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Unified Communications: Enterprise Convergence Is Only The Beginning

There is a lot of talk about the concept of "convergence" as it applies to networks. But perhaps a bigger convergence story is the one that involves work and lifestyle. As business becomes evermore virtual, mobile, and 24x7, expectations are increasing that certain workers, or groups of workers, are “always connected, always available”.

Life becomes a constant state of switching between “work and play”, which creates new freedoms but also imposes constraints. Time for work may not always be at our control but at the influence of others and the priority of our shared activities and dependencies. That type of future workplace presents interesting challenges to IT organizations. Users will increasingly transition in and out of those devices, networks and tools that are consumer-oriented (their “play” life) and those that are officially sanctioned by their employer (their “work” life). When this occurs, I’m betting that examining of a “day in the life” of those users will reveal a situation where artificially separated environments of personal and work-related devices, networks and tools will (at worst) pose significant risk issues and (at best) reduce overall productivity and frustrate users.

Even if you believe that the above scenario is far-off, I suspect that a similar challenge exists within your own business environment. I imagine that a close examination of a “day in the life” of many users would find disjointed systems that force users to needlessly traverse multiple devices, networks and applications in order to share information and collaborate. Despite having more communication options available to us than ever before, we are often frustrated with the inability to more seamlessly converse with each other. Not only does that have a negative impact on organizational productivity, but on process performance as well.

Absence of a common architecture and generalized set of infrastructure services for unified communications has created unnecessary IT complexity and user anxiety. If we cannot solve the problem for the enterprise, how can we expect to handle the inevitable challenges of a converged work and lifestyle? A strategy in this area seems to be more than just a prudent idea; it seems to be imperative from a strategic viewpoint given ongoing business and organizational trends and growing entanglement of personal and work-related computing environments:

•    As the pace and complexity of work increases, people multi-task more as they juggle multiple activities and interact with multiple groups. Desires to integrate global operations are creating more virtual and far-flung teams. People are involved in more conversations and decision-making activities than ever before. Applications based on real-time communication technologies are essential to help users maintain situational awareness.

•    Reducing business latency remains a goal within most enterprises. After streamlining process cycle times and information flows, what's left are methods and practices that make people more efficient and effective. Communication tools will play a key role in this regard.

•    Workplace models are shifting as organizations reduce facility burdens. A more virtual work environment will create demand for a more diverse set of communication services (e.g., audio/video/web conferencing, presence, IP telephony) to support workers that are more mobile and remote.

•    Outsourcing of non-strategic functions continues to persist. This requires enterprises to communicate (and collaborate) with sourcing partners.

•    Organizations continue to build collaborative relationships with customers, partners, and suppliers. Ensuring frictionless communication across external and internal business boundaries will be critical for certain sales, marketing and support processes.  

Unified communications addresses these issues by establishing the framework for integration, interoperability and choreography of services across devices, applications, networks and infrastructure related to: e-mail, voice mail, instant messaging, audio/video/data conferencing, IP Telephony/VoIP, presence, speech and fax.

The need for a common framework for unifying communications is necessary not only for the reasons stated above, but to also reduce security and risk concerns. Business activities increasingly crisscross work and life boundaries. Users may inadvertently exacerbate the communication and collaboration challenge faced by IT groups by using consumer-oriented software and services that are readily available. Unfortunately, consumer-oriented software and services might not have been assessed by management and can expose organizations to security and compliance issues. Offering communication and collaboration solutions that can federate with public services can alleviate risk concerns while providing users with sanctioned alternatives.

In terms of ROI, many talk about benefits of unified communications in terms of reducing business latency. I don't disagree with that approach. There needs to be some form of acceptable ROI as strategists formulate their business case for project funding. But latency often is applied to only a time-slice of an overall process or activity. The focus should be on process outcomes in addition to intermediate steps in order to avoid the "hurry up and wait" dilemma of optimizing a function that does not impact overall cycle time or output quality. ROI from unified communications I expect will remain elusive, especially when applied to knowledge and information workers. I believe that it is there -- but it will remain more of a qualitative assessment, than a quantitative measure, of value.

Still, unifying communications has to have a point. It has to make a difference in how an organization competes and flourishes. From a technology perspective, all the hype about PCs as telephones and presence-enabled applications makes for good media stories, but there needs to be a business case that illustrates how these IT investments directly, or indirectly, influence organizational productivity and process performance. At the end of the day, business leaders will exploit unified communications because they feel it will help drive business growth and innovation – enhance relationships with customers, partners and suppliers – or differentiate themselves from competitors in some manner.

Finally, there are tremendous "people" aspects to unified communication endeavors that strategists ignore at their own peril. Value is only realized if people work and socialize in different manners that exploit what the technology has to offer. Changing work practices and lifestyle represent a larger hurdle to overcome. And that brings us back to the bigger convergence story.

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