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How Companies Are Making Unified Communications Pay Off

Instead of being greeted by a guard, a visitor to Global Crossing's regional headquarters in Rochester, N.Y., is directed to a computer kiosk, which prompts the visitor to enter an employee's name. The kiosk opens a video window on the employee's computer, showing who's in the lobby. Simultaneously, an instant message or an audio connection opens up, and the employee can accept or reject the visitor by typing or speaking. If the visitor is accepted, the kiosk takes a picture and prints a temporary pass that lets the visitor into the building.

While technologies such as voice over IP and chat are common at most companies, scores of early adopters are pushing the concept of unified communications even further, putting features such as presence to new uses, embedding communications into the flow of everyday business activities, and developing applications that automatically send relevant data directly to phones or the UC software on PCs. "A lot of companies are saying we can save money from this," says Mike Fuqua, Global Crossing's senior VP of global information systems. "But I don't run into a lot of companies that are doing unified communications transformationally."

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Heck, most aren't even calling it "unified communications." And it's a brave CIO, especially in this economy, who'll pitch UC as a sweeping strategy. Companies usually don't even start looking at UC until their circuit-switched PBX systems turn into a money pit of repairs and workarounds. That opens the door to VoIP and its immediate long-distance cost savings, and from there companies consider UC apps, usually piecemeal.

A "very large customer" of Microsoft's Office Communications Server won't even talk about the potential improvements in productivity or integration, or any of the new features in the newly released OCS 2007 R2, says Gurdeep Singh Pall, a Microsoft VP who manages the vendor's UC product line. "They just say, 'My audioconferencing system needs to be replaced,'" he says. "A lot of customers will approach UC realistically in this way."

Customers often straddle their conventional PBX systems and unified communications, maintaining two systems because there's a "minor feature" missing in the UC suite that some subset of employees' needs, Singh Pall says. "It's like when people said, 'Oh, some applications have to stay on mainframes for such and such a reason,' and then those apps became isolated," he says.

In just a few years, unified communications will be deeply embedded into business activity, and companies will deploy UC that takes advantage of high-speed wireless, standardized video, and location-based services, predicts Forrester analyst Henry Dewing. But for now, 57% of companies haven't gotten past the pilot stage with UC. Eighty-six percent say they can make a good business case for UC, but there's some serious waffling going on: 55% admit there's "confusion about the value of UC" for their companies.

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Whirlpool shows how subjective the value can be. The company was building a system that promised features such as automatically notifying a quality assurance staffer--by whatever communications channel the staffer picks--if a factory line missed certain performance measurements. With a change in CIOs, however, the project was scrapped, though Whirlpool retains its Avaya IP phones.

So unified communications isn't going to be swept in on some big transformational agenda. That's probably a good thing, since it forces attention on features most likely to be actually used and business processes that would benefit most. Nevertheless, even as UC must prove itself, feature by cash-saving feature, CIOs should look for the larger opportunities that are harder to measure, from better co-worker collaboration to better customer service.

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