Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Unified Communications: A Solution in Search of a Problem?

I'm driving on the New Jersey Turnpike, in a downpour, heading back to our Lansdale, Pa. offices from a meeting. I'm running the meeting through my mind, analyzing the conversation, and thinking about next steps. It was with a potential client who is interested in virtual worlds as a way to improve the productivity of their teams.

During the meeting, one of the guys at the table mentions unified communications (UC), and asks who really needs it? And that got me thinking. Unified communications is almost always presented by vendors and understood by businesses as a technical telephony solution.

But there's a real disconnect (no pun intended) between focusing on telephony technology as a means unto itself, as opposed to helping businesses improve collaboration within and between teams--which is the real requirement I see businesses wanting to achieve.

When I got back to my desk, I spent a few minutes hitting the Web sites of some of the major vendors of UC platforms. Here are some (not all) of the big benefits they're touting, followed by why I don't think any of these are truly compelling (which could also explain why UC hasn't achieved critical mass).

  • Business mobility
  • Remote collaboration
  • Saving money with VoIP
  • Getting voice mail in e-mail
  • Letting users manage calls using their PC, desk phone, or smartphone

If I'm a decision maker, do I need to make a platform decision to achieve any of these technical solutions? Let's look at each of these benefits.

Business mobility. People are already getting business mobility with a laptop, a smartphone, and WiFi. Heck, the iPhone alone has done more to make business mobility cheap, effective, and ubiquitous than decades of effort and billions of vendor investment around mobile and wireless computers.

Remote collaboration. I can collaborate remotely using any one of dozens of remote desktop sharing tools, many of them free. I can collaborate remotely using shared Internet storage. I can collaborate remotely using a telephone and e-mail. I can collaborate remotely using a Web cam or chat room or instant messaging software. Maybe I'll be able to do it with Google Wave, too, and probably for free (assuming I don't mind having my privacy compromised). And so it goes.

Save money with VoIP. OK, now we're getting close to something that makes good business sense: saving money. But do I need to invest in a larger UC platform to leverage VoIP? More companies than not have already made this decision, and it's "no." There's a growing crop of managed services providers around the world who are ripping out PBXes and replacing them with cost-efficient VoIP phones, voice e-mail, and browser-based phones. Benefit attained, no big honking UC investment required. I won't mention the 16 million people who use Skype, or millions of businesses tapping myriad other free or low-cost VoIP tools. Are these platforms secure? Manageable? Scalable? Your guess is as good as mine (although in the case of Skype, the dirty laundry airing might mean less guessing). The iPhone was a smash hit for business mobility even though it couldn't initially integrate with Microsoft Exchange or much anything else (which drove Microsoft crazy, since Windows Mobile has a great enterprise capabilities story, but nobody cared). Ditto VoIP. A mountain of users are happy with the basic benefit, and can't justify a larger platform investment.

Voice mail in e-mail. Two words: Google query. Try these two queries on for size, and tell me if a company needs to go through the pain and cost of evaluating, selecting, and committing to an enterprise-wide UC infrastructure to achieve voice mail in e-mail: http://sn.im/s2iwc and http://sn.im/s2iws. Two more words: Google Voice. It's here, it's now, and it's free. When it becomes widely available (it's by invitation only right now), everyone and their mother will have access to a basic integrated VoIP feature set, for free. This includes linking with multiple phone numbers, find and follow, integrated voice mail and e-mail, and more.

Letting users manage calls using their PC, desk phone, or smartphone. Once again, this "softphone" capability is easily addressed by a long list of low-cost tools (including the aforementioned Skype, Google Voice, another dubbed 3jam, etc.), managed service providers, local ISPs, small business services form players like Comcast and Verizon … the list is long.

I could go on, but you get the point. To say "unified communications" is to promote a tool without a strategy or a tool without a framework. What would happen if we starting talking about unified productivity as the real benefit of unified communications?

I'm spending a lot of time thinking about the benefits that arise from the use of advanced technology, such as virtual collaboration in ProtoSphere. Documents stored on a server or content management system, or what have you, don't mean a lot to people. But when you can contextualize them with VoIP, text chat, and an immersive environment that allows you to teleport to a place around a relevant discovery of information, now you're delivering real value to the business.

And now you're getting into productivity issues beyond the technology. People say, 'We need to collaborate, we need to be more innovative, we need to knock down organizational barriers.' But those discussions haven't been a part of the unified communications discussions. Unified communications discussions, from my perspective, are all about telephony. Call it a next-generation telephony. But it's still telephony, not productivity.

I think virtual environments offer the opportunity to make unified communications meaningful to the people who drive business decisions--the VP of sales, the VP of marketing, the VP of R&D--provided our industry avoids making the same mistake that I think is hampering UC adoption.

The business decision makers don't necessarily care about or even understand things like "federated presence." But they certainly know what it means to transfer knowledge faster; to have their organization think like a network instead of thinking literally, in a siloed way. They know what it means to reduce or eliminate travel costs. They know what it means when more people show up for an online meeting than had ever logged in before. They know what it means when a team completes projects in less time than had been possible in the past.

Considering how UC is not reaching its true potential, and assuming (as I do) that it is largely a failure to articulate real benefits, I think it's imperative that we, as an industry, focus on measuring and reporting the business value of virtual collaboration and immersive environments. That means hard numbers and metrics that any businessperson can relate to.

We need to avoid getting caught up in the "bubble speak" that tends to permeate our emerging industry, to avoid meeting the same fibrillation that I believe is dampening adoption of UC.

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