Got ROI? Payback drives boom in unified communications

The driver? Return on investment.

While many businesses tightened their IT budgets during the recent recession, a growing number of organizations are deploying unified communications solutions -- integrated voice, data, messaging, conferencing and collaboration services over converged networks -- as confidence creeps back and budgets expand. The driver? Return on investment.

Once viewed as a luxury that only large organizations with hefty IT budgets could afford, UC solutions are now within reach of organizations of all sizes, including many small and midsize businesses (SMBs).

Customers tell us that UC solutions quickly increase their organizations' productivity and reduce operating costs.  UC not only provides more reliable and cross-functional communication, but also increases resilience against network disruptions. In addition, UC enhances the sense of belonging and affinity amongst remote or mobile workers.

However, getting to a UC platform takes careful thought and planning.

Definitions of "unified communications" are as plentiful as the companies that provide the component technologies. As such, there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all.  However, there are several broad ways to approach UC on a single platform.

Many businesses are pursuing either rich media or telephony-centric approaches to implementation, while others are focusing on e-mail- or instant messaging-centric approaches.  Admittedly, the array of available technologies, combined with their unique implications, make selecting a UC solution a complex undertaking. There are many things to consider when deciding what is right for your company, including the nature of your organization's work and its physical structure.

Despite the fact that there are few industry-standard UC approaches, the range of solutions and strategies available enables tailored solutions that best fit each organization's needs.

Many of the obstacles faced in UC implementations stem from at least one of the following:

1. Rushed discovery phase -- it's easier to address challenges prior to implementation, so this phase should carefully assess all potential applications and systems that link to the communications platform or may be affected by the change in traffic

2. Assumption that equipment/applications can be transferred "as is" from existing systems -- it is important to clarify this before investing.

3. Lack of stakeholder involvement in the process -- since UC is not an IT-only decision, you'll only capture the maximum benefit if you secure the users' input during the discovery, planning, and implementation process.

4. Failure to establish a goal and stick to it -- this is where UC solutions can become needlessly complicated, leading to unanticipated costs.

5. Failure to understand the contract and implementation process -- this can cost you in the long run.

6. Waiting to "clean things up" after the migration rather than before -- a guaranteed way to dissatisfy your users is to not test your platform and applications beforehand.

Exercise your UC options during change

Many businesses rein in the cost associated with a UC implementation by planning it in conjunction with other organizational changes involving facilities or the communications network. Customers have indicated that along with planning and executing UC solutions, they are also often doing at least one of the following:

1. Establishing a new call center or expanding an old one.

2. Integrating two or more existing organizations' networks (e.g., a business merger/acquisition or a reorganization).

3. Expanding or deploying a telecommuting program for a significant percentage of the organization's workforce.

4. Replacing obsolete or inadequate existing networks.

5. Implementing a business continuity/disaster-recovery plan and supporting capabilities.

6. Integrating branches of distributed operations (e.g., retail store locations, bank branches and field offices).

It is crucial for IT managers to look for these kinds of changes in an organization, and to talk with management about how to couple improvements in the communications systems to make them more effective and cost-efficient.

Identify the weakest link in the chain, and don't shortcut the training

If your network is not strong enough to handle an increase in traffic from UC, you will not get the results you are expecting. Review your current business and network environments, assess current and future needs, and incorporate them into a scope of work for design and implementation. For most companies, unifying communications is not a one-size-fits-all, packaged solution. It is a phased process, leading to an end goal that meets business/organizational communication goals. What is best for your company is a network and solution set that stays up and running when the weakest link is at or near maximum capacity.

Finally, remember that training your associates on the maintenance and use of the UC components is essential. Begin preparing them for implementation during installation and configuration. Again, your goal is to launch a reliable operating system without disrupting business as usual.

Implementation is easier than you think

It is not easy to sell management on the idea of a revamped, companywide communications system while recovering in the toughest economy since the 1930s. Economists tell us that businesses are sitting on cash instead of spending it, as they await proof that recovery will continue. However, once management understands the benefits of UC, they may realize it is just the kind of enhancement they are looking for.

Keep in mind that you are not alone, as many others in your position are encouraging their companies to consider an investment in UC, according to CDW's 2010 Unified Communications Tracking Poll. The good news is that most apprehensions dissipate as implementation swings into gear.

The most common concerns among organizations planning for UC implementation are how it will affect network security, equipment and capital cost requirements, and where it will drive operating costs. However, we have found that many of those apprehensions ease once implementation begins. Organizations that have completed or begun their implementations report substantially lower levels of concern with such issues.

While unified communications is a complicated field with many potential challenges, it can undoubtedly help transform an organization, and result in attractive operating efficiencies.  The facts speak for themselves -- UC is on the rise as an innovative way to change the way your company does business.

Read more about lans and routers in Network World's LANs & Routers section.

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