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Unified Communications: Making It Pay

Companies find that linking business processes with integrated communications capabilities is the best way to prove ROI.
How Badly Does Your Company Need Unified CommunicationsCompanies looking to improve business processes by integrating various communications channels like voice, e-mail, instant messaging, and videoconferencing are turning to unified communications. But many are quickly finding the costs difficult to justify.

A third of the 325 business tech professionals recently surveyed by InformationWeek Research cite lack of ROI metrics as an adoption challenge to deploying unified communications. And just over half (51%) of the 47 respondents not deploying it cite difficulty measuring or proving ROI as the primary reason. Unified communications--combining presence information with e-mail, voice mail, instant messaging, and videoconferencing to facilitate efficient communications--is most successful when it's linked to a specific business process. For example, pairing unified communications capabilities with an order-processing system lets a company reach customers through the best available communications channel and complete more orders each day.


How's It GoingThe need to make a clear ROI case has Harrison Piping Supply initially rolling out unified communications on a limited basis to only five to 10 employees, including the CEO, CFO, and various other managers. Each of these managers will decide if his or her groups would benefit from having the capabilities available with unified communications, says Richard Noel, the company's IS manager. "Only then can we truly begin to understand where all the benefits lie and what their value would be to our company."

Harrison Piping Supply's testers' opinions will carry a great deal of weight when assessing the ROI, says Noel. It will be difficult to quantify many of the benefits, he says, which is why the company will provide unified communications only to the people who want it and will use it, rather than giving it to everyone. Noel says he expects the company's outside sales representatives will benefit most from being able to react more quickly to customer requests. Harrison Piping is evaluating systems from companies including Avaya, Cisco Systems, and Inter-Tel.

Reasons Not To Deploy Unified CommunicationsDespite difficulties proving ROI, a third of respondents consider unified communications critical to knowledge-worker productivity. But it's a relatively a young technology. A quarter of businesses surveyed say they've widely deployed or are in the process of deploying it, while 31% are still considering a strategy for unified communications.

But it's difficult to determine how many of these businesses deployed true unified communications systems since there's a widespread misunderstanding of what the term means. Businesses that have deployed voice over IP or unified messaging--an integrated in-box for multiple kinds of messages--confuse them with unified communications, of which they're both components.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a privately held charitable group, switched its communications to an IP backbone that uses Cisco's Unity system for unified messaging. "When traveling, I often find it convenient to have my e-mail read to me via my cell phone so I don't need to use my laptop," says Henry Dennig, director of technology at the foundation. "When in the office, my voice mails are available from my desk phone and my computer speak-ers. My faxes arrive in my e-mail box, and I never have missing pages." Unity integrates with Microsoft Exchange to deliver e-mail, voice mail, and fax in a single in-box on a PC or a cell phone. Previously, the Annie E. Casey Foundation used a PBX, fax machines, and a separate e-mail platform.


Features And Benefits That MatterCisco, Avaya, Nortel Networks, and Microsoft are dominant players in unified communications, all claiming to have a full suite of products.

Cisco's current offering--the Unified Communications System--com- bines IP telephony, con- ferencing, instant messaging, presence, collaboration, and multimedia in one user interface. Microsoft ventured into unified communications this year with the release of beta versions of its Office Communications Server 2007 and Office Communicator 2007 client, an on-premises communication system that integrates with Active Directory, presence, and instant messaging.

Avaya, which this month said it agreed to be acquired by investment firms Silver Lake and TPG Capital, gives businesses access to its APIs to create custom platforms. Businesses can use Avaya's Unified Communications software suite to integrate applications, such as IM, e-mail, and conferencing, with devices includ- ing desktop PCs, telephones, and cell phones.

But it's clear the products alone won't do the job. They need to be combined with the business processes they're optimizing for unified communications to have an impact that shows a real return.

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