Is Unified Communications (UC) on the Technology Manager's Radar?

With the advent of communications convergence, the emergence of voice, video, legacy applications and Web-centric applications on the corporate data network, CIOs need to reassess and realign IT operations and organizational structure along business requirements rather than technologies.

Communications convergence has been a long time coming and is finally here. Within the enterprise, convergence has morphed into a new IT buzzword: unified communications (UC). UC reflects the emergence of voice, video, legacy applications and Web-centric applications on the corporate data network. UC is a logical evolution beyond Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). Functions such as presence and collaboration are blending with VoIP, allowing geographically separated personnel to function as if they were in the same room. With the advent of UC, CIOs need to reassess IT operations and organizational structure and take the opportunity to realign them along business requirements rather than technologies.

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Typically, enterprises organize around common models: function, product line, market segment, geography and process. Adding voice to the data network is just the first harbinger of change, which leads to video and other types of real-time communication. This impacts not just phone and data network support personnel, but also help-desk staff, storage and server support personnel; the footprint of UC encompasses a variety of technologies.

Assessing UC Complexity

Adding voice, videoconferencing and other real-time network traffic adds a level of complexity and support requirements that leads an organization to completely reassess the traditional organizational model of separate voice and data personnel. This reassessment impacts not only reporting relationships, but personnel training and equipment planning as well. The nontechnical issues surrounding the management of UC tend to be difficult; organizations with open and flexible cultures will have the easiest time adapting to the change. UC has the potential to combine traditional technologies of e-mail, voicemail, VoIP, instant messaging and other collaboration tools in new and interesting ways. Business users' expectations increase dramatically because all the components come together in a "black box"; users have little patience for management or troubleshooting that falls back on component-level explanations or, worse yet, passes the responsibility among multiple IT areas.

The cross-functional nature of UC—crossing server, data, voice and service desk domains—will escalate the importance of "who owns UC?" Organizations need to assertively transform old-style functional/product structures into responsive, process-based structures. ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) Service Management Practices is a guide for best practices in achieving that transformation. Should an enterprise decide that UC management is not a core competency, this transitional period provides the enterprise the opportunity to outsource UC services. There are detailed roadmaps for assessing whether this is a strategy that fits your company.

Enterprise organizations are in different stages of addressing communications convergence and achieving unified communications. Most organizations have started addressing communications convergence and many are now addressing the organizational implications. CIOs and their staff can rely on best practices and methods that have already been defined to help with the transition; Burton Group's reference architecture and ITIL are two prime examples.

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