The great promise of unified communications (UC) is still unfulfilled. The potential and underlying technology is there; but as a game-changing technology, unified communications has missed the boat. And it’s not because of a lack of technology. High-quality Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) with quality of service (QoS) guarantees, integration tools for bringing together data and communications, and “presence” that shows who is available, and on which communications channel, are all available. The technology is solid, with a strong mix of incumbent and startup players. So what happened? The answer matters even more with the onset of the digital workplace, a global marketplace and millennials in the workforce.
Purveyors of UC and VoIP solutions touted the benefits of real-time communications on a common platform for every area of the business, both customer facing and internal. UC promises game-changing solutions that resonate through the business; but, sadly, many organizations are not prepared to take full advantage of the innovative benefits of the technology. The potential of UC has always been easier communications and more collaboration, both inside the company and in customer-facing communications. More satisfied customers – and happier employees – should drive greater revenue as a result, which more than offsets the capital costs of UC.
But the reality has proved to be considerably different, and the dual benefits of improved internal communications and improved customer service continue to be elusive.
UC deployments are often perceived as having limited value to many end users, tepid buy-in from upper management and resistance to change in the organization. Additionally, once UC has been deployed, companies often experience more management difficulty than they bargained for, and an already strapped IT department is unable to keep up. While the initial capital expense may be well within reach, companies often underestimate the level of day-to-day IT management resources needed to maintain voice and UC performance. IT has to divert resources from other projects and place highly skilled and costly engineers, such as CCIEs and CCNAs, on the daily task of UC management and maintenance. These tasks include routine MAC-D (moves, adds, changes and deletes), and responding to the everyday “blinking light” syndrome of managing a complex system of multiple communications mechanisms.
So what is keeping UC from reaching its greatest potential?
Who’s to blame?
Unified communications technology is mature, security and privacy protocols are in place and the underlying bandwidth is readily available to make it work. So why doesn’t it? It would be easy if the finger of blame could be pointed at one single weak link; but, alas, this is not the case. Consider these weak links:
- The problem starts at the very beginning of the value chain with vendors of UC services that over-sell and under-deliver.
- Business is to blame, because they tend to see UC as a “plug and play and walk away” technology, and the vendors who sold it and the executives who bought it failed to get buy-in at the highest levels.
- As a result, the C-suite may fail to see the potential of UC and may not realize the ROI that can be achieved – and may assign it lower priority and fewer resources than it needs to be successful.
Throughout the acquisition / deployment / maintenance cycle, there are three factors that are routinely ignored:
- UC is not just a technology; it’s a new way of doing business.
- Implementation of UC therefore requires a change management focus to ensure that this new way of doing business is embraced across the board.
- Ongoing management takes time and energy away from the IT staff.
But after we’re done blaming the vendors and the executives, the IT department must shoulder its fair share of culpability in the failure of UC for not delivering the full support it needs to succeed.
On the IT side, the resources required to manage UC are often underestimated, and IT often discovers that the complexity and time involved in maintaining the technology is more than they bargained for and requires more time than they have available.
It is not uncommon to require an alphabet soup of certifications for people (CCIE, CCNA, etc.) to effectively manage UC on a day-to-day basis. When network and telco teams attempt to fill the management gap, they may lose out on more than other opportunities and projects. If IT is not proactive enough in managing the UC environment, they may also find themselves under pressure when the CEO inevitably finds out before everyone else that the VoIP phones are not working.
When did IT start being the in-house telco expert?
Part of the problem in UC’s failure to launch at many large companies is the IT staff’s learning curve to acquire, deploy and manage all things telecom. Even if the IT department has competent and certified telco specialists in house (which most do not), the management burden of a growing telco environment that includes UC can overwhelm many in-house departments, take away from other projects and stifle innovation simply because there is no time left. It limits IT in its true mission to improve business processes and bring more innovative strategies to make the business more profitable.
A company’s telephony, until the 1990s, was managed and provided mostly by the phone company, and the IT department largely stayed away from it, dedicating their time instead to the computers and the internal network. It wasn’t until VoIP became more reliable that calls started being routed over the IP network instead of the PSTN. The resulting switch meant that the IT department by default came to be in charge of the phone system and everything that connects to it. IT managers found that managing voice was a lot harder than managing data for several reasons, not the least of which is that voice is delay-sensitive, and the inherent limitations of a packet-based system requires a much more intensive approach to managing the flow of voice traffic. With enough in-house talent, the IT department can certainly rise to the occasion, but there is an opportunity cost in terms of innovation.
The true cost of UC
The initial capital expenditure is only the tip of the iceberg, and discounted hardware won’t result in a less-expensive UC deployment. Realizing the full potential of UC requires looking beyond the initial rollout, taking into account ongoing maintenance and management costs and embracing the changes in business process that may dramatically and positively impact the company’s DNA and culture.
The initial capital expense – often minimized as a result of an increased focus on bidding wars between vendors – is not all costs. The true total cost of ownership for unified communications may include additional items including:
- Upgrades to the network infrastructure to handle the additional traffic and QoS requirement
- Recurring maintenance and software assurance costs
- Moves / adds / changes / deletes (MAC-D)
- Day-to-day system management
- Help desk for users of UC
- End-user training
- Acquisition and retention cost of skilled engineers, e.g., CCIEs expert in Cisco technology
Post-deployment, it is essential for the CIO and CFO to work together to define the total cost of ownership of UC and then to set about creating a long-term plan to most effectively manage and maintain the system to derive the greatest return and enjoy the full impact of its potential benefits.
When in-house talent with telecommunications-specific experience is lacking, the true cost may come in the form of unnecessary downtime. If that talent is brought in house, there may still be issues. Certified professionals skilled in telecommunications are a scarce and costly resource; they have a proper role in the enterprise, and that role is strategic. When a company’s CCIEs are underutilized, and delegated to routine, day-to-day management tasks, money is wasted and opportunity is lost.
Closing the UC gap
A more successful unified communications initiative will draw on strategies that encourage both breaking down hierarchical barriers and more open communication and problem-solving between lines of business (including IT).
The second and most important part of successful UC will pay more attention to the management and automation of the underlying infrastructure and applications, filtering to avoid “blinking light” syndrome, and centralized coordination of UC by the IT department and with the cooperation of other lines of business. That coordination may best include a third-party specialist with a highly automated monitoring and management platform, and using a third-party specialist avoids a costly diversion of the company’s most highly skilled talent.
That UC management platform, besides mitigating the cost and delivering an improved TCO, will automate tasks that are otherwise too time-consuming. In addition, a solution should include intelligent filtering to weed out the noise and offload routine management tasks from the IT department.
Unified communications is a mature and proven technology. Getting full value from it, embracing the cultural changes that UC brings to the table and working with a management platform that deploys a high degree of automation for UC management tasks will, once and for all, help companies finally realize the promise of UC. As the benefits accrue, they include better connections for teams, partners, vendors and customers in a dynamic environment of collaboration and then integration of that dynamic collaboration into business processes.
Raju Chekuri is CEO and founder of NetEnrich, a pure-play, next-gen IT infrastructure management and operations services provider for the enterprise. With 25 years of industry experience, Raju has brought a new perspective to managed services. Raju’s career has evolved with the increased complexity IT teams face as they recognize the need to move towards IT-as-a-Service to drive innovation.