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The Incredible Expanding UC

Used to be, when IT talked unified communications we meant VoIP, presence, integrating voicemail and email, maybe video or Web conferencing—and we moaned about the complexity. Well, folks, welcome to the new UC reality, which must recognize the growing importance of collaboration, social networking channels, and mobility.

If your idea of a unified communications strategy is to integrate voice mail and email and set up a few room-based videoconferencing systems, you're selling your company short. Think big--make your UC mission statement "to integrate communications as a means to optimize business processes." That means factoring in collaboration, social networking, and mobility, as we'll discuss, but it also means looking beyond mundane IT issues. Your infrastructure has to be up to the task, but it's a lot easier to justify new UC investments when you can point to their potential for earning new business.

And here's something you may not have considered: The mobility and collaboration initiatives you're likely undertaking may be UC by another name. Say: "We're going to spend $300 per employee on a set of tools to integrate voice, video, instant messaging, and email in a dashboard, " and at best you'll inspire a yawn. But say: "We're going to spend $300 per employee to reduce by 75% the average time to create a tailored sales proposal," and you'll get attention.

The big, creative view of UC always links new communications options with the underlying business processes they'll improve.

We're not saying that's easy. For starters, most companies haven't made nearly enough headway on basic integration. A collaboration architect for a major global manufacturer says a lack of standards is still a major roadblock. "The vendors are playing chicken with each other and with customers," he says. "Cisco works with Cisco gear, but not Siemens. Microsoft works with its partners but has no interest in becoming a SIP partner. I frankly don't care which standard wins. I just want integration." His company uses IBM's Lotus Notes for email and Microsoft's IM and SharePoint, but it's migrating to a Cisco-centric architecture to address the influx of iOS and Android devices. "BYOD is adding to the headache, and that's partly why we're moving to Cisco, as well as getting better support for video," he says. But at every turn, he runs into a snag. Coordinating IM with outside partners is a major source of angst, mostly because of security concerns. And it's amazing the industry is still fighting over SIP.

Still, in our most recent InformationWeek Analytics Unified Communications Survey, 61% of 406 respondents said they either have already undertaken UC projects or plan to do so by April 2012, mostly to deploy unified messaging, cited by 33% as the top driver. That's a good start, but business drivers are top of mind. Improving employee collaboration was cited by 59% of respondents, followed by improving efficiency, cited by 52%.

The UC Social Network

Many times we see IT teams treating UC and social networking as separate initiatives, even though the two share common roots. The basic ideas for presence and texting came out of AOL's Instant Messenger, and the term "Buddy List" is still used today. The presence-based multimodal communications we find in enterprise UC products such as Microsoft's Lync, IBM's Sametime, and Cisco's Unified Communications Manager are also available in consumer tools, including Facebook, Skype, and Microsoft Messenger.

Still, even though 89% of the 703 respondents to our Social Networking in the Enterprise Survey said they have social networks in place, most said it's an uphill battle to get employees to use these systems, largely because their companies don't integrate them with email and other UC applications.

In some cases, consumer apps are good enough. You don't want to be the person who dropped five figures on an enterprise IM system only to have employees refuse to use it because they're quite happy with AIM. Once you've decided where to spend, there are two main tactics to get users to adopt enterprise-class social networking systems. First, make them fun. Second, highlight the unique benefits consumer apps can't match.

To draw in its employees, IBM runs a game called CityOne as part of its Smarter Planet marketing program. Every day, 75% of IBM employees worldwide log in to the Sims-style game, which serves as a forum to apply technology to solve real-world business, environmental, and logistical problems, says Sandy Carter, IBM's VP of SOA and WebSphere strategy. Players undertake a series of "missions" that affect the energy, water, banking, and retail industries. The UC hook: Real-time communications among players and IBM subject-matter experts about, for example, how the process models from the game relate to real-world problems.

The fact is, institutional knowledge is often cubbyholed in large enterprises. A major benefit of social networking and UC is to locate expertise and bring people together. Tools like IBM's Lotus Connections, Microsoft's Outlook Social Connector, and Cisco's Eos can scan and tag the millions of reports, documents, and other digital data sets created each day and profile users' unique specialties. Employees can build communities and forums to exchange ideas with people working on similar projects.

A good example of social collaboration in action is found at Cemex. The company, based in Monterrey, Mexico, is one of the largest building materials suppliers in the world, with 47,000 employees in 50 countries. To tap into internal expertise, Cemex launched in April 2010 the Shift collaboration platform; core elements of Shift include messaging (calendaring, scheduling, contacts), team collaboration (file synchronization, discussion forums), and real-time collaboration and communications (presence, instant messaging, Web conferencing, desktop sharing, and audio and videoconferencing). A year later, the company says 20,500 employees regularly share their experiences, specialized knowledge, and best practices in more than 500 virtual communities on Shift. As with IBM's CityOne, Shift brings together experts from different business and geographic areas in an entertaining way and goes beyond garden-variety social media features like wikis by adding real-time communications.

