Joined-up communication

Recession is a catalyst to organisational change that has just one objective –‘smart business.’ With government departments striving to deliver better value for money from suppliers, reduce operational costs, increase revenue and improve service delivery, what role can unified communications play to enable better public services?  

The Communications Management Association (CMA), part of the BCS group, defines unified communications, or ‘UC’ as ‘communications at any time, from any place, using any device, with anyone else’. But of course, different organisations will have differing unified communications needs: a global multi-subsidiary bank will always take a more complex view of UC than, say a local hospital because their day-to-day communications are with workers, customers and suppliers deployed globally, and who are either working from a central office or remotely.
Yet, the public sector also has specific challenges for unified communications. For example:

  • Service delivery in the field
  • Increased accessibility of services outside council offices
  • Enabling service professionals to spend more time with clients
  • Allowing officials faster access to information for themselves and for citizens
  • Enabling more effective partnerships with other agencies

The technology
Unified communications is not a single product but rather a solution which consists of various elements, including (but not limited to) the following: call control and multimodal communications, presence, instant messaging, unfied messaging, speech access and personal assistant, conferencing, collaboration tools, mobility, business process integration and a software solution to enable business process integration.
IP telephony, local and wide area networks are not UC, but are an underlying requirement in a similar way that foundations, electrical wiring and water pipes are to buildings.
Communications-enabled business processes (CEBP) and contact centres both need UC for effective delivery, but are focused more on application or process than technology, so only of direct interest to those who have a suitable business process to be enabled.

Does anyone use UC?
In short, yes! Every organisation is driven by the ‘bottom line’ – economics, and technology is simply an enabler to delivering the maximum business benefits possible. Organisations using new technologies often fear them. They also cannot afford to be guinea pigs for technology manufacturers or be first to stick their heads above the parapet during these tough economic times. The public sector also carries a unique burden in having to use tax payers’ money appropriately.
Unfortunately, due to a lack of fully-deployed case studies, unified communications has suffered from an over-cautious user attitude, but this is changing. According to a 2007 UC CMA survey, some 34 per cent of respondents said they could see no business demand for UC whilst a statistically insignificant number claimed they already adopted unified communications. In 2008, a similar CMA survey revealed that almost 36 per cent of the 380 respondents were in the process of, or had already implemented one or more elements of a UC solution. Another 22 per cent planned to do so within 12 months.
Whilst the global recession may now overshadow some strategic plans, the message is clear: unified communications is a ‘need to have’ technology now; it is no longer just ‘a nice to have’.

Changing attitudes
CMA’s up-to-date research shows that attitudes towards UC and enterprise mobility are changing as organisations begin to understand how they can help benefit the business economically:  

  • Driving down cost, improving competitiveness and revenue growth are critical to businesses; improving service quality and financial constraints are major challenges.
  • Reducing cost and improving  efficiency is the single biggest challenge for ICT; improving voice and data communications is the main focus for technology.
  • Organisations now understand the extent to which UC can enable the business.
  • Enterprise mobility, as a key business strategy is a significant driver in adopting unified communications, and determines whether or not organisations have a positive view of fixed mobile convergence.
  • Spending is likely to increase in the next 12 months on enterprise communications applications such as VoIP and UC).

An increasing mobile work force and use of smart phones are major influencers on UC take-up, as well as flexible working. Developing a holistic, flexible and adaptable approach to the business will help maximise the benefits from the communications strategy. This includes adoption of convergence and its application to the organisation’s network infrastructure.

The benefits
According to CMA, organisations deploying UC have seen ‘real time collaboration’ and ‘increased efficiency’ as the key benefits whereas those which had not, focused more on a perceived benefit of ‘enhanced customer experience’. This difference in view was also evident when companies were asked to identify the challenges they had experienced or anticipated; those which had deployed a unified communications solution focused on the ‘lack of necessary skills & training’, ‘legacy infrastructure’ and ‘organisational structure’; whereas those who had not deployed saw ‘cost’ as the major challenge when implementing a unified communications solution.

Here are some suggested recommendations for deploying UC:

  • The business drives UC need, not workers: Everyone would like a  phone with access to their e-mails and the Internet and have access to audio conferencing  with colleagues, clients and suppliers, but not everyone needs these capabilities. Give workers what they need to carry out their duties – no more! That way excessive costs and complexity  – especially in the area of  after-installation user support – are avoided.
  • Identify key drivers and stakeholders: The organisation drives overall telecommunications, while operating units drive application integration. 

In most organisations, dedicated technical resources work best, and  leads should be given responsibility to own a portion of the project

  • Network capability: Modernise your network if your LAN or WAN doesn’t support ‘Quality of Service’, cannot handle the high bandwidth needed to support UC, or hasn’t got Power over Ethernet ports. Don’t spend your money on unified communications first!
  • Audit and plan: Find out what you have done already and work out what you want to do. It may well be possible that you have a number of UC elements and all that is needed is to link them together – a relatively easy project that won’t cost a fortune.
  • Get expert advice: Using an independent consultant with a proven track record in implementing all UC elements – the underlying WAN and LAN needed to make UC work; the IP telephony system that will allow you to get the best out of your communications system; and the UC applications mentioned above that will deliver the productivity gains and reduced costs that should be expected – is invaluable.
  • Be opportunistic: If you have the chance, use a ‘compelling event’ such as a departmental merger or move, or the implementation of a new IT system, to make the changes to your communications system, such as installing a Quality of Service enabled, Power over Ethernet capable local area network. 
  • Training: The best UC system ever installed won’t be worth a penny if the users don’t make the best use of it. Make sure your independent consultant or internal project leaders ensures that the suppliers provide the appropriate level of trainer to each  and every user – and them a bit more training to make sure.

Maren Bennette is the leader of the Unified Communications Forum at CMA. He is an independent consultant and freelance writer who has worked in the communications industry for over 30 years.

About CMA
CMA, Communications Management Association, part of the BCS group, supports telecoms and ICT individual professionals and organisations within private and public sectors. Through research & analysis, specialist forums, publications and events CMA provides assistance, information, training and representation. CMA is the definitive voice of the ICT user to regulatory authorities working with Ofcom in the UK and are represented internationally through membership of INTUG.