Opinion: Unified communications with ROI in mind

Today's CIOs must focus on developing more effective strategies toward taking connectivity and messaging capabilities to the next level. And there's no denying that unified communications (UC) is an IT issue that all CIOs in the 21st century should carefully consider.

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Internet Protocol-based (IP-based) solutions operating over a converged voice-and-data network are heralding a new world of communications. Indeed, successful organizations recognize that improved collaboration translates into faster answers and better teaming -- connecting teams in a way that they can communicate and work together, whether in the office, telecommuting or on the road. And as technology continues to converge, CIOs will need to develop effective strategies to update aging communication systems to be more productive.

From a CIO perspective, it is highly important that any UC investment deliver a rapid and adequate return, with both strategic and financial value. Now is a good time to revisit UC technologies -- looking at what fits your enterprise, what you might already own and what you can leverage.

UC: The new world of business

While unified messaging integrates disparate communication tools -- including fax, voice and e-mail -- into a centralized repository available from a variety of different devices, unified communications takes it a step further, automating and merging existing communication modes in a manner that optimizes business operations. UC effectively connects disparate technologies into an infrastructure that allows people to connect with the appropriate available team members and work collaboratively using a variety of technologies in a seamless fashion.

As adoption of IP telephony reaches critical mass, successful CIOs are recognizing that UC is becoming not only more practical but a potential competitive driver as well. In a real-world context, UC is about improving collaboration and overall presence for internal staff and clients alike. UC can improve the productivity of network staff and accommodate network growth with the same staffing levels. It also enables geographically dispersed personnel to function as if they were in the same location, whether it's via video, the Web or voice.

Given all the communication technologies today's knowledge workers now use on a daily basis, the potential to quickly and seamlessly shift between voice, instant messaging and videoconferencing technologies is fast becoming more than a "nice to have" -- it's becoming the shape of working more productively and collaboratively in the 21st century.

Building the case for unified communications

Discovering value in UC comes from understanding its potential to fundamentally change the way we communicate, collaborate and get work done. Certain UC components are very mature (for example, dropping a voice mail or fax into an inbox). That said, now's a good time to move from tire-kicking to a staged deployment and start working at it in chunks.

From the CIO planning perspective, an effective UC approach takes the communications pieces with the highest return and implements them first. Leverage what you already own and deploy first those components that will provide greatest value to your users. While it's true that some of these UC components might already exist within the IT environment, it is also imperative that training is planned that will slowly get users accustomed to new technology. If you suddenly drop new e-mail and corporate instant messaging capabilities along with desktop sharing, Web conferencing and video tools onto an unsuspecting workforce, the results will likely be less than positive.

Today's conventional business telephony is being supplanted by IP-based software applications. It's important to consider that as traditional PBXs reach end of life, IP-based communication can potentially deliver extended functionality. That said, many solutions exist to tie older PBX systems into the new IP-enabled world. Integration and convergence are the keywords, not systemwide replacement. Companies need to understand the competitive drivers for UC adoption now, and at least develop a long-term strategy for improving internal and external communications.

In developing a UC strategy, it's important that CIOs account for the support and complexity requirements involved. Adding voice capabilities to the network often represents the initial step, extending into other types of real-time communications. While cost savings are indeed a crucial part of the decision, any UC business case should also mull over the broad range of financial and strategic improvements, including more effective communications, enhanced user and IT productivity, greater operational resilience and improved customer service.

With unified communications slated to be as ubiquitous and essential as conventional phone services, CIOs should carefully consider UC as the best way to extend an existing communications infrastructure without having to uproot the legacy environment. The goal involves laying the technology foundation that enables administrators, managers and employees to connect with colleagues no matter the location-no matter the communication mode. Today's CIOs should recognize that UC can provide definite competitive advantages not just in teaming and collaboration, but also in attracting and retaining forward-thinking knowledge workers throughout the organization. Ultimately, UC is more than just technology; it represents an entirely new way of company communication and collaboration.

Brian Bourne, CISSP, is president of CMS Consulting and co-founder of the SecTor security education conference. His expertise is grounded in systems integration work with large, complex, multiplatform networks.

This story, "Opinion: Unified communications with ROI in mind" was originally published by CIO.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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