Unified communications about integration, not just productivity tools

If a unified communications strategy is just about which employee productivity tools to support, it misses the point of UC, two experts say.

If a company's unified communications strategy is just about which personal productivity tools to support, it's forfeiting business benefits. Real unified communications benefits come from integrating those employee productivity tools -- voice, email, chat, social activity streams -- with systems of record.

Moreover, CIOs who view unified communications as simply a collection of tools to boost employee productivity are seeing UC through the prism of the major vendors. It's a perspective that will come back to bite CIOs and prevent their enterprises from reaping UC's long-term value. This will be especially true at enterprises that already support a multivendor IT environment.

Those are the views of Ken Agress, a research director covering UC at Gartner Inc., and Rob Koplowitz, a principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc. who covers enterprise collaboration. Unfortunately, unified communications strategies are the exception rather than the rule, these experts told SearchCIO.com. Such strategies emphasize integration of UC productivity tools and social networking with a company's back-end systems of record.

Tactical vs. strategic unified communications solutions

Even companies that have a vision for merging various UC products with social collaboration platforms and systems of records "are not there tactically," Koplowitz said. This is partly because the cultural and technology challenges of deploying a fully integrated communications environment are formidable -- from driving employee adoption to measuring business and technology value. "There are very interesting conversations now about integration," he said, "but it is far from simple."

These tools are much more powerful together than separate.

Another factor limiting UC is that powerful UC vendors are less interested in integrating with other vendors' products than in selling CIOs the whole media suite -- what Agress called "UC defined as buckets of stuff." Gartner's definition of the technology is not about "stuff," but about plugging the capabilities of that infrastructure into applications: "We define unified communications as the contextual integration of multiple modes of communication that enables interaction within the context of a workflow."

The willingness to take an open or standards-based approach to integration is more evident in the so-called second-tier vendors, Agress said (declining to name names). Even these vendors must make a hard transition and change their market focus from hardware- to software-based sales before they can offer these potentially valuable integration services, he said.

For UC to pay off, it needs to be embedded in on-premises applications and workflows, and to extend to mobile platforms, remote workers, or a public portal where IT can support voice or chat interactions in a relatively transparent fashion. At a minimum, CIOs should be grilling their UC vendors on their integration capabilities and how they can plug these capabilities into the applications that run the business.

Value of merging UC, social networking, systems of record

Too significant for CIOs to ignore are the benefits of integrated unified communications environments that connect messaging tools with applications of record and social networking tools.

To show how significant these integration benefits are, Forrester Research's Koplowitz gave an example: a business user has discovered through an analytics tool that something is not right in his company's western region. Finding out what is really going on might require his casting a broad net with a social networking tool. That social outreach might in turn lead to a couple of people with deeper knowledge of the problem, who should see the report or participate in a video conference.

"These tools are much more powerful together than separate. If you give people separate tools, there is a great deal of friction moving between the tools, and knowledge workers will fall back to email," Koplowitz said. The next step is bridging into systems of record, such as payroll.

Koplowitz pointed to Yammer's announcement this week of a new integration with SAP as a "lightweight approach" to bridging these different environments. Yammer's SAP integrator lets users of its social networking platform see updates from SAP's software in its news feed and link back to the original record in SAP. "It's a start," he said.

But to make such employee-optimized workflows actually work, companies have to reduce risk by using such things as rules built into the workflow that enforce security policies, data retention requirements and data-loss prevention measures. Gartner's Agress offered one example of this need: a financial services customer using chat to inquire about a balance who instead decides to place an order for a bank product. "The customer rep needs to be able to immediately transition these kinds of interactions from that instant messaging or chat to a phone call to a known number, so there is not hundreds of thousands of dollars being transacted based on a chat," he said.

Agress advocates for a central "unification service," similar to Active Directory, that handles these transitions and enforces rules automatically. "But again, very few vendors have really nailed the idea of a unification service," he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

This was first published in February 2012

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