Your business communications are a mess
But is Unified Communications the answer?
How often do you get frustrated when you can't reach someone? You try their desk phone, then their mobile and perhaps their home office number, then give up and either leave them a voicemail or send them an email or text message. Then when they don’t get back to you as quickly as you would like, you get annoyed at them for not being responsive.
There are numerous variations of this game, and it often plays out into classic telephone tag, convoluted and confusing email chains as in desperation you ping the next best person to the one you really need, or simply abandoning the communication attempt because the original reason for making contact has timed out or been overtaken by events - all of which leads to even more frustration and annoyance.
Yet not once do we direct our annoyance at the ludicrously complex and fragmented systems we are all expected to use as the foundation for our business communications. The number of fields that need to be populated in our address books over the years has proliferated horribly – internal extension number, external DDI, switchboard number, home office number, business mobile number, personal mobile number for emergencies, email address, instant messaging address, Skype ID, etc.
The reality is that working with this complexity is hard, whether you look at it from the perspective of trying to figure out the most effective way of reaching someone, or from the point of view of keeping on top of your own incoming communications by cycling through your email inbox, SMS inbox, voice mail for your desk phone, voice mail for your mobile – even the cache in your IM system, as people who sent you a message while you were offline figured you would pick it up when you next logged in.
Sure, we can all come up with coping strategies and tactics based on diverting phones to each other, setting up forwarding rules, alerts and so on, but it's all very clumsy - and in the case of forwarding your desk phone to your mobile or vice versa, unnecessarily expensive.
And this question of cost brings us to the business implications of fragmented communications, from wasted time through artificial delays in business processes and business decision making, to missed opportunities and increased risk due to lack of responsiveness.
So why do we seem to just accept this situation unquestioningly? If anyone designed a communications system to work the way most organisations do now, we would think they were mad or incompetent.
The problem, of course, is that this fragmentation has snuck up on us over the years, and as we have added each new business communication mechanism and end point device into the mix, we have crept closer and closer to the tangled mess we have ended up with today. If you throw video communications and various forms of conferencing into the equation too, that are all increasing in popularity, then it can only get worse if we don’t do something about it.
So what is that something?
Well, lots of people are arguing that what the industry is calling "Unified Communications" is the answer. It's a term we are seeing pop up frequently in marketing messages from communications players like Cisco, Avaya, Nortel, etc, and more recently from the software giants, Microsoft and IBM. But figuring out what's real and what's not and working through the practicalities can be a challenge.
The good news is that our latest primer has been designed to get you going here. We wouldn't claim that it is the definitive Unified Communications implementation handbook, but for those who want a no nonsense grounding in the topic so you are better armed to read all the vendor literature and perhaps start thinking about how to deal with that communications mess, it's a pretty good read.
What about presence?
UC is definitely in the "marketing hype" phase at the moment. There is much confusion as to what it actually means. Much of the technology behind it is not even close to being new. Some of the technology required doesn't really yet exist. An awful lot of what is needed is not even a technology issue at all - ironically the biggest barrier to UC is the fact that the hardware and software vendors and carriers are neither unified nor communicating!
UC won't really be here until Microsoft, IBM, Apple, Nortel, Avaya, Cisco, Mitel, Vodafone, Orange, O2 and dozens of others all have a framework that allows simple and (relatively) cheap interoperability and information sharing. SIP is not the answer, although it is one of the enabling technologies, as is a Services Oriented Architecture. Microsoft and Nortel have started down the road with their "Innovative Communication Alliance" but that's just the first piece of the jigsaw.
In my view, one of the most important aspects of UC hasn't really been discussed in the previous comments. Without it, many of the gripes about the intrusiveness of multiple communications channels are absolutely spot-on. That aspect is the concept of "presence".
With presence and a single controlling entity for all of those communications channels, I as an individual can determine quickly and easily how, whether, when and with whom I communicate.
If I set my presence as "unavailable" then I should *be* unavailable no matter how you might try to communicate with me. I should be able to set up rules that allow *me* to dictate that, for example, between the hours of 1PM and 2PM I am uncontactable by everyone except the boss (and maybe the wife). With UC, that's one setting in one place, not seven, accessible and configurable from whatever device I happen to have with me (my laptop, my PC, my phone, my Blackberry).
I think the idea of UC can actually result in productivity improvements not necessarily by making people "always contactable" but rather by giving the control back to the individual and making that individual's communication preferences available and visible automatically to everyone else. If you know in advance you're not going to be able to get hold of me because my "presence" tells you that then you'll quickly stop wasting your time even trying.
Now whether any of the currently available systems actually give you this level of control is a different matter. The technology is still evolving, but more importantly, the partnerships between the different vendors are still evolving.
