At the recent VoiceCon show in San Francisco, unified communications (UC) was the hot topic, with conference sessions covering everything from technical UC advice to higher-level discussions about the future of UC, which is a term that is not easily defined.
After taking in many of the presentations and speaking with a number of attendees at VoiceCon, here's my stab at defining unified communications:
Essentially, an enterprise UC environment is one in which network users can easily determine one another's availability and communicate with one another using any number of tools (be it IM or VoIP for example), whichever is most convenient at the time.
The key to achieving value from UC in the enterprise, agreed many VoiceCon attendees, is the ability to embed UC directly into business processes. For example, with UC capabilities built in, an account manager can not only identify, but also get in touch with a colleagues or customers directly through Salesforce.com. He or she can see if the person they need to talk to is online, figure out the best way to get in touch with that person, and with a click of a mouse, do just that.
The bottom line: UC is all about improving communication effectiveness.
UC vendors try to woo SMBs
Also announced at VoiceCon, was a new OEM agreement from Siemens and IBM, IBM can license Siemens' UC application, OpenScape. IBM plans to use OpenScape to improve upon its own Lotus UC offering, called Unified Telephony.
After the announcement, I sat down with Andy Chew, Siemens senior VP for unified communications, and James Lawton, Siemens VP of strategic system integration. We talked a little about the IBM OEM, but what interested me more were their thoughts on the state of the UC market and Siemens' approach to SMBs.
Chew, who is based in the U.K., told me that he thinks the UC market is still "immature," but that migrating to UC should nonetheless be a priority for SMBs. In addition to improving communication capabilities and lowering costs, SMBs can adopt UC with little risk if they opt for the hosted services or SaaS route, he said.
Siemens currently offers hosted versions of its UC offerings, which SMBs can purchase on a monthly basis. If a customer decides Siemens' OpenScape is not for them, for example, it can simply drop it without having to worry about breaking any long-term contract.
When I asked about security, Lawton assured me that at Siemens' "security is at the base of everything." While I can't verify that independently (at least not from the floor of VoiceCon), it's encouraging at least that a major UC vendor like Siemens seems to recognize the importance of security, especially for SMBs that might not have the resources to withstand a devastating cyber attack.
Security, Lawton said, "is a mantra for us." Amen to that.
Realizing the ROI of UC
I spotted them one afternoon as I was perusing my VoiceCon conference agenda. There they were, those three little letters that can make or break any IT project: ROI.
Calculating the ROI of any proposed application or service is often essential to convincing management to fund the IT project in question. UC is no exception.
At a VoiceCon session dedicated to determining the ROI of UC, reps from systems integrator INX, IP telephony vendor ShoreTel, and the ubiquitous Microsoft offered their advice:
- Look for hard savings first. How much less per month will it cost to maintain a UC system, versus your current, traditional communications tools?
- Look into productivity gains, and be specific. If you determine deploying UC will improve productivity by 5%, how will workers spend that extra time?
- Recognize that ROI is different for different types of workers. For knowledge workers, ROI is best measured by looking at end results: increased sales and revenue, for instance. For contact center workers on the other hand, ROI depends on reducing transaction times. For example, how many more transactions per hour do you expect call center reps to take, thanks to UC?
- Consider the future. Microsoft predicts the costs of VoIP will be reduced by half within three years. Be sure to take into account market factors like this when trying to determine the ROI of UC.
Jeffrey Kelly is an associate editor for SearchSMB.com.