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You think unified comms is just about productivity?

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Workshop When we talk about Unified Communications (UC), a lot of us are guilty of dwelling on generalities and how attractive the notion of smoother communications would be to us as individuals. After all, who wouldn’t want to get shot of having to wrestle with multiple phone numbers, worry about multiple inboxes, and having to suffer from the ongoing frustration of that game we call ‘telephone tag’?

When we do talk specifics from a business perspective, the usual focus is around workforce collaboration, and how UC allows professional workers – managers, executives, sales and marketing personnel etc – to communicate more quickly and more reliably. While UC is undoubtedly an enabler of this broader collaboration, and can deliver some important cost and productivity benefits here, when companies think only in these terms, it is difficult for them to build a solid business case for implementation.

What we really need to do is think beyond this ‘hard-to-quantify’ set of collaboration-related benefits. One way of doing this is to consider how UC can contribute to more process-centric activities.

In various service scenarios, for example, process efficiency could be increased by being able to track down an appropriate individual to confirm availability to deal with a job, incident or issue using a single-step approach rather than the usual clumsy method of ringing around until you hit on someone who’s both qualified and available.

It is not difficult to imagine all kinds of scenarios such as this, both industry-specific and more generic, in which business performance is impacted by request/response steps involving humans that can so often become a bottleneck. UC in this context can help to reduce overheads, make a business more responsive, and so on – all benefits that are much easier to quantify.

When we approach UC business case development in this ‘crunchier’ manner, it becomes more obvious how it also gives rise to some very tangible benefits around flexible practices such as home and mobile working. There are a number of already well-documented benefits in this area, from both an employee/lifestyle/wellbeing/staff retention point of view, and a business cost-saving perspective.

Beyond this, there’s then a whole set of additional benefits that kick in when companies are faced with exceptional events. The impact of a rail strike, or unexpected weather conditions can interfere significantly with the day-to-day running of a business, with key personnel unable to reach the office or attend meetings. A single day like this can be disruptive enough, but more than that and things can start to get serious.

If we then think of public health scares, whether it’s bird flu, swine flu, or any other threat that emerges (or the media stirs up), the ability to continue running the business effectively when employees can’t walk out of their front door or don’t want to overcomes an increasingly prevalent risk of disruption.

And continuing on this theme, in addition to these bigger national events, where every organisation is in the same boat, businesses can be impacted by other, more local incidents. At a company level, something as simple as the heating breaking down, or a burst water pipe might require staff to relocate or even work from home. Situations such as this can again be very damaging to a business if it isn’t able to resume normal communications quickly and seamlessly.

Dropping down to a more individual level, a myriad of personal conflicts may surface. It is not difficult to imagine the impact of a key individual unable to attend a critical meeting because her car wouldn’t start, or her son was ill and off school and she had to unavoidably and unexpectedly work from home. Or the impact of the late arrival of documents to support a meeting with an important prospective client.

A well-implemented UC installation won’t solve every single problem that these scenarios throw up. But it will mean much less down-time. When staff are able to draw on tools such as web-conferencing, video conferencing, document sharing, instant messaging, presence, and the whole bag of other stuff that falls under the UC banner, it means that effective communication can carry on regardless, and that people will remain genuinely productive.

Of course, looking at these events individually, one could argue that they don’t happen often enough to severely impact a business. How frequently is public transport brought to a halt because of snow? How often does the Finance Director’s car break down? Not often. But if we aggregate across all the different disruptions that a business potentially faces, at all different levels, then this ‘contingency management’ dimension of the case for UC can start to look very attractive.

And does size matter when thinking along these lines? Not really. A small business where the key person isn’t able to make it into the office for a make-or-break deal because of a rail strike could feel even more pain than a larger company as there is less likely to be someone who can cover. It is simply a matter of context.

Right now, there are lots of organisations who quite like the idea of better communications capability, and intuitively know how it would help in a general sense, even though they struggle to articulate the benefits in tangible terms. A rigorous consideration of the business risk related benefits, as well as getting crunchier on the cost case, is really what’s needed. Otherwise, in a couple of years’ time, you’ll still be talking about how much more effective things could be without actually having done anything about it.

If your company has already implemented UC, we’d love to hear about how you went about building your business case, and whether risk/contingency related benefits were acknowledged and worked in. If not, have you actually found UC useful in this area? And for those currently considering an investment, how relevant is the contingency management discussion to your organisation?

Let us know what you think in the comment area below. ®

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