The value of unified communications

  • As unified communication technologies mature, the focus is shifting from making a business case for UC to concrete and tangible deployment issues. To succeed, it is critical that business leaders, IT managers and planners understand where UC systems offer value and how they improve competitiveness.

    UC is designed to eliminate the barriers that have traditionally separated voice calls, e-mail, instant messaging and conferencing in all forms. Once these communication media are carried over a common IP network, it is possible to manage them from a single point and use them with common devices, enabling companies to transform key business processes with improved communication flows.

    In addition to integrating communication channels -- both within the enterprise and with key constituents -- UC offers a way to integrate communication functions directly into business applications. Gartner Inc. calls this capability communications-enabled business processes (CEBP). By 2012, 80% of leading organizations will have adopted some form of CEBPs for competitive improvement.

    The largest single value in UC lies in its ability to reduce human latency within corporate processes and improve a business' ability to respond and be agile. Integrating communication functions directly into the systems and applications workers use is a particularly effective way to reduce human latency.

    For instance, if CEBPs enable an engineer to fix a fault on a production line 30 minutes faster than would be possible otherwise, the benefit is the 30-minute savings and the value of restarting the line faster, which is likely to prevent a delay amounting to thousands of dollars per hour.

    Gartner divides UC into three functional areas:

    • Personal UC is geared toward the individual and includes smart phones, PDAs and other types of devices. These provide access to voice, instant messaging, presence information and business applications. Presence provides information about the availability and status of individuals or shared resources. This form of UC is geared toward supporting individual or personal productivity. For instance, rich presence (which shows the availability of individuals across multiple channels, such as instant messaging, phone, mobile phone and video) enables workers to be more productive because it simplifies their tasks. In addition, when applied in other ways, it can support collaboration work and enterprisewide objectives.
    • Workgroup unified communications is oriented toward supporting team efforts. Examples of ways to improve collaborative performance include the use of presence to speed identification of an individual with the right skills to address a problem, the use of business rules to route or escalate communications, or the use of virtual meeting rooms to speed rapid-response teams.
    • Enterprise UC integrates communications with enterprisewide and department-level applications, business processes and workflows. An example of this is credit card authorization. When a bank receives a request for a credit authorization, an application reviews the request in real time. If the transaction is outside the card holder's usual behavior, it is flagged as being at high risk of fraud. The system makes an outbound notification to the credit card holder by phone, e-mail or Short Messaging Service. If the system succeeds in reaching the card holder, the individual is requested to confirm his identity. As a result, instead of rejecting a transaction from a valued customer, the bank can allow the transaction, improving the service and reducing its and the client's fraud exposure.
    Market evolution

    Products that support elements of UC include voice-over-IP (VoIP) systems, e-mail, Web and audioconferencing, videoconferencing, voice mail, unified messaging and instant messaging. These are all evolving rapidly toward integration, but each is also developing in its own way. For instance, voice, video and Web conferencing capabilities will converge, and instant messaging's presence capabilities will expand to all live channels, including voice, conferencing, video and e-mail.

    Not all architectures will be optimum, nor will all survive. Offerings from vendors such as IBM and Microsoft Corp. will focus on how to expand from their e-mail and webconferencing base to encompass the broader UC portfolio, while systems from Avaya Inc., Siemens AG, Cisco Systems Inc., Alcatel-Lucent and Nortel Networks Corp. will use the voice products as the foundation to their UC offerings.

    Because no single vendor has all of the elements needed for a complete solution, new partnerships are also redefining the market. Examples include Microsoft and Nortel, which have created a relationship called the Innovative Communications Alliance to partner on UC products, and IBM's relationship with Cisco for UC product collaboration.

    All these companies compete against one another in one or more UC product categories, but they also work together to provide complete portfolios to clients. The UC market will consolidate, and some of the partnerships will turn into battles, while others will evolve into tightly unified systems.

    The complexity of UC and lack of industry experience means that organizations will have to plan carefully to avoid failures and meet expectations. Best practices will be critical to success. They include initially focusing on a subset of UC functionality, ensuring that key stakeholders are involved in the planning, providing plenty of user training, conducting extended pilot periods, measuring success and failure of initial trials, and finally learning from early experiences and pilots.

    Elliot is research vice president at Gartner. He can be reached at
  • This story, "The value of unified communications" was originally published by Network World.

    Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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