Getting it Right: Making Unified Communications Work for Everyone

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A detailed vision of your UC strategy is the key

Unified communications suffers from an image problem, that’s obvious. The phrase itself has been around for some time, and over the years it’s come to mean a bunch of different things to different people. Lump it in with similar sounding concepts such as unified messaging, and it’s no wonder there’s confusion surrounding the phrase.

Add to that the different modes of communication that exist now, and what UC has to encompass, compared to just a few years ago. At one time it would simply have meant how the office and the mobile phone worked together. Then it became also about working offsite, and how email and voicemail worked together. Now there’s also instant messaging, social networking and presence.

There’s also the connection UC has to the concept of the call center, with its origins in the business world as a way to provide customer service. The call center involves a similar set of technologies that now include email, online chat, faxes and instant messaging, all supposedly integrated with enterprise applications such as customer relationship management.

In many ways, UC has become a catchall. Anything that relates to communications can be brought under its umbrella. And to many people that’s the drawback.

“It’s a nice thing for some to keep expanding the boundaries of UC, but that’s a big part of the definition problem,” said Jay Brandstadter, a consultant who works with government and commercial organizations in VoIP and UC, and previously worked in government, including 10 years with the Defense Information Systems Agency. “The UC tag has worked its way into ubiquitous meaningless, it’s just too broad and too vague.”

The fuzziness of the term is real, according to Iron Bow Technologies’s David Hawkins, who said he deals with the confusion on a regular basis in his dealings with government agencies. One of the earliest adoptions of the phrase was around VoIP. It’s gone far beyond that now, he said, “but when you talk to government you still hear VoIP being used in the same context as UC.”

In many ways, the modern concept of UC is being divorced from any relation with specific technologies, and instead relates more to processes and what it can do for organizations’ strategic outlooks.

CDW’s explanation of UC, for example, which it uses in the summary of its 2010 UC Tracking Poll, is “the convergence of enterprise voice, video and data services and software applications to achieve greater collaboration among individuals or groups and improve business processes.”

A version promulgated by UC Strategies and others simply refers to UC as communications integrated to optimize business processes.

Unsurprisingly, the DOD has the most complete definition in government in describing its Unified Capabilities requirements, which it detailed beginning in 2007. In that, Unified Capabilities is defined as “the seamless integration of voice, video and data applications services delivered ubiquitously across a secure, highly available IP infrastructure to provide increased mission effectiveness to the warfighter and business communities.”

The important point here is that, with UC, there’s a lot of technology involved but if it doesn’t have a mission or business impact “then it’s kind of pointless,” said Avaya’s Lawrence Byrd.

“People shouldn’t be buying UC for the sake of having UC,” he said. “They should be looking at UC as a way of bringing together a wide range of communication technologies for the very specific needs they have.”

That’s not a throwaway sentiment, since it has a real influence on the way government organizations need to look at unified communications. As something with a technology focus, the IT department might seem to be the logical home for UC-based projects. Under this more expansive definition, however, other parts of the organization have to be involved in defining requirements and deciding how UC will be applied. And the effort needed is much greater.

“You are talking about a whole different level of influence in getting UC adopted than for regular IT programs,” said Hawkins. “That’s why communicating requirements and dependencies for UC is critical in the early stages, otherwise (agencies) will just toss it to their IT department and tell them to run with it.”

In many ways, under this concept of UC the approach is more like that used in enterprise architecture, which is driven more by the business side of the organization. Business processes and relationships are isolated and defined in detail, and IT is used to enhance those processes and relationships.

A similar analysis, involving much the same groups, is used to identify how advanced communications fits into agency business processes. Once that’s been worked out, it’s then the IT department’s responsibility to implement the UC needed. What you are looking for is a framework to pull of this together, and the purpose for applying UC.

“Whatever happens, don’t use UC as a catchall for almost anything communications you can think of, as many tend to do,” said Brandstadter. “That omnipresent, all meaning, all knowing tag is meaningless.”

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer for 1105 Government Information Group’s Content Solutions unit. This Snapshot report was commissioned by the Content Solutions unit, an independent editorial arm of 1105 Government Information Group. Specific topics are chosen in response to interest from the vendor community; however, sponsors are not guaranteed content contribution or review of content before publication. For more information about 1105 Government Information Group Content Solutions, please email us at GIGCustomMedia@1105govinfo.com