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.
These changes will help address UC at its most basic level—convergence of voice and data platforms—but what about the future? UC buzz, which has become confusing and not much more than a marketing doorstop, portends a whole new world of integrated business processes that take advantage of instant messaging, e-mail, video and voice. There is a lot of research on it—a nice mix of the next stage of VoIP and “presence-based” applications with spices of IM and videoconferencing. Microsoft and Cisco use the buzzword a lot to push their products, mostly to replace an older PBX with something sexy. Call centers and work-at-home seem fertile ground for UC, whatever UC is.
UC is still a vision and long-term strategy—really the recognition of an overall trend with communications. UC needs to be treated as a program managed over the long term.
However, vendors take the UC moniker and run with it (any surprises there?) to sell products that may or may not be ready for prime time. The reality is that unified communications will only be real when applications are developed based on the underlying technologies—and so far there has been no “killer app.”
Business groups and end users don’t really care about UC—they care about the productivity value from the tools and applications that they interact with every day to get the work done. ROI comes at the project level as different components of the UC framework are implemented, such as VoIP, corporate IM or desktop videoconferencing.
UC and the CIO
So if it’s a long-term vision and strategy, should a CIO care? Sure, with IP-based telephony, traditional enterprise telephony is under attack; software plays a significant role in delivering voice, and new “UC” products such as those from Microsoft (Office Communications Server) will influence the market. UC application components will be delivered piecemeal and should be part of a long-term understanding of the trends and convergence.
Point decisions made at a project level, such as a PBX upgrade decision, will be viewed as evolutionary, functional replacements of current technology with the latest and greatest solutions. Other leading-edge projects might see the fundamental workflow and integration that UC class technologies bring to the table and make the case—ROI and otherwise—for significant change, but with sound business drivers and sponsorship.
CIO awareness of UC is important, but what is more important is the skepticism that a CIO needs to have when approached by vendors that have the ultimate unified communications product. UC is not a product, but an approach to implementing technology platforms that recognize the inherent integration of different ways of communicating.
Jack Santos is an executive strategist at the Burton Group and has more than 28 years of IT executive leadership specializing in bridging the gap between business needs and technological opportunity.