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Unified communications & collaboration solutions

by Andrew Stillwell , 02.07.2013

As employees demand and use an increasingly wide variety of communications tools, businesses are showing significant interest in Unified Communications and Collaboration (UCC) solutions as a way of maximising the benefits and minimising the risk. However, barriers to adoption remain; UCC solution providers need to adapt to these, and vendors of individual communications tools must be aware of the potentially disruptive influence of UCC on the market for their products.

Much has changed in the last 20 years in business communications, and the number of ways businesses communicate within themselves and with other businesses has increased exponentially. As a result, businesses are looking to unify these communication tools to maximise the potential benefits, and to minimise the time, resource, and risk associated with meeting employee communication needs.

The proliferation in communication tools is really quite startling: what used to be desk phone and fax, is now (deep breath) – desk phone; fax; mobile phone (including voice & SMS); email; instant messaging; web, audio, & video conferencing services; sharing of screens, apps, & documents online; calendar and other personal information management (PIM) solutions; social media, VoIP, and so on. There are no longer any physical or geographical boundaries to communication and collaboration.

This means that employees are able to communicate with each other and clients in real time, using flexible solutions and effective collaboration tools to improve reactivity, productivity, service levels, and ultimately revenue and profit. However, managing all these solutions can be complex and costly, and come with the risks associated with company data being shared across multiple platforms and potentially through unsecured networks.

So how do businesses maximise the benefits of these communications tools, while minimising the cost and risk?

Unified Communications and Collaboration solutions (UCC) are seen as the solution by many, with a reported 80% planning to implement in the next two years. [1]

What is UCC?

UCC is defined as “the integration of real-time communication services such as instant messaging, presence information, telephony, conferencing […]; with non-real-time communication services such as unified messaging. UCC is a set of products and services that connect people and information in disparate locations, providing a consistent unified user interface and user experience across multiple devices and media types.” [2]

The ultimate aim of UCC is to integrate business communication tools in order to minimize the complexity of managing all of the different solutions separately, to optimize the end-user experience, and to maximize the value to the business by using these tools to share and analyze data. In addition, UCC can enable businesses to track availability of employees and their location, machine-to-machine data sharing, fixed/mobile convergence, and integration of communications tools with existing business applications.

A key catalyst of UCC is the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) trend (see previous blog article). As employees increasingly use their own personal devices in the workplace, the ability to manage a range of devices and tools becomes essential - as does the interoperability of UCC as the range of different platforms and operating systems used across the business diversifies. Indeed, one of the greatest benefits of UCC could be that it allows companies to capitalize on employee knowledge of certain technologies, rather than forcing them to learn bespoke systems.

What do businesses need before implementing UCC?

Currently, intention to use UCC solutions is significantly higher than actual usage, with both technical and business-related barriers often blocking implementation. The ease of integration of UCC solutions with existing systems is key in order to be cost-effective and increase efficiency (rather than add another layer of complexity or cost), and security is also very important. And, above all, a solid business case is required to convince non-technical decision makers of the wide-ranging benefits of investment in UCC. With investment harder to come by in current times, it is vital for technical decision makers and vendors to clearly demonstrate the benefits to the whole business.

These issues, therefore, require both technical and business-related solutions. Technically, a successful UCC solution needs to be adaptable and able to provide solutions to the current challenges of BYOD and interoperability, and future challenges such as fixed/mobile convergence. This will enable a wide range of devices and communications tools to be used, encouraging end-user adoption (without which, of course, any strategy will be redundant). End-users will be more embracing of tools which provide a familiar user experience - they want UCC to simplify, not complicate, their working lives.

From a business perspective, UCC needs to be built into business growth strategies which reap the benefits on offer, rather than just being seen as a way of bundling communications tools. This will ensure buy-in from across the whole business, and, as a result, will gain maximum benefit upon implementation. Critical to this is the development of business-related performance measures to gauge the impact of UCC on the business, and productivity in particular.

So what next?

UCC is yet to be widely adopted, but interest is strong. It will be vital for potential users to keep up with developments as they look to adopt these solutions or develop their current solutions.

UCC has the potential to be hugely beneficial to businesses, but also significantly disruptive to vendors of business communications. As has already been seen in the video conferencing market, where two of the leading brands posted double digit declines in the first quarter of 2013 [3], the integration of individual communications tools into UCC packages may cannibalise these markets in the future. Vendors will need show the agility to either incorporate their products with UCC solutions or add value to survive.

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