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Finding the ROI for Unified Communications

Companies that examine the business case for UC often focus on the "unified" aspect. But the real returns come from integration. Here's why.

The 2012 InformationWeek Reports survey State of Unified Communications reveals that the top two factors contributing to respondents' decision not to deploy UC were "Other projects have a higher priority" and "No definitive business value." Those results also topped the previous year's survey. As only 36% of overall respondents had deployed and were using UC, it appears the other two-thirds feel their money could be better spent elsewhere.

One problem may be that companies look for ROI in all the wrong places (or at least, not in the most lucrative ones). It's easy to read the literal definition of UC (bringing together voice, video, email and text, as well as collaboration tools and presence) and see that the goal is for users to work and collaborate more efficiently.

However, efficiency tends to be based on soft-dollar estimates of "minutes saved," so organizations assign a rather arbitrary monetary value to those minutes. It's difficult to justify a sizable investment based on such numbers.

Don't get me wrong: Knowledge workers (the primary target in most UC investment decisions) can get much better communication and collaboration capabilities in a well-designed UC implementation, and tools like presence notification, in-house conferencing and click-to-join meetings can make their work lives far more efficient and productive.

But to really appreciate the ROI that UC can deliver, try starting with the definition of UC that UCStrategies coined back in 2006: "Communications integrated to optimize business processes." That's a broader and more flexible definition.

The key to tapping the ROI potential of UC starts with examining core business processes, particularly those that hinge on internal and external communications, and then embedding UC capabilities into whatever application the user is working in.

For instance, many knowledge workers spend a lot of time in Outlook or other email programs. UC can be implemented in a plug-in that runs in the email client. Such a plug-in lets users see a colleague's presence in their directory and the types of communications that colleague is available for. The plug-in can also launch a voice or video call.

A company could also embed those same communications options in an order-entry or customer service application. When users need to communicate with someone to complete a business process, they should be able to do it without exiting the application that's in front of them or (heaven forbid) look up a number and manually dial a phone.

In other words, ROI shouldn't be based on the "unified" aspect of UC--it's really integration that counts. Fortunately, UC vendors have been publishing case studies that describe how UC fills this role, which can guide companies in assessing the ROI that UC can deliver.

Michael Finneran is an independent consultant and industry analyst.

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