Hopping on the UCC Express

A couple of decades ago, when I was just starting out in the corporate world, songwriters Steve Goodman and John Prine penned an anthem for the times that began, “Back in 1899 when everyone was singing “Auld Lang Syne,” a hundred years took a long, long time for every boy and girl. Now there's only one thing I'd like to know, where did the 20th century go? I'd swear it was here just a minute ago, all over this world. ”

If time seemed to be going by fast then, since the start of the new millennium the pace has only accelerated, especially in the IT world. Take business communications. When Goodman and Prine first pined for a slower pace of life, high-tech communications consisted of a two-line, push-button phone and a fax machine. E-mail didn't start emerging until nearly a decade later, with the Internet explosion still another decade away. Fast-forward just one more decade, though, and businesses have made not only Web connections ubiquitous, but also instant messaging, calendaring and presence capabilities -- not to mention IP telephony and wireless communications. Add to this collaboration applications, such as shared directories, online conferencing and application-sharing, and today's communications environment looks nearly as different from 1999's as that of 1999 looked from 1899's.

During this transition, IT organizations were forced to evolve from a controlling-parent to a change-embracing model, welcoming a range of new communications technologies. For many organizations, though, stovepipe implementations failed to gain maximum benefit from these new communication and collaboration tools and infrastructures. Thus was born of necessity the concept of unified communications and collaboration (UCC).

A UCC solution seeks to overcome the problem of isolated technologies that expand communications channels but really enhance the business, which can be achieved only by seamlessly linking all communications vehicles with business processes. The goal of this linking is to capitalize on the inherent capabilities of each technology in order to improve employee productivity, increase customer satisfaction and reduce costs.

The need for a unifying solution is one that has become obvious for most businesses. In a recent BT INS survey of 137 IT professionals, only 20% of the respondents said that their IT organizations had no UCC activities under way or planned. Among companies with more than 10,000 employees, that number drops to 15%.

While the concept of UCC is still in its early stages of life, most of the pieces needed to build a workable solution already exist. However, getting all of these technologies to work together to achieve seamless communications and enable widespread, real-time collaboration is going to require a visionary technology road map along with a companywide commitment to this goal, including cultural changes that will foster the full use of a 21st-century communications infrastructure.

IT organizations that are considering their UCC options should set the following path:

Define UCC's benefits

  • To bring business management as well as IT management on board the UCC train, you must first clearly understand its potential benefits and how they can directly impact your business operations. The primary reason that those 20% of survey respondents had no UCC activities under way is that they simply didn't understand UCC's potential benefits.
  • While quantifying UCC's benefits and calculating ROI may be difficult, the effort must at least be initiated, and then refined as you move from feasibility to testing to implementation. The most important benefits, according to the survey, are improved productivity, increased collaboration among various groups and departments, and improved remote worker access to resources. Assigning a hard number to each of these may require some assumptions, but taken together they can paint of picture of the overall impact UCC can have on the business.

Take one step at a time

  • Jumping into a complete UCC solution is the most difficult approach, but it's potentially the most rewarding -- one that can translate into competitive advantages and higher profitability. However, understanding your business's risk profile, not just IT's, is crucial to selecting the right UCC strategy for you.
  • Many companies will find a more acceptable approach is to first integrate a few key UCC components that have the highest payback. A majority of IT organizations in the survey have already implemented five of the basic technologies that comprise a UCC solution. Tying these together, and then bringing on additional pieces, is the most practical course for achieving some initial UCC benefits in the shortest period of time -- and with the least risk.

Don't go it alone

  • Because few (if any) complete solutions are available from a single vendor at this time, the ability to integrate multiple technologies from multiple vendors will be a critical capability -- one typically available through systems integrators, although also through product and voice/data services vendors to a lesser degree. Most large IT organizations have expertise in many UCC technologies also, but not significant experience in integrating them into a seamless system. A go-it-alone approach will be fraught with wrong turns and delays -- and the longer it takes to get a system in place, the longer it will for the business to reap the promised benefits.

Technology change is not waiting for anyone to get comfortable before moving on. UCC is both an emerging technology and one that is approaching widespread adoption. Don't be caught lamenting, “Where did the last decade go?” It's going to unified communications and collaboration -- with or without you.

Rick Blum is director of strategic marketing at BT INS, a provider of IT infrastructure consulting services in Santa Clara, Calif.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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