Unified communications still fragmented

ROI, implementation issues keep adoption rates low

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.

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.

In fact, some believe that the boom in mobile communications will help spur demand for UC as a way of tying it all together, and to help enable the promise of anywhere, anytime connectivity across multiple types and brands of devices. Analyst firm Info-Tech Research Group uses mobility as one key factor in its recently released UC scorecard.

UC successes

Companies that have deployed UC are seeing results. Underwriters Laboratories (UL) of Northbrook, Ill., a global independent product-safety science company, two years ago implemented a UC platform that includes components from Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Avaya.

The company wanted to improve communications and collaboration throughout the organization and at the same time upgrade an aging communications and networking infrastructure, says Tom Boxrud, IT director, global operations at UL.

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