Unified communications still fragmented

ROI, implementation issues keep adoption rates low

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Other immediate benefits for users included increased convenience and greater efficiency with managing communications. The system allows people to make calls to anywhere within the organization by dialing four digits. That eliminates the need for cumbersome international dialing, Gold says.

"We have a lot of communications between agents in the U.K. and Canada [for example], and they now have the ability to just pick up the phone and dial a four-digit extension and reach someone 4,000 miles away without any concern that it's a long-distance call," Gold says.

Adopting or planning UC?

Is your organization using, or planning to implement or upgrade, UC and collaboration solutions?

Currently using/running - 52%
Planning to implement within 1 year - 32%

Source: IDG Enterprise survey, March 2012, 1,105 respondents

Even in this age of electronic communication the agency relies heavily on phone connections, Gold says. "You can do so much with email, but our business is a relationship business that requires personal communications," he says. "It's better if people can get a feel for a person's sense of humor or their excitement about a band."

The system has an application that allows users to send instant messages and see a colleague's presence, among other functions, from a Web-based portal. This allows mobile agents to remain transparently available to clients, regardless of their location.

UC has also allowed the firm to save money through reduced long-distance calling and the avoidance of hotel calling charges, Gold says. While he wouldn't quantify total savings, Gold says executives and agents can avoid calling costs of as much as $3,000 for a single overseas trip.

"There are so many different levels of savings that if you [consider that] and factor in the enhanced level of communications that goes with it, it's hard to say what the total value of the technology is, but it is exceptional," Gold says.

Without concerns about calling costs, people are more inclined to make calls they need to make to do their jobs. "One of the senior VPs told me that [in the past] when he would travel he would make a call to the office and then bounce around to different people in the office so he wouldn't have to make separate calls," Gold says. "Now he doesn't have to get it all done in one call to save toll charges. It raises the level of communications because in the past people might have tried to avoid making calls."

Still evolving

Some IT executives see UC technology as a work in progress, with improvements still needed.

"There is a need for more well-defined standards and protocols for communication between technologies, thus enabling simple integration," says Jim Spicer, executive vice president/group executive and CIO, Wells Fargo Corporate Technology and Data, at financial services firm Wells Fargo & Co. in San Francisco.

For now, he predicts, this integration improvement will happen in only "a subset" of UC areas, because most vendors see competitive advantage in having proprietary formats. "We would hope that as the capabilities evolve [we] might see this improve."

Jim Spicer
Within UC, "there is a need for more well-defined standards and protocols for communication between technologies, thus enabling simple integration," says Jim Spicer, CIO of Wells Fargo Corporate Technology and Data.

In addition, Spicer would like to see UC products better support the data archiving and discovery needs of companies, which he says are growing and currently require much custom integration and effort. Many companies need this archiving capability for regulatory compliance purposes. "Convergence across some of the vendor products in the market to make this simpler and less costly would be valuable," he says.

Wells Fargo implemented a UC system -- which Spicer declined to identify -- in part to increase productivity and collaboration among staff and to meet demand for instant, real-time communication.

The firm has seen benefits, such as the ability to connect teams across diverse geographical areas in a more real-time way, and in the future expects to see gains including reduced need for travel, the ability for users to see each other face-to-face in real time for interactive discussions, and more effective team meetings conducted remotely.

Providing a compelling UC business case can be a challenge when trying to justify the deployment across a large organization such as Wells Fargo, Spicer says. "Obviously, not everyone within the bank needs UC to get their job done well," he says. "As the benefits continue to climb with new and more streamlined capabilities and the costs continue to fall with better integrated products and higher capacity infrastructure, the ROI will become easier to support."

UC will continue to evolve, experts say. Gareiss expects to see more integration with mobile devices, or the ability to access a consistent set of UC features from any device. She also predicts more video on different types of devices, and more integration of the various video systems (telepresence, room-based, desktop, and mobile).

And, as with so many areas of computing today, the cloud is having an impact on UC.

"Cloud-based UC is gaining interest, but not huge adoption yet among all sizes of companies," Gareiss says. "For now, we see small and midsize companies, those with fewer than about 1,000 endpoints, making the strongest business case for cloud or hosted UC services."

UC "is not an IT project that is truly ever 'completed,'" Gareiss says. "It's an evolution, and IT staffs will always add new communications, collaboration, enterprise and mobile applications to an overall UC framework."

Bob Violino is a freelance writer in Massapequa Park, N.Y. You can reach him at bviolino@optonline.net.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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