Like so much in the world of business technology, the term ‘unified communications’ or UC is a confusing one. What does it mean?
Importantly, it does not necessarily describe a communications system based around Internet telephony or its external equivalent – Voice over IP (VoIP). While IP telephony or VoIP technologies may form part of a wider UC system, in essence a ‘UC system’ is a set of technologies designed to cohesively manage all the different communications that flow in and out of a business – voice, video and data over a myriad of devices including landlines, mobile phones and faxes. With such a broad definition, it’s hardly surprising to find there are different ‘flavours’ of UC.
Victoria Crone, general manager of business at Telecom, says Telecom’s UC solutions bring together communication channels such as instant messaging, telephony, video, email, voice mail and short messages, allowing people to send through one medium and receive via another.
“One type of activity or message can be easily transferred to another. Gains in efficiency result through optimised business processes and enhanced communication, reducing latency, managing flows and eliminating device and media dependencies,” explains Crone.
She says UC systems let people seamlessly collaborate with each other from separate locations, as well as see which mode of communication each recipient prefers at any given time.
Paul Woodhams, general manager business for Compass Communications, says UC is about office, global and field based workers having the ability to communicate as if they are in the same office, although they can be anywhere in the world. He says Compass provides various levels of UC via traditional PABXs, more sophisticated IP telephony servers or mobile platforms that either stand alone or interface with an IP solution.
“It’s about starting with simple unified messaging and over time introducing applications you can see will improve the way you do business. No matter what amount of UC customers want, implementation is best done in a staged approach,” says Woodhams.
Antonios Karantze, portfolio strategy manager for TelstraClear, says most businesses have a combination of phone, computer, mobile and email, and a phone, computer and email used at home.
“UC links home and business technology into one easily to manage package. This is really useful for the small office environment. Customers using IP Gateway [a TelstraClear small business UC solution] don’t need IP phones, they can use their analogue phones. But they have the flexibility to control system settings from a web browser. Some customers have one mailbox for desk phone and mobile phones; some like to get voicemail as email messages,” says Karantze.
Roger White-Parsons, national sales manager for Agile NZ, says businesses traditionally combat barriers to the free flow of communication in and out of their organisations by deploying adhoc applications and solutions. He says UC is a ‘binder’ that brings disparate communication channels together.
“One of the principal benefits is that it provides the ability to communicate in any way, from anywhere, to anyone, at any time. Small businesses get the complete range of benefits whether in the office, at home or working from a hotel, or even walking down the street. Employees become more effective while at the same time maintaining a work-life balance,” says White-Parsons.
The business case for UC
Now you know what UC is, how do you know if your business is ready for it? White-Parsons says it’s a common misunderstanding that simply purchasing a UC system will magically achieve a business outcome.
“Of course UC will not provide business value to all people. For example, the corner dairy is unlikely to see benefit in allowing people to work from home. However, most businesses will be able to apply even a small portion of a UC strategy and achieve healthy ROI returns. Calculating an ROI can be as simple as understanding what it costs for every lost sale or missed call. One of the principle wins for UC is that it provides single number access and the technology sorts it out automatically. That one number can be extended to any location, be it around the office, virtual office, home office, customer location or hotel room,” says White-Parsons.
He says a business considering UC must focus first on desired business outcomes. This could be as simple as identifying the value of improved customer interactions and satisfaction – or better worker productivity, reduced costs and better information flow.
Telecom’s Crone says UC is wrongly perceived as new and ‘risky’ technology when, in fact, it is made up of not-so-new components that have been integrated.
“People struggle to catch up with how much technology has developed and the way the telecommunications industry has evolved in the last few years. They think UC requires a total replacement of equipment when many customers already have the pieces needed to move forward with UC,” says Crone.
She says UC is also perceived as costly when a pure IP-based UC system is often less expensive than a traditional TDM phone system.
Woodhams says it’s important to realise UC systems are not there to replace people or improve customer service.
“Service is still about people talking to people. UC just means information gets through in more ways, and is quicker.”
Karantze says he struggles to think of any business environment that would not benefit from a service that simplifies management, reduces infrastructure and reduces hassle.
