There aren't many applications where IT must be both the application implementer and champion for use. For better or worse, unified communications is one of those apps.
By its nature, UC crosses functional boundaries, aiming to improve collaboration and efficiency. Line-of-business units may understand that they want to communicate better, or collaborate more efficiently, but just as they wouldn't typically drive the purchase of a new phone system, they won't drive the purchase of a UC system. Most IT organizations are just fine with the technical implementation, but determining the proper functions for a UC system and then educating users on how and when to use it is often beyond the resources of IT. So how do you fill the UC void?
Unfortunately, there's a lot of ways to screw up UC, and through the technology's checkered past, most implementations have proved that true, rendering the system either useless or a niche solution to very particular problems. For instance, if you're looking at a chat client to replace a client in use, like AIM or Google Chat, the new system had better be at least as functional--including letting employees chat with users on these consumer systems. Most do this now, but it hasn't always been the case. Of course, you may choose to cut the use of this function, but that should be based on policy, not a lacking product.
UC products tend to emphasize the core competency of the vendor rather than aspiring to a single ideal product. For example, Cisco's UC products are heavy network users focused on voice, desktop videoconferencing, and room-based video. Microsoft's emphasize integration with Office, Exchange, SharePoint, and Active Directory. Part of the IT head's job will be to help other leaders understand the various UC capabilities and decide which sorts of products to evaluate and what feature set to look for.
It's easy to veer off into wanting cool stuff like desktop videoconferencing. Fine, but it may require upgrading some or all of your network. If you're scoring the project on ROI, putting a dollar value on "better collaboration" is a squishy process not likely to survive a network upgrade.
Management involvement throughout the purchase process will be important, but never so much as it is during rollout and training. Our surveys on UC all point to the same primary failure point: lack of user training. While there should be a base level of training for all, it's usually worthwhile to find one group that touches all others (could be your business office, or perhaps a marketing team) and offer advanced training to them. Tell them they're the experts and ask them to evangelize the new system. IT rarely replicates the enthusiasm of users empowered to teach and help their peers.
Current prices and capabilities make UC a technology whose time has finally come, but it's still not easy to get the most out of the investment. Doing that takes collaboration with business partners, top management, and eventually a grassroots campaign to use the technology throughout the company.
Art Wittmann is director of InformationWeek Analytics, a portfolio of decision-support tools and analyst reports. You can write to him at [email protected].
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