If you want the whole vision of UC today I think you'll be out of luck. If you want to dip your toe in the water, have a look at OCS by all means. Will every organisation out there be able to increase productivity through the adoption of UC enough to justify the expense? No, I don't believe so. However some certainly will.
Taking it further, put UC into a contact centre environment. Why force your customers to call you when they may actually want to e-mail or instant message or SMS you yet still get the same level of service? When a contact centre agent picks up the phone, UC makes them unavailable for contact by other means automatically. Some contact centres use IM systems to allow agents to get assistance from colleagues without having to put the customer on hold. Without UC, how do I determine which of my colleagues is available to help me. UC with presence and skills-based routing makes that an automatic process. It's better for me, it's better for my colleague and it's better for my customer.
And for Joe Public? It all comes down to cost and getting something for (nearly) nothing. I think in a few years' time we'll see "UC" service provision for home users as an extension of the social networking phenomenon. Think of it as an automatic social secretary, screening attempts to contact you based on where you are, what you're doing, who they are, what time of day it is, whether you're already "communicating" with someone...that's unified communications for me.
I'm not a UC evangelist, I'm really not. I don't believe UC is ready for prime-time yet. I don't think it's a panacea for all the problems of the modern world. I do however think that when the time is right, used in the right way for the right reasons, used in the right places and available for a price that makes sense, it does have the potential to be a useful tool, both for individuals and for organisations.
Unified communications doesn't exist.
One of the earlier posters on this topic claimed to be a refugee from a now dismembered Unified communications company.I too fall into that category, at quite a senior level. Let's face it, as both a marketing concept and a practical application 'UC' DOES NOT EXIST. The first wave of UC occured in the late 1990s when a number of companies attempted to integrate Email and Voicemail within either lotus notes or exchange, it was then called Unified Messaging. That integration was seen as a means of differentiating email services and saving the bacon of the Voicemail industry. Nobody bought it, most of time it didn't work properly and eventually email usage went in the opposite direction with ultra light clients and webmail. Even in just telephony terms, the dominance of GSM and it's closed messaging systems makes Unified comms and messaging a joke. The mobile companies make shed loads of money out of voicemail traffic and they are not going to allow thos lucrative minutes to spill out onto third party Unified communications plaforms.
O2 briefly put a Beta product into the market but quietly pulled it. Orange had ?? what was it called??
The marketeers for UC have just re-wrapped UM as UC. The impressive feature of UC is that, as it doesn't exist, it may be marketed as the true emperors new clothes product. You can't describe or compare it in a feature tick list and you can't look it up under an RFP, IEEE number,or even an Amazon product code.
As has been pointed out, Email is the obvious tool for business communications. It's true that it's not real time, but there are very few instances where business communications needs to be real time. A web page is real time enough for me. Anyway, research in the 1980's showed that: More than 50% of business calls went un-answered. And, parallel research into the content of business phone conversations showed that more than 30% were disembling in nature. Honest guv' the cheque is in the post.
In reality, the only real tool for UC is the Mobile. The coming generation of in-building pico cells will address the coverage problems. The mobile tariffs for business' as a whole are pretty close to fixed. You can run a very good model using Game theory and some other economics tools to show that for 'unified,' person to person communications, the mobile will win out every time. Having said all that, there is one product that kick's ass in the murky and intangible world of UM. Strangely, it's Apple's iPhone. In the UK, I can make and answer a 2G and soon a 3g call on it. From it's web screen I can see my mobile messages, and click to hear them without even making a GSM call or even have a signal. There are companies developing fixed Vmail messaging for the iPhone, so there's UC for you on a simple web browser. If I want non GSM telephony I can hook it in via 802.11 or even Bluetooth.
Admittedly, even without iPhone, Unifying Email and Vmail in a single inbox has some benefits as would being able to call and control an multi party Audio conference. Email and a simple web page is a pretty good way of doing that, and there are plenty of web app's already available, none of which are claimed to be UM.
I thought email saved us from this stuff
No, seriously. Email was supposed to be like the pinnacle of communication...quick, cheap, easy, less ambiguous than a fluffy telephone conversation - plus it leaves a trail as good as (no, better!) than paper.
I pick up my emails when I'm mobile. I'm one of those stupid people who checks my emails at 2am if I wake up and can't get back to sleep instantaneously. However, I rarely answer my phones (any of them). And on the rare occasions I do, the conversation is usually short and ends with, 'Send me a quick email, OK?'
I don't need or want Unified Communications. I'm a UC luddite. I don't fear it, it just IRRITATES ME. I check my bloody emails 25 times a day. It's enough that you'll get an answer within a few hours at most. Go away.
And WHY must it be UUUUUUnified CCCCCCommunications....surely it's just unified communications? If you want it to become a way of working, a way of life, an everyday gotta-have it mustn't be special and all capped like it's a proper noun.