Unified Communications Drives Collaboration, Cost Savings (After a Lot of Hard Work)

Many obstacles face firms hoping to deploy unified communications, from technology that doesn't integrate to users who don't want to give up PBX systems. But organizations that are willing to fight the good fight stand to reap the benefits of a workforce that travels less, collaborates more and works faster.

LAS VEGAS — Unified communications (UC) systems offer end users the chance to broadcast the best way to contact them, avoid the embarrassment of an overstuffed voicemail and maybe, just maybe, get rid of the fax machine once and for all.

Despite the advantages, UC adoption rates — which hover between one-third and three-fifths of enterprises, depending on whom you ask — have been lower than analysts and technology vendors expected. (Those numbers may be artificially inflated; not all employees take kindly to surrendering their tried-and-true traditional telephone.)

Several sessions at the recent ITXEPO West aimed to examine what continues to impede UC adoption and what vendors and customers alike are doing to promote unified communications.

Consumer Tech in Hand, Employees Willing to Part With PBX

Not surprisingly, the consumerization of IT is beginning to influence companies' decisions to implement unified communications. This influence comes from employees, customers and, in the case of California's Mountain View-Los Altos Union School District — yes, that Mountain View — parents who are well-versed in cutting-edge technology.

In replacing its PBX system with VoIP, and in doing so all at once over the course of a July day, the district aimed to provide the "same methodology of access" for all parents to get in touch with teachers, Associate Superintendent Steve Hope says.

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Teachers — they of the perpetually full voicemail — were on board, viewing UC technology as a better way to respond to parents in a timely manner, Hope says. Administrators and support staff, however, were admittedly less receptive, as traditional telephony worked well for them.

To get reluctant users of unified communications on board, Doug Sanders, director of IT for national waste management firm Republic Services, takes what he calls a use-case approach to training. Rather than show employees how to use the UC system, he says, show them why. When users see video chats being integrated with phone calls, they get excited about the new technology. Video training can subsequently cover the less-glamorous aspects of user training, Sanders says.

Adopting UC Easier Said Than Done

Showing end users the why of unified communications instead of the how may have an unfortunate side effect: Obscuring the fact that the how of UC can be quite difficult.

Here, again, consumer technology is a culprit, as employees using Skype, Facetime or Google Hangouts at home wonder why they can't use similar or identical apps at the office. While most IM and presence systems are standards-based and can talk to each other, a lack of UC federation makes it difficult for disparate UC video systems to, well, communicate.

That, combined with the ongoing power struggle between telecommunications and PC lines of business, in part explains the "initial inertia" that hinders UC deployments at an enterprise level, says Jason Moss, executive director of UC and collaboration solutions for Logitech.

Vendors such as Logitech say UC systems are an easier sell at smaller firms because they can talk to a single decision maker, if not the business owner, Moss says. That said, enterprises taking a holistic look at unified communications — namely by appointing a Director of UC — are quicker to adopt. Billy Chia, product marketing manager for Digium, adds that simplified pricing models and a "social selling" approach, which engages vendors and prospects in real-time conversations, can boost adoption as well.

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Above all, though, time may be the biggest enemy of UC implementation efforts. CIO tenure is about five years, and most CIOs are understandably ambitious. When they get to the corner office, they may intend to move toward a centralized infrastructure and may set a goal of UC adoption, says Hardy Myers, CEO of UC vendor AVST, but that five-year span may not be enough time to get it done.

UC Systems Improve Efficiency, Cut Travel Budgets

Challenges aside, ITXEPO speakers remain optimistic about unified communications' potential. When Hope demonstrated his UC systems' capability to send faxes to a school district employee's email, for example, "Everybody across the board thought this was the best thing since sliced bread."

Sanders, meanwhile, points to no longer having to support 120 telephone carriers and to the twofold benefit of teleconferencing. In addition to dramatically reducing the travel budget for internal meetings — which sometimes had 500 employees hitting the road in a single day — teleconferencing also opens those meetings up to larger groups than would have otherwise been accommodated by Republic Services' travel budget.

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William Olsen, director of infrastructure, security and compliance services in Nevada Energy's information technology and telecommunications division, says his employees have taken this culture to another level. In a recent office visit, Olsen saw employees in three adjacent cubicles participating in a video conference. When he asked why they didn't just pop into a nearby conference room, one employee said the video conference allowed them to share desktops.<.p>

"It actually made them more efficient, even though they sat next to each other," Olsen says.

Nevada Energy is also seeing customer service improve as a result of unified communications, Olsen says. The utility can monitor call center data to study abandonment rate, for example, or gain insight into how a certain sales representative is able to drive so much revenue.

Finally, improved virtualization technology has made today's hypervisors better equipped to handle the I/O needs of real-time unified communications. Not only does this make for more flexible server distribution, says Jerry Stabile, chief operating officer of eZuce, it also reduces an organization's reliance on multi-tenancy and cloud-based UC deployments, which still concern CIOs whose firms handle sensitive data.

Brian Eastwood is a senior editor for CIO.com. He primarily covers healthcare IT. You can reach him on Twitter @Brian_Eastwood or via email. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.

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