Going the unified route? What does it mean and could it be right for your organisation?

The term “unified communications” is introduced, general pros and cons discussed, and some insight is provided into when a business should consider implementing it.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/usnationalarchives/Over the past few years and in more developed markets, the term “unified communications” has been gaining prominence in the business environment. However, in the Caribbean, it does not appear to be regularly considered, nor has it been readily adopted. To some extent, key decision makers might still be ignorant about unified communications and it potential to improve business operations. This post offers a quick primer on this topic, which hopefully will lead to a closer examination of whether it might be a good fit for one’s organisation.

I don’t see: what is UC?

Unified communications (UC) refers to the integration of a broad range of communication tools and services into a coherent medium, and can comprise both real-time and non-real-time communications as reflected in Figure 1. Although a UC solution can consist of different modes of communication, different media, and different devices”, the goal is that the people using them “can still communicate to anyone, anywhere, at any time” (Source: SearchUnifiedCommunications)

Figure 1: Examples of real-time and non-real-time communication tool and services that can be included in a UC solution (Source ICT Pulse)

UC is not achieved by a single product. A solution would consist of a suite of communication tools and products that have been integrated and configured to operate as one seamless product. Typically, it requires a consistent and unified interface to provide the best user experience regardless of communication device or medium.

What are some of the key considerations?

UC has become an important consideration for many organisations because it optimises business processes. Its popularity has been due in part to:

  • the increasing emphasis on productivity and efficiency
  • the plethora of communication devices, tools and media that are available and used,
  • the availability and affordability of the infrastructure and capacity required to support UC and
  • occasionally, the need for a company to better align itself with the requirements of or systems used by key clients or suppliers.

However, when one is exploring the possibility of implementing UC, the benefits and challenges, some of which are outlined below, should be considered:

PRO:  Produces cost savings. One of the main reasons why UC is implemented is that in the long run, significant cost savings are realised. Depending on the services and method used to integrate them, both fixed and recurrent expenses could be dramatically reduced.

CON: Relatively large upfront cost. To implement UC might require some of the equipment currently being used be replaced and/or upgraded. Thereafter, the focus would be on establishing the desired degree of interoperability and attending to all aspects that will foster a favourable user experience. At the very least, the transition to a UC platform would require specialist expertise, which typically might be outsourced. When contracting/consulting fees are factored in, along with equipment costs, and the need to train the in-house tech team to manage the new platform, the cost to implement UC can be substantial. The relatively large upfront cost is a deterrent to many organisations. Although they would benefit greatly from UC, they may have limited funds available to apply to such a venture.

PRO:  Improved access and information sharing. This is a key benefit when UC is being considered.  In large organisations, and where staff members tend to be dispersed, people (or teams) can appear to be operating in insolation to others, and the institution splintered. Further, all employees might not necessarily have the same tools at their disposal, which can result in a number of inter-communication challenges. Having a single platform upon which all devices and media can operate means that any employee can communicate with another regardless of the interface. This  leads to improved sharing and greater sense of cohesion.

PRO:  Increased productivity. Through improved access and information sharing, productivity can be increased, since the delay in accessing various types of communication – until one has access to the appropriate interface – is virtually eliminated. For example, regardless of the device a person can be notified immediately of an instant message, voicemail left on his/her office phone, or a received fax, on the one device and his/her reply to the sender will be delivered to the device the initial sender is using. Such capability is highly useful when employees are out of the office, especially when communications options might be limited but they are still required to respond promptly to the needs of the rest of the organisation.

PRO:  Improved optimisation and competitiveness. A natural consequence of all of the above benefits is that communication processes can become optimised, which leads to increased efficiency and improved competitiveness. This factor has become increasingly important, since in many organisations, performance-related factors are measured and targets are set.

CON:  Potential interoperability challenges. Since a UC solution will comprise a variety of tools and products, they most likely will be from different vendors/manufacturers. As result,, getting all of that equipment to operate as a seamless medium can be challenge. Some of the interoperability problems between different products and manufacturers might be known and can be accommodated from the outset. However, there are those that will only become apparent during implementation and may require a hardware or software solution, or a combination of both. This situation introduces some degree of uncertainty into the implementation process, which might not be acceptable to some organisations.

CON:  The impact of a malfunction. Equipment or other technical failures are inevitable. They can occur regularly, and can involve one or more components of aUC suite. These breakdowns  can affect the effectiveness of other components, but ultimately compromises the entire suite, which could have an impact across an organisation. However, to varying degrees such difficulties can be managed by implementing a robust solution, and by ensuring that the appropriate resources are available to attend to any failures that might arise.

When should a business consider UC?

To varying degrees, many of us, as individuals, have had some personal experience using UC, e.g. on our mobile phones using the wealth of applications available.  However, in the work setting, the size of the organisation, services that must be integrated, along with specifications stipulated such as security and reliability, means that UC implementation can be complex and expensive. Nevertheless, organisations should consider implementing UC if:

  • intra-organisation communication costs seem unduly high
  • a sizeable number of employees work outside of the main office(s), but are still required to be readily accessible
  • increasingly, the office has fractured into silos, and is not operating as a cohesive unt
  • processes are being consistently and unnecessarily delayed because staff cannot provide the desired inputs efficiently
  • efficiencies can be derived from faster communication with key clients/suppliers
  • the office suffers from poor productivity, which is affecting efficiency and competitiveness, and if
  • individual, team and overall performance can be substantially improved if a more integrated communication systems is implemented.

Image courtesy of the US National Archives, flickr.