The whole reason for Unified Communications, it's believed, is that UC makes your workers and your business processes more efficient and productive. But productivity benefits are almost always tough to quantify and measure reliably, and that's certainly the case with UC.A new report out from UCStrategies (PDF here) takes a first whack at demonstrating the productivity benefits of UC, and the authors, Blair Pleasant and Nancy Jamison, present some interview quotes and anecdotal evidence supporting the "soft" productivity benefits. The also offer up some harder data on which communications systems people actually use today, how they use those systems, and what they expect from UC. (We're doing a sponsored Webinar tomorrow with Blair and Nancy, in which they'll elaborate on their findings.)
Another one of the UCStrategies group, Don Van Doren, likens UC to VisiCalc, the first major spreadsheet program; he believes UC's benefits are as apparent to potential users as VisiCalc's were to its target market. That may be, but I think UC is going to be a tougher sell, not to mention a tougher implementation.
That's because VisiCalc and its early kin really represented a new way of doing things, a way that really didn't exist at all until that time. With UC, we can pretty much do everything already, just not as efficiently.
Cisco Systems and other UC vendors talk about the technology's ability to eliminate "human latency," by which they mean UC systems automate communications tasks that humans have had to do. This can include things like figuring out if a person is available for a phone call. In the old-old days, you dialed the person's number, and if you got a busy signal you knew they couldn't talk. Or if they answered and said, "I can't talk right now," or you got their admin who told you that--you had thereby determined what we now would call that person's "presence status." Cumbersome and time-consuming.
In the new-old days--i.e., today--if you need to call, you look at their presence status on Yahoo or AIM or, maybe, the enterprise IM system your company has implemented. If the smiley face is lit up yellow, you make a reasonable guess that they're available to talk. Or better yet, you send them an IM and say, "U there? Got a sec?"
With UC systems, the interface looks kind of like the IM buddy list, but it's "deeper"--it tells you not just if the person is logged into the IM system, but whether they're available via other media--there's typically a grid with, say, 3 columns--one has a telephone icon at the top, one an envelope and one a video camera, or something like these. Your buddies have "jellybean" icons that light up green, yellow, or red to tell you their availability on that medium. On the back end, the various PBXs, IM servers, videoconferencing servers, etc. are letting the presence server--which is the heart of the system--know about the buddy's status, based either on information the person configures into the system, or information the system collects under the covers (like when their phone goes off hook).
So, back to VisiCalc. In a sense, the spreadsheet programs did the same thing--they took out the human latency by adding up the numbers for you, instead of you having to add up the numbers with a calculator and write them down on a sheet of paper. But I think this is a lot bigger gulf that you're spanning, in contrast to the relatively lesser improvement that UC provides for communications systems. Also, when it comes to downside risk: By eliminating human latency, spreadsheets decreased the risk from human error. With UC, the risk profile from human error seems lower--under the old system, if you call a person and they're not available, you just leave a message.
Having said all of this, Unified Communications is nevertheless coming to your enterprise, and will benefit you when it does. These "soft" productivity benefits will be part of the story: Nobody questions that voice mail made workers more productive, or that IM has done the same in many enterprises. But hard ROIs will be difficult to come by.
It's the application-integration capabilities--Communications-Enabled Business Processes or CEBP--that promises to really change how people work. I'll discuss CEBP in future blogs.
Eric Krapf is editor of No Jitter, a TechWeb site covering UC and IP telephony. He is also program co-chairman of the VoiceCon events.