It's clear that to be this successful, social media projects need input from UC teams. And that's not only for internal efforts; the other major intersection of UC and social networking is external, as consumers increasingly turn to these tools to research products, find support, and register complaints. However, just 38% of respondents to our Social Networking in the Enterprise Survey said they monitor public social networks for discussions about their companies or their competitors.


Mike Healey, president of Yeoman Technology Group and an InformationWeek Analytics contributor, says companies must set policies in three critical social networking areas--who can represent the company on social sites, how the company will handle online incidents, and how employees should protect their personal privacy. Those policies, Healey says, must come from business and human resources leaders, in addition to the CIO.

"That last one might seem as if IT and HR are overreaching, but the default settings on most social media systems often aren't in the best interests of your company or the employee," Healey says. "If you're using LinkedIn for business contacts, for example, the default setting lets new contacts browse all your contacts. If those include your best customers, do you want to allow that?"

Big companies, from IBM to Coca-Cola, post their social media policies, so there's no need to reinvent the wheel.

IT organizations should take the lead in helping their companies figure out how to take advantage of these new tools as a part of their overall marketing plans--and again, this falls within our expansive definition of UC as "communications integrated to optimize business processes." In fact, given its focus on external communications, consider making your contact center the main interface to social media. Just as we have agents handling voice calls, emails, and text chats, we also need agents trained and assigned to track social media feeds. Some companies are catching on: A Comcast customer in California was having trouble getting the cable provider to confirm an appointment. She tweeted her complaint and got a reply within half an hour.

Going Mobile

Employees must stay connected to enhanced communications and collaboration capabilities when they're out of the office. To that end, UC providers offer an array of hooks to laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Laptops can support essentially the same UC clients as desktops, but then, laptops are "portable" rather than truly "mobile" devices. It's the smartphones and tablets that really challenge UC developers. Besides having to account for small and touch-centric displays and a dizzying array of operating systems and connectivity states, mobile UC application designs must take into consideration the particular requirements of your employees, such as the ability to be operated with one hand (because a user must pull a wheelie bag with the other). And, since these devices are easily lost or stolen, security must be a top consideration.

UC vendors have been developing mobile clients with varying degrees of success. Typically, we see smartphone applications using cellular data services to communicate with the enterprise UC system by, for example, routing all mobile business calls through the PBX. These clients are beginning to find their way onto Apple and Android tablets. Using a mobile UC client on the phone or tablet, a user can access the corporate directory, see the presence status of contacts, check for voice-mail messages, and dial numbers from the corporate directory or by the four-digit extension. Calls to the user's desk number are automatically forwarded to the mobile device, and the caller ID provided is that of the actual caller (not the PBX number).

Outbound mobile calls are also routed through the PBX, and the user's desk number is provided as the caller ID, keeping the mobile number hidden. This setup allows an employee to keep her own number for personal calls while presenting a consistent number for all business contacts.

There's a cost involved here, as additional trunks will be required to support all the additional mobile calls passing through the PBX. However, the biggest challenge with the mobile part of UC has been user adoption. People like the way their smartphones work (that's one reason they use them so much), and mobile UC systems typically require a separate client on the device. The trick to making UC fundamental to the business process, then, is integrating this client seamlessly with the native operation of the mobile phone--a tall order, given that handset makers don't provide access to all APIs. About the only vendor that has been able to do this effectively is Research In Motion, whose BlackBerry integrates clients that work with the Microsoft Lync and IBM Sametime UC platforms. Those clients also work with BlackBerry's fixed-mobile convergence suite, Mobile Voice System, which can integrate with just about any PBX. The most recent upgrade, MVS 5.1, lets mobile calls be routed over Wi-Fi if the user is within a coverage area. With the reduction in cellular use by shifting calls onto Wi-Fi, the system can pay for itself. The catch is that MVS 5.1 is supported only on Cisco, Avaya, and Mitel PBXes.

There's that interoperability gotcha again.

Wrap It All Up

The collaboration benefits of UC are often the main reason for adopting these systems--not for nothing did IBM rename its UC initiative "UC2" to denote "unified communications and collaboration." Collaboration encompasses all audio, video, and Web-based channels--think Cisco WebEx and Microsoft Live Meeting. From an ROI standpoint, one of the quickest paybacks in a UC deployment can come from reducing the use of outside conferencing services like InterCall and Premiere Global Services. Not only does an internal UC system cut costs by routing internal voice and video calls over existing MPLS backbones as opposed to paying "cents per minute" to a conference provider, but the UC desktop client can typically be integrated with your calendar application. UC user productivity tools such as the Microsoft Lync client integrate directly with desktop tools such as Outlook. The organizer can scan the availability of participants and send a calendar invite with login information (bridge number, conference code, participant code) automatically included. To join the conference, participants simply click on the calendar entry. Most UC tools allow users to break off into smaller groups or convert from a text chat to an audio or videoconference and back again. These tools also incorporate screen and/or document sharing and let users download copies of presentation materials for later reference.


