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Workshop While Unified Communications (UC) is not quite mass market, the number of organisations giving it the once-over is growing. Hype aside, UC is something that companies will find themselves adopting quite simply because fragmented communications in the workplace are increasingly common, which causes problems for the general workforce and IT staff alike. Add to this the fact that employees sitting at their desks from 9am to 5:30pm is no longer a reality for many businesses and, grudgingly perhaps, UC begins to make sense.

So, the end result of a UC implementation might offer more than a handful of benefits, but how easy is it to achieve? If we are to believe everything we read, then it is a breeze. The number of documented success stories lined up by vendors is testament to this, isn’t it? Unfortunately, if companies approach UC with this frame of mind, there is a strong possibility that their implementation will flounder, and they could find themselves in a much worse place than where they started, and with a lot less money. Based on research by Freeform Dynamics into UC, feedback from users suggests that ”eyes wide open” is a phrase well worth bearing in mind when starting off such projects.

Technical issues are a given with any migration to UC. The most common areas of difficulty cited include integration with existing systems, eliminating single points of failure and managing security issues, all of which can often prove more challenging than initially perceived. During an implementation, IT staff will find themselves dealing with issues like these, as well as providing support for users around a variety of interface issues and devices. This won’t replace the existing need for technical support, but will be in addition to it. IT departments can quickly find themselves buckling under the strain of the extra work unless adequate provisions have been made.

The challenges don’t end with the technical, however: even if the company survives the technical upheaval, unresolved business issues can be the kiss of death to UC. Probably the biggest of these is getting people to actually use it, and in the right way. A shift to UC requires cultural change which needs to be driven from the top down. Without this, there is probably little point in kicking off any kind of UC strategy. It is important to remember that, not only are employees dealing with new interfaces to technology, they will also need to change the way they do things.

For example, there is limited value in having a one-click-to-call videoconference facility to set up meetings on the spur, if you persist in trawling through calendars, calling people and sending out emails to check availability before finally settling on a meeting time and date two weeks ahead. And while there are some Reg readers out there who might think this example is laughable, there are many more who will be familiar with a company culture driven by old school staff who simply won't use “this new fangled messaging stuff”.

Embedded within both the technical and business areas is the issue of regulation, which, while impacting the financial and energy sectors the most, is beginning to seep into other business verticals. While regulatory challenges will naturally exist in non-UC environments, when real-time communications are extended, through applications such as web based meetings, social networking and instant messaging, the regulatory headache increases somewhat. This is felt most obviously around conforming with auditing requirements (for example, logging and recording communications).

Such problems are not insurmountable, of course, and solutions exist to deal with them. But they need to be on the to do list: breakdown in any of these areas is usually driven by a failure to plan properly. Planning requires the serious attention of all stakeholders from senior management to the IT department, with the involvement of all key users and groups. Given the possible areas of difficulty when moving to UC, businesses could be forgiven for asking the question, why bother? Especially when such a move does not come cheap. This is a valid question, and some companies will doubtless see UC as more trouble than it is worth, at least for now. But as our communications landscape becomes more and more fragmented, the absence of such an approach will lead to greater and greater inefficiencies. And ultimately, there will be a tipping point where the question becomes one of not “Why bother?” but “When can we begin?”

If you have any stories to share, we’d be really interested to hear them. ®

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