The Burgeoning Momentum Behind Unified Communications

Even as the economic tsunami devastates IT budgets and scuttles many planned technology upgrades, a growing wave of companies continue to pursue unified communications (UC) solutions.

While once viewed as a “nice-to-have” for large organizations with correspondingly large information technology (IT) budgets, unified communications solutions have advanced to within reach of organizations of all sizes, including many small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs).

Simply put, UC solutions increase an organizations’ productivity and reduce operating costs — significantly and quickly. UC also provides more reliable communication and improves cross-functional communication, ultimately leading to better resilience against business disruptions. In addition, UC enhances the sense of belonging and affinity among remote or mobile workers.

However, getting to a unified communications platform takes careful thought and preparation.

Solutions Vary – There’s No Standard Solution

There have been almost as many definitions of unified communications as there are companies that provide the component technologies — and there’s no such thing as “one size fits all” in UC. However, there are several broad categories of approach to unifying communications on a single platform.

Most organizations are pursuing either rich media or telephony-centric approaches to implementation, while many others focus on email- or instant-messaging-centric approaches, with presence strategies gaining momentum. Admittedly, the array of available technologies, combined with their unique implications for any company, make selecting a UC solution a complex undertaking. What’s right for your company depends in large part upon the nature of your organization’s work, as well as its physical structure.

Though the lack of an industry-standard UC approach increases the complexity of implementation, the range of solutions and strategies available enables tailored solutions that best fit each organization’s needs.

Most of the challenges in UC implementations arise from at least one of the following:

  • Rushed discovery phase. This phase should carefully assess all potential applications and systems that link to the communications platform or that may be affected by the change in traffic. It’s easier to identify and address challenges prior to implementation than to adjust the plan mid-course.
  • Assumption that all equipment and applications can be transferred “as is” from existing systems. Perhaps they can, but be sure before you invest.
  • Lack of business/operational stakeholder involvement in discovery, planning or implementation. Unifying communications is not an IT-only decision, and you’ll only capture the maximum benefit if you secure the users’ input along the way.
  • Failure to establish a determined goal and adhere to it. This is where UC solutions can become needlessly complicated, leading to unanticipated costs.
  • Failure to understand the contract and procurement process. At the very least, this can cost you time during implementation.
  • Choosing to “clean things up” after the migration rather than before. This is a sure way to breed dissatisfaction among your users. It’s better to be sure that the platform and applications work right from Day 1 of your implementation.

During Change, Exercise Your UC Options

Many businesses contain the cost associated with a UC implementation by planning it in conjunction with other organizational changes involving facilities or the communications network. Along with planning and executing UC solutions, most times companies can do at least one of the following:

  • Replace obsolete or inadequate existing networks — no better time
  • Open a new facility or building
  • Establish a new call center or expand an old one
  • Integrate two or more existing organizations’ networks (e.g., a business merger/acquisition or a reorganization)
  • Integrate branches of distributed operations (e.g., retail store locations, bank branches and field offices)
  • Expand or deploy a telecommuting program for a significant percentage of the organization’s workforce
  • Implement a business continuity/disaster recovery plan and supporting capabilities

So, as an IT manager, look for these kinds of business-driven changes in your organization and talk with management about how improvements in the communications systems can make them even more effective.

Look for the Weakest Link

UC will only function as well as the infrastructure it is built upon, so if your network is not robust enough to handle the increase in traffic from UC, you will not get the results you are hoping for. Review your current business and network environments, assess current and future needs, and incorporate them into a scope of work for design and implementation. For most companies, unifying communications is a phased process leading to an end goal that meets business/organizational communication goals — it is not a one-size-fits-all, packaged solution. What’s best for your company is a network and solution set that stays up and running when the weakest link is at or near-maximum capacity.

Finally, remember that training on the maintenance and use of the UC components is vital — for administrators and end-users alike. Begin preparing them for implementation during installation and configuration. Again, your goal is to launch a smoothly operating, reliable system.

Implementation Can Be Easier Than You Think

It will not be easy selling the idea of a company-wide communications system enhancement during the toughest economy since the 1930s. However, once management understands the benefits, you may find it’s just the kind of enhancement they’re looking for.

Keep in mind that you’re not alone, as many others in your position are encouraging their companies to consider an investment in unified communications. The good news is that most apprehensions dissipate as implementation swings into gear.

The most common concerns among organizations planning for UC implementation are how it will affect network security, equipment and capital cost requirements, and where it will drive operating costs. However, many of those apprehensions ease once implementation begins: Organizations that have completed or begun their implementations report substantially lower levels of concern with those same issues.

While unified communications is a complicated field with many potential challenges, it can undoubtedly help transform an organization and produce attractive operating efficiencies. The facts speak for themselves; UC is not only a wave of the future, but also an innovative way to change how your company does business.

Pat Scheckel is vice president of CDW’s solution practices organization, with units focused on unified communications, security, networking, servers and storage.

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