Increasingly, the companies we work with are moving from audio to videoconferencing, particularly with the advent of lower-cost desktop systems. Our survey showed Polycom and Cisco to be the predominant vendors for room-size video/teleconferencing, but Microsoft led the way in desktop video. Recently, Polycom introduced an innovative video system for use with Microsoft's Lync. Its CX5000 camera can be placed in the center of a conference table and provides a 360-degree view of the room. Not to be outdone, since its acquisition of Tandberg in 2010 Cisco has been pushing the envelope on video. The company popularized the idea of high-definition telepresence systems, and its Intercompany Media Engine extends video connectivity from intracompany to intercompany environments. Also interesting is the idea of tagging and retrieving video content. Locating a specific snippet of conversation has always been a manual task, but Cisco has incorporated speech-to-text transcription and real-time video transcoding. A search feature performs dynamic tagging of content, letting users locate and rapidly access relevant moments of a video or audio meeting.

One note: Vendors commonly cite savings on travel costs when calculating ROI for their UC systems, but be sure to take into account the fact that videoconferencing requires equipment, possibly dedicated meeting rooms, bridging units, and additional network bandwidth. And, many companies see added value in face-to-face meetings, so make sure you'll really reduce travel expenses before banking on savings.

Speaking of savings, one of the most interesting findings of our UC survey is that, in determining the ROI for UC, only 29% of respondents said they consider business factors like increasing sales (17%) or increasing market share (12%). However, it's in those key business metrics where we typically find the biggest ROI for UC--along with the most positive exposure in companies.

This idea originated with communications-enabled business processes, and early examples were found in contact centers as an extension of computer-telephony integration, where agents use caller ID information to locate customer records and do "screen pops." Early examples also were found in interactive voice response systems, which screen callers and route them to agents with the appropriate expertise.

However, communications-enabled business processes don't end in the contact center. Mobile communications-enabled business processes streamline any number of operational tasks, from checking in rental cars to scanning tickets at sporting events. FedEx and UPS have revolutionized the package delivery business by equipping route drivers with mobile terminals that let them track packages from door to door. Another UC-charged business process is inventory management, where workers are equipped with mobile computers from the likes of Motorola-Symbol that work over either Wi-Fi or cellular networks. For example, a Wi-Fi-based inventory management system supplied by Motorola lets Baylor Health Care System track 27,000 inventory items across 12 hospitals in the Dallas area. BHCS says the system increased the efficiency of inventory management and cut personnel costs dramatically.

Mobile applications are also moving to the white-collar workforce, as enterprise software vendors such as SAP, Oracle, and Salesforce .com introduce mobile clients. Those vendors aren't usually included on IT short lists of UC suppliers, but they're integrating communications capabilities with their CRM and ERP programs, letting customers initiate mobile calls, texts, and emails.

To be sure, plenty of UC challenges remain. Vendor interoperability is at the top of that list, though organizations like the UC Interoperability Forum are moving things forward. Our UC survey also showed that 42% of UC adopters cite a lack of end user training as a barrier to full deployment.

However, imagination may be the biggest obstacle enterprises face. UC vendors provide a vast array of tools to attack business problems, but a hammer is only as good as the carpenter swinging it. Now businesses need architects who can see beyond mundane speeds, specs, features, and interoperability glitches to how these systems can help employees collaborate in new ways. Redefine the goal of UC as a tight alignment of communications and business processes, and you'll be most of the way there.

Michael Finneran is an independent consultant and industry analyst specializing in wireless technologies, mobile unified communications, and fixed-mobile convergence. Write to us at iwletters@techweb.com.

Quantify your productivity gains in two areas, as defined by industry consortium UCStrategies: UC for user productivity, or UC-U: Integrating all end user communication and collaboration tools into one package allows them to be used on all devices, both in and out of the office.

The payoff: Boost efficiency and maximize hardware investments, like tablets.UC for business productivity, or UC-B: One intriguing communications-enabled business process is that developed by a healthcare institution to discharge patients. All parties required to sign off are notified by text message and may give consent from a desk phone, mobile device, or PC.

The result: The average time it takes to discharge a patient is reduced by almost six hours. --Michael Finneran

Additions To The Standard UC Lineup

Collaboration: Let employees pool resources via audio, video, Web channels.

Social Networking: Presence-based multimodal communications are critical. Use enterprise UC products or consumer tools. But deliver.

Mobility: Smartphones and tablets challenge UC developers: small displays, new OSes, spotty connectivity. But there are opportunities here.

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