Unified Communications Promises Much, But Does It Deliver?

Unified communications can save time, cut costs and improve collaboration, but the tricky part is choosing the right combination of tools.

Wed, September 09, 2009

CIO — It's hard to find anyone who likes audio conferences. Sure, worker bees can put themselves on mute to chat with fellow cube dwellers. Or play Facebook Scrabble and check e-mail until it's their turn to talk. Yes, for true lows in productivity, the fuzzy, disembodied, dial-in audio conference is hard to beat.

And what about all those mail and messaging systems anyway? Office voice mail, cell phone voice mail, office e-mail, personal e-mail, texting, instant messaging, social media communiques. Make it stop, you cry!

Unified communications won't do that, but depending on which communications and messaging systems you integrate, UC could make it better. At its most basic, UC makes real-time communication systems, such as instant messaging, share information with non-real-time systems, such as e-mail or voice mail, and runs them over the same network. Ideally, there is one simple interface or dashboard for users to access these systems.

With UC, CIOs aim to speed up communication and collaboration internally and perhaps raise customer satisfaction externally. Using voice over IP to cut the traditional phone bill (the foundation for UC) doesn't hurt, nor does reducing travel costs as employees meet in video or audio chats rather than fly to faraway hotel conference rooms.

To read more on this topic, see: 2009 CIO Unified Communications Survey, How to Get the Most From Unified Communications and Video Conference Software Now Works with Other Apps.

About 31 percent of 466 organizations surveyed recently by Forrester have deployed some form of unified communications. Half of those who haven't say they are investigating or piloting UC, up from 30 percent in 2007.

Yet UC isn't on fire this year, as the recession continues to batter IT spending. In Forrester's survey, 42 percent of respondents who said they weren't investing in UC cited lack of money or the absence of clear business value to justify the investment.

"Certainly it does make sense to connect voice mail, e-mail and mobile systems," says Jerry Hodge, senior director of information services at appliance distributor Hamilton Beach. "Unfortunately, the current economic situation has limited my aggressiveness in moving forward." The same is true at movie-rental chain Blockbuster and food and beverage maker Shaklee, their CIOs say.

Still, if you have money and want to move forward with UC, early adopters have advice about planning projects and measuring returns.

The Original Social Networking

UC has evolved from a back-room effort to simplify networking by, for example, running data and voice traffic on the same infrastructure, to applications that let employees share information no matter the device in front of them. Well, almost. We're not quite at the point yet where a BlackBerry, say, can get you into any corporate system and connect you to any colleague. But it's coming, predicts Steven John, CIO of manufacturing company H.B. Fuller.

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