to contact center agents and knowledge workers alike to help improve the customer experience they deliver, increase first call resolution rates and improve overall productivity.
GP. You have outlined the problem with network-based approaches to UC. Without a flexible software layer for integration and interoperability, customers have to give up things they like. With software, you can support many more options because there are partners who are building on the software platform to deliver devices, gateways and applications that extend and customize the software platform.
UC does represent an evolution in communications, but this is a path people are excited about taking. It’s very much like the evolution from the typewriter to the word processor. We’re seeing that, especially when a company does a departmental pilot. Other departments start asking, “when can I get that?”
We are in the early stages of basic desktop deployment of UC, but UC 2.0 is already starting to take shape. In this next-wave, you’ll increasingly see UC-enabled applications from partners and customers. It’s at this phase that a software-platform for UC is critical, and it’s the reason that companies making UC and telephony decisions today should be thinking about this long-term end-goal .
“UC does represent an evolution in communications, but this is a path people are excited about taking. It’s very much like the evolution from the typewriter to the word processor” – Gurdeep Singh Pall
“We believe that enabling real-time communications directly from the application with presence and connected knowledge will be a breakthrough to improve business efficiency. Add the element of any device, anytime, anywhere – that is our definition of the Holy Grail” – Tom Burns
“It’s important for companies to understand that there isn’t one vendor solution to implement for a unified communications strategy. Rather, UC involves a portfolio of solutions, from presence engines, instant messaging, conferencing and IP technologies” – Gary Barnett
“By using open industry standards and protocols, like SIP, embedding real-time presence status and device information into commonly used business applications, enterprises can accelerate decision-making, reduce process latency and improve collaboration, easily and cost-effectively” – Alina Urdaneta
What the analysts say
“In 2007, unified communications witnessed a growing demand, with 50 percent of enterprises reporting that they are evaluating, installing or running UC solutions,” says Henry Dewing at Forrester Research. So what should we expect in 2008? “Mobility will become an expected part of UC, video will come of age for multiple purposes, communication-enabled business processes will start providing ROI, and hosted and SaaS UC offerings and demand will grow. Don’t expect federated presence to break out of the pack just yet though; interoperability and user-configuration tools remain roadblocks to adoption in the near term.”