Unified Communications: a change of mindset not handset

In the heart of the recession, unified communications (UC) adoption slowed considerably as organisations went through mass reviews of their IT budgets and decided what was mission critical and had ROI, and what didn't. Reports such as that from June 2009 by Synergy Research highlighted that collaborative applications buying decisions, including UC, were put on hold while organisations "await the global recovery of the economy" and "assess the impacts on their budgets". My question is why?

I view that many organisations wrongly interpreted what their proposed unified communications project was about. Numerous mistakenly believed it to be a more modern telephony system rather than a whole new way of achieving collaboration, flexible working and customer service, that could enable them to deliver a same or better level of service despite reduced staffing, office consolidations and other recession-led problems.

A common belief was that the 'non-unified' member of staff communicates largely via e-mail and desk phone, while a 'unified' member of staff is simply one who does the same, but mobile. Organisations that focused too much on UC as a simple telephony upgrade failed to realise the full benefits of collaborative UC, struggled to demonstrate the ROI to their CFO, and had their projects canned. In reality, not only could UC have helped them ride the recession by increasing productivity and opportunities for innovation, it could have given the organization a recovery-ready approach that will put them ahead of the game as the economy crawls back into life.

Some of the overlooked benefits of UC in terms of operational efficiency and effectiveness include increased teamwork, knowledge-sharing and customer interaction from the use of instant messaging (IM), web conferencing and collaboration, alongside more cost efficient and accurate customer service through managed presence replacing traditional voicemail, e-mail, and telephone answering. We are currently seeing online retailers closing contact centres as a result of a poor year, whereas forward thinking councils created 'virtualised' contact centres through unified communications two to three years ago.

Organisations need to get their UC decision back on track and there are a number of key attributes that they should be considering. One intelligent aspect of UC is its integration into CEBP (communications enabled business processes).

Embedded into a business process, UC can automatically escalate a customer enquiry to incorporate audio and video conferencing with the correct parties to speed up decision making. Having the technology to make information and people available instantly is a great asset but becomes undermined if organisations lack the drive and tenacity to follow this through with integrated processes.

Manufacturing, service industries, retail and professional services in particular can all benefit by taking up this feature, with their prime focus on the customer, the need for prompt action and the value of chargeable time spent.

Presence and mobility can also reengage the adoption of UC among organisations today because of the benefits they offer in terms of service, productivity and collaboration. Mobility solutions allow further efficiency and productivity enabling users to access identical applications they have available both at home and in the office, wherever they find their working day takes them.

Take up of UC tools could lead businesses to abandon traditional office-based working with work models shifting to embrace globalisation, green and home working with social networking applications and online virtual environments becoming increasingly accepted alternatives to real-world meetings. This shift in work practice, not only provides tangible cost reductions but also enables businesses to meet and exceed important carbon monitoring and reduction targets.

Over and above understanding the key features and benefits, truly successful unified communications requires a change of mindset, not just the acceptance of and training in new processes and tools. When considering UC, organisations need to conduct a complete analysis and justification of their working practices, not just draw up a tender for new replacement equipment. But, they need to want to change and must have a clear vision of how that change is going to help them meet their business objectives.

Phasing a UC implementation can also prove beneficial, as too much change too quickly, and for too many staff is unsettling and disruptive. Cross-team discussions will help teams understand the value and benefit that their use of UC has for other teams - for example, indicating presence status saves time and avoids the frustration of callers and customers being passed around or leaving messages.

The blind spot faced by most organisations is that they expect to get a return on investment (ROI) in UC in less than a year. Embracing UC requires an initial cash injection, not just in the telephony application purchase and its deployment but also in the LAN and WAN infrastructure in terms of fitness for purpose.

Many organisations view UC purely as a cost saving, hence why it fails to get past the CFO in the majority of cases. UC should be measured as a strategic asset, creating competitive advantage and the ability for an organisation to change its working practices and empower its employees to work smarter. Increased efficiency that comes with open dialogue, enabled by the seamless transition between methods of communication, will help organisations increase productivity, improve service, add value and reduce cost.

Gartner advises that companies may need to work round traditional ROI mechanisms and look for alternative, less quantifiable means to justify UC investments

Gartner advises that companies may need to work round traditional ROI mechanisms and look for alternative, less quantifiable means to justify UC investments, such as process cycle acceleration, faster problem remediation, increased information awareness, and inclusion of more internal and external resources in planning processes.

UC's integration into more day to day applications and processes can have a profound effect on an organisation requiring change into to adapt and survive. Complete integration provides automated communication through the correct medium independent of location and meeting the each user's preferences without barriers. Common devices and interfaces that use social networking in a more interactive fashion through the likes of IM, video and workflow to increase efficiency will reduce errors and enhance decision making in a collaborative fashion as a way to drive organisations forward.

The unified communications market has suffered in the recession, with budget cuts and plans on hold for changes in communications infrastructure. However, new organisations harnessing new world ideas will embrace UC properly, as can organisations operating with limited valuable resources and organisations that see communications as a strategic business asset and a differentiator. Organisations that see the new dawn of economic recovery as a stimulus to change will benefit and could gain competitive advantage, but any that view UC as nothing but telephony in a different guise will miss out.