Communications. Unified yet? Why not?

Unified communications (UC) has been presented as a potential solution for all sorts of woes facing organisations; network complexity, playing telephone tag, high call costs, too much travel, desktop clutter etc. Despite lots of hype and huge marketing budgets from many of the biggest players in the industry, adoption appeared to be slow, at least that is until a year or so ago when Microsoft’s Lync started to gain some traction.

Much of the initial push towards UC was built on the needs of the network, so much so that it looked more like unified ‘plumbing’, rather than considering what really matters, the human end of communications. Most of the value propositions were oriented around simplifying and streamlining network operations and in particular the long held techie dream of converging telephony with IT. No wonder that so many organisations that were being sold UC bought into it for VoIP, or as they positioned it internally, ‘cheap calls’.

Dramatic changes have occurred in telecoms – in particular mobile services taking over a lot of what was previously fixed line calling and users increasingly choosing to bring their own devices. This, coupled with the spread of IP in the telecoms networks leading to a more relaxed way of billing (cheaper calls by the minute) by connectivity, not time – has shifted the notion for UC acceptance a little further towards the needs of the user where it should really belong, and not the network manager. However, this has not been without headaches of its own as initially many vendors thought that mobile was a bit of a distraction and treated it as an add-on.

Adding a “C” for collaboration to make it UC&C, was a definite sharp turn in marketing by the industry towards accepting that the messages should be oriented to how UC affects end users.

All together the combination of these changes shifting from the technology focus to one on people and process seems to be paying off.

New research, commissioned by Sonus Networks polled just over a hundred IT decision makers in the UK and found that while there are still a wide variety of challenges to gaining acceptance for UC adoption, no single show stopper sticks out and most challenges scored only relatively low percentages.

Somewhat surprisingly, the one that seems to be causing least concern is CapEx, and only 14% think that infrastructure upgrades are prohibitively expensive. However at the other end of the spectrum, 30% admitted that other projects have higher priority.

What could have a higher priority than getting everyone to communicate more effectively and efficiently?

Well perhaps not, and the key challenge may be gleaned from some of the other responses. Over a quarter thought that getting users to learn or embrace multimedia and UC was a challenge, with a similar number saying they were lacking the IT skills to implement and support UC.

This might seem strange in a world where everyone appears to own a smartphone, tablet, smart TV and broadband internet connection. Even stranger when the younger end of the workforce has grown up with all this technology and it shouldn’t faze them.

Chances are it doesn’t, but awareness and familiarity are not the same as understanding and effective use. It is all too easy to pick up and use much modern technology, and even easier to get into bad habits or stuck with a preferred style of usage and be reluctant to experiment or change.

This is not something that a younger generation has evolved out of, they are simply getting stuck into the latest ‘ruts’, i.e. the things they like, are comfortable with, or are most popular in their peer group. Everyone has their own favourite means of communications, social media sites and so on. Often this is the basis for their communications starting point – a web browser, a smartphone app or perhaps Microsoft Outlook.

The challenge in unifying communications in the workplace is establishing a level of consistency, especially in the face of so much consumer familiarization, and even perhaps employees wanting to bring their own (particularly mobile, devices). The harsh reality is that forcing everyone to use an identical toolset, no matter how super-functional and unified it is, won’t work.

User training and education needs to be more focused on how to communicate effectively, rather than which buttons to press. When all that employees had were desk phones and Filofaxes, good training focused on 3 ring answering, owning the call and time management. While out of date for current technology, the need for effective communications skills still exists.

There are plenty of search engine optimisers, social media ninjas and mavens, but what many organisations need are all singing all dancing communications etiquette evangelists. It might make things a little more challenging, but IT needs to go with the communications flow, learn how to support a portfolio of technology options and work with the business to sort out where the real work is on the people and process side. It’s more about Unified Collaboration than unifying anything else.


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