“Certainly the UC conversation becomes narrower as a business gets smaller – a customer with a couple of phones and Internet access is normally well aware of their environment. But from there it becomes a discussion around call control and message management; even a single mailbox for your mobile and fixed phone helps,” says Karantze.
Vasili Triant, managing director for ShoreTel in
“I always tell customers that if they are looking for a new phone system then just keep what they have and don’t spend more money. But if they want to look at ways to improve their business efficiency, reduce operational costs, improve customer touch, and increase revenues through the implementation of software applications, then we can show them how.
“The one question every business should ask a UC provider is ‘How will you make my business more productive, save money and make me a better competitor in my industry?’ If they fail to answer this then walk away,” says Triant.
He says some UC ROI may not be black and white. For example, businesses using old technology with no maintenance contract, or running UC systems for a single site or small office environment may not see true ROI in a dollar sense because they have spent money in an area that they don’t normally spend it in.
“The ROI for a business such as this would be in [assessing] the revenue generated through increased customer service or adding a part time worker from home without the overhead of office space,” says Triant.
Even after understanding the benefits of UC, small businesses worry about disruption to existing communications if a UC system is implemented. For example, what if phones stop working, Internet access is lost, or messages aren’t delivered? How should a new UC implementation be staged and structured?
Woodhams says changing communication providers is not without its concerns.
“Add in a [significant] upgrade in technology and you have a recipe for disaster.”
He says UC purchasers need to agree on a pre-installation plan with their provider and the provider should be able to offer services that are implemented in stages.
“It is important to get staff using the technology. Install it all in a hurry and chances are the customer has just paid for something three quarters of the staff won’t use. Our UC offerings are simple to implement and simple to use and can be done in stages,” says Woodhams.
Karantze says changes need to be planned with the customer, including an audit of current communication system setups and the requirements of new solutions. TelstraClear offers hosted UC solutions as well as those achieved through third parties leveraging the TelstraClear network.
White-Parsons says a staged UC rollout is always recommended as is the deployment of only relevant applications, and this can be as simple as providing ‘twinning’ between a worker’s DDI extension and mobile phone or IP phone or software to allow full feature access from home.
“Any new system rollout comes with some associated risk; however using reputable organisations with a history of delivering UC solutions will greatly alleviate that risk.”
He says Agile offers small businesses a modular UC platform from Avaya that can grow, change and adapt to a customer’s needs.
“Whether it is a mobility solution where users can use a single number and answer the call on any device, soft-phones that allow calling from a remote location using the Internet for call control and [normal phone networks] for voice, Avaya can provide these supported on a single centrally managed platform,” says White-Parsons.
Triant believes it’s important to remember that each provider ‘does UC’ their own way and there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ approach in a generic sense. He says ShoreTel bundles UC into its general telephony platform and can add in desktop video and instant messaging without needing an added server, third party applications or expensive integration services. ShoreTel reseller partners in
“Some manufacturers will offer their UC application initially for free to get customers using it, however after this [customers] need three or four servers plus expensive services to get it working – then it has ongoing license fees for future versions. UC gets overblown by the marketing dollars companies pump into it versus the real application that comes from business process and presence integration. UC is not a one-flavour-fits-all [solution],” says Triant.
Where to next?
Is UC really the future of business communications, or just the latest flash-in-the-pan?
According to a May press release from consulting firm Ovum, UC is definitely here to stay and providers are rushing to get their products into the marketplace to meet demand. However, business models are still far from clear, according to Claudio Castelli, a senior analyst for Ovum.
“There are many different types of player involved in providing end-to-end UC solutions to mobile users. Carriers, IP telephony vendors, handset manufacturers, application developers and system integrators all have a role to play in mobile UC. Vendors are currently taking the lead. Several have recently launched mobile UC products and are now promoting the ecosystem required to drive their solutions into the market,” says Castelli.
Interestingly, Castelli says UC providers are doing “a good job” in developing solutions to help the ‘standard’ enterprise to be more efficient but are not putting enough effort into understanding the detailed business requirements of each company.
“UC strategies need to be more than just technical solutions that provide fancy functionality. It is important to develop a better understanding of the factors that motivate people to connect, share and collaborate with each other. The increased collaboration supported by UC will translate into business benefits according to the profile, culture and social character of each enterprise. Mobile UC will bring substantial benefits to enterprises but not every company will value it in the same way.”