Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Unified Communications: Coming of age?


Time to put it on the agenda?

Unified Communications (UC) is a term that has long been bandied about, but has yet to really gain the serious attention of businesses. Its slow uptake has not just been hampered by dire economic conditions, although this undoubtedly has had a negative impact on rate of adoption. Confusion around exactly what UC is has been a major barrier for companies when looking at it. The term Unified Communications was originally coined by the market in an attempt to encapsulate exactly what it was about. Unfortunately, it was an over-simplification that served to confuse more than convey, as many companies did not really grasp what UC included. In fact, UC, rather than being a broad, difficult to define solution set, is actually made up of a number of quite distinct components (such as Unified Directory, Unified Messaging and Presence Awareness, to name but three). And when businesses think in these more specific terms, then it becomes much easier to understand what UC involves.

Beyond this, however, companies often struggle with making the business case for UC – seeing it more as a ‘nice to have’ rather than a ‘need to have’. And while there are various case studies of successful UC implementations that they can call on as collateral, on the flip side, there is enough anecdotal evidence around implementations that have not proved so successful, to make them think twice about taking the plunge. So are the success stories the exception rather than rule. And can UC really deliver? According to recent research carried out by Freeform Dynamics UC can deliver very real benefits into the business. The chart below shows how what we have termed 'aggressive adopter' – companies - that have adopted UC more broadly across their business, and with a broader component set - report much better levels of communication and collaboration, which they attribute to their UC implementation.

It is important to note that this positive outcome is not solely down to broader adoption of UC. Simply implementing UC will not automatically result in a workforce that collaborates better, can carry out enhanced decision-making, and so on. UC is an enabler but only if it is implemented and worked into the business in the right way.

This is precisely what more aggressive adopters have done. They understood from the outset what they wanted it to deliver, how it would fit into their business, and, how it would be rolled out, including what support was required. There is clear recognition in this group of respondents that UC was essentially a new system that brought with it new capabilities, and this is where the real benefits lie. Companies often don't recognise and plan around this, and hence fail to realise the genuine benefits of UC.

Consider, for example, a technical call centre that handles customer queries. In a non-UC environment, the details of calls that can’t be handled straight away will be taken by a call centre operator, and followed up later with relevant technical support experts. Once a query has been resolved, the customer will be contacted by the call centre operator with (hopefully) a solution to their problem.

Coming at the same issue with a UC-enabled call centre can involve a completely different approach, with the call centre operator assessing the problem immediately, and then reaching out to a number of experts simultaneously, based on suitability and availability. Depending on the nature of the query, the call might be handed directly to an expert to resolve, or be dealt with by the operator directly, based on feedback from the expert.

The whole process can be geared towards first-call resolution, in a way that wasn’t possible before. While this might seem obvious, if a company implements UC, but carries on working in exactly the same way, then very little will change from a first-call resolution perspective, and any potential efficiency savings will be missed.

The story doesn’t end there. While the benefit of UC is that it enables staff to work differently, they will only do so if the change process is made relatively painless, and this is exactly what companies that succeed with UC have ensured. This translates into providing not just the usual technical support but also more process-based help. This might include step by step guides on topics such as setting up a videoconference from a given location, including where people can go for help if they get stuck. To assist people who are more reluctant to access such resources, locally embedded help, in the form of nominated ‘experts’ - people within the same department, for example - can work well. Getting this right goes a long way to ensuring that UC ‘delivers’.

So is UC coming of age, at last? While it is unwise to get caught up in the UC hype, it is at least worthy of consideration, even in the prevailing economic conditions. As the way that people work changes, UC becomes ever more relevant. Cross business collaboration, mobile workers, virtual workplaces, the 24x7 workforce and global teams are areas that can be assisted by UC. The caveat to this is to ensure that, like any implementation, there is a clear understanding about what it will deliver, and enough support in place to make sure it happens.

Originally published on http://www.cio.co.uk/ (registration required).

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