Because Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) systems have been in the enterprise for years now, Unified Communications (UC) is a concept that has recently taken a back seat in the media to novelties such as the Internet of Things and big data.
But it’s fair to say the dream of combining all the various elements of enterprise communication tools and services together into a seamless whole is far from being over.
In fact Unified Communications (UC) is a market that’s been quietly gaining substantial revenue while sexier technologies have stolen the spotlight. UC is now a $26.2 billion market, predicted to grow to $38 billion by 2016, and its explosive growth is being driven by the ubiquity of cloud and mobile technology. Now that businesses are able to overcome the geographical issues that come with communication and collaboration, far from stagnating, UC is more relevant to organisations than ever.
As Curtis Johnstone, senior UC product architect for Dell explains, mobile is now a centrepiece of the UC experience for information workers.
‘In the enterprise we are seeing a continued increase adoption of UC on mobile on platforms from dominant UC enterprise vendors such as Microsoft and Cisco,’ said Johnstone. ‘These platforms are maturing and offering native UC client software on all major dominant mobile device vendors such as iOS, Android and Windows Phone.’
Added to this, the number of devices, both personal and corporate owned, being used by employees is growing, resulting in UC services being consumed across more devices than ever before.
As more UC is consumed via mobile, it really promises to bring all the powerful benefits of rich collaboration from anywhere on any device without having to invest in the infrastructure to make that happen.
As Johnstone puts it, ‘enterprises get to the drive the UC mobile car without buying it – and that is a powerful proposition for the business and for the information worker.’
The sky’s the limit
Mobile cloud is changing the way companies provide UC services, helping to reduce IT expenses while enabling workers to be productive from anywhere. But before they can fully realise its potential, businesses and vendors alike have some leg work to do.
One major stumbling block at the moment is connectivity and coverage.
Delivering a consistently good quality of experience for UC features over wireless is a challenge today, largely because the connection quality and performance of underlying wireless networks is not consistently reliable enough to meet the demands of real-time media features such as voice and video.
‘This is a well-recognised challenge and a priority for UC vendors and they have taken several steps to help businesses overcome these limitations,’ as Johnstone says. ‘UC vendors such as Microsoft and Cisco have done a good job recently in specifying what network characteristics a wireless network must deliver to offer a good UC experience so businesses can adjust their expectations of UC services service levels over wireless.’
UC vendors have taken it a step further and have certified specific wireless network equipment such as Wi-Fi Access Points which have been proven to work well with their UC platforms.
‘Businesses can also take a big step in overcoming existing limitations by upgrading their wireless network to include certified UC vendor equipment and configure it to match the recommendations set by the UC vendors,’ Johnstone advises.
Luckily, most UC platforms today collect quality of experience data – even on external communications with a mobile client – enabling IT administrators to determine which situations are having poor experiences because of quality, and undertake troubleshooting to correct those connectivity issues.
Advances such as Software Defined Networking (SDN) and equipment tailored and certified for real-time media also offer future potential improvements in delivering a consistent quality UC experience on mobile devices.
Feeling the G’s
4G is the underpinning architecture that needs to be in place for UC to work, but technology on its own can only accomplish so much. Johnstone advises that it needs to be implemented ‘together with a cultural shift towards organisations thinking about their current business practises at an operational level and finding compelling use cases for mobilising greater UC adoption.’
In the experience of Jason Peach, principal consultant and Networks First, a lot of potential innovations are put on hold simply because wired and wireless broadband coverage isn’t extensive enough in all areas of the UK to support a radical change in operational processes that would aid greater employee productivity and UK business output.
He argues that public sector and private sector businesses need to join together to form an alliance and demonstrate to Central Government and to the Network Providers that well-formed use cases actually exist.
‘If presented in a standard format, these Mobile UC initiatives could be viewed collectively to allow the full potential for wider adoption of Mobile UC in the UK; only if Network Providers invested in and rapidly deployed wider 4G coverage in support of more mobile UC adoptions, says Johnstone.
‘This might ultimately allow a business case for wider Mobile UC adoption at a national level, if the 4G coverage issues are addressed, which may ultimately provide benefits for all concerned, not only improving business innovation in the rural economy but business productivity and the UK economy as a whole.’
Getting down to business
There are plenty of technology solutions out there to deploy UC on mobile devices, but its uptake may depend on the situation, and whether it justifies UC. Jason Peach, principal consultant at Networks First argues that the majority of the hurdles around UC are cultural and down to the users themselves rather than due to the technology.
‘For example,’ says Peach, ‘the uptake in personal communications using widely available applications like FaceTime is still relatively low; limited by signal strength or viewed as more time consuming to set up a call, rather than simply making a mobile voice only or landline call.’
Given this, says Peach, it might be no surprise that mobile UC applications haven’t yet really been perceived by businesses as a high priority when linking mobile UC applications to their corporate business communications systems i.e. the corporate IP Telephony solution.
‘It is important to think about business use cases for mobile UC that could have a positive impact on the productivity of the user as well as backend business processes,’ says Peach, and only when there is a win-win for the users as well as for the business itself will widespread adoption likely occur.
‘Innovators within businesses need to ask themselves what field-based scenarios could be enhanced by employing a linked UC connected mobile device to back office systems, or between the business and their customers,’ advises Peach. ‘It is only when businesses can find innovative ways of using UC on mobile devices that it will it evolve, otherwise it becomes a redundant technology or at best used informally on an adhoc basis not deserving of much investment in time or money – like anything in business, no Return on Investment (ROI), no point.’
Cold hard cash
In the end, proving the hard value of mobile UC solutions ends with ROI. And this boils down to two factors: increased efficiency and cost savings.
As Johnstone argues, increased efficiency allows businesses to do more of what makes them successful, faster.
‘If a business enables their employees to communicate quicker and more efficiently, their business velocity can only increase.’
Cost savings refers to the hard savings of replacing legacy communication costs with less expensive UC solutions, and the reduction of travel expenses with rich UC collaboration services. Typical big ticket candidates include reduced long distance telephony and conferencing costs, and reducing the need for face-to-face travel.
With these two factors in mind, determining ROI amounts to having the right data insights – insights that match your UC goals, are tailored specifically for your organisation, and include data from all your UC platforms.
‘You can only determine if your business is adopting and using the UC features available to them by trending usage rates, by individual UC feature such as desktop sharing, across your communication platforms for groups of users specific to your company, such as sales and support,’ says Johnstone.
‘Being able to quickly do a comparison of usage trended over time will give you immediate insight into the promise of increased communication. If that promise is not being met, knowing what UC feature is not being adopted by a specific group of individuals enables the organisation to increase training or address quality issues to meet their UC goals.’
Likewise, a reduction in costs can only be made with a comparative analysis, Johnstone argues. ‘Several leading UC management solutions in the marketplace today offer the ability to simply specify what a UC service costs your organisation. For example, you could specify that a Microsoft Lync Enterprise Voice call to a particular location costs your organisation approximately $0.02 per minute, and the solution will leverage the usage information to calculate a per month aggregate cost for specific individuals, departments, and offices in your organisation.’
Having a solution with the data agility to view these aggregate costs over different time periods and different groups in your organisation allows an easy and effective comparative costs analysis. Costs analysis can be complex, but even if it is approximate, it goes a long way in understanding the ROI of a UC investment.