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Unified communications promises much, but does it deliver?

Unified communications promises much, but does it deliver?

Unified communications can save time, cut costs and improve collaboration, but the tricky part is choosing the right combination of tools.

It's hard to find anyone who likes audio conferences. Sure, worker bees can put themselves on mute to chat with fellow cube dwellers. Or play Facebook Scrabble and check e-mail until it's their turn to talk. Yes, for true lows in productivity, the fuzzy, disembodied, dial-in audio conference is hard to beat.

And what about all those mail and messaging systems anyway? Office voice mail, cell phone voice mail, office e-mail, personal e-mail, texting, instant messaging, social media communiques. Make it stop, you cry!

Unified communications won't do that, but depending on which communications and messaging systems you integrate, UC could make it better. At its most basic, UC makes real-time communication systems, such as instant messaging, share information with non-real-time systems, such as e-mail or voice mail, and runs them over the same network. Ideally, there is one simple interface or dashboard for users to access these systems.

With UC, CIOs aim to speed up communication and collaboration internally and perhaps raise customer satisfaction externally. Using voice over IP to cut the traditional phone bill (the foundation for UC) doesn't hurt, nor does reducing travel costs as employees meet in video or audio chats rather than fly to faraway hotel conference rooms.

About 31 percent of 466 organizations surveyed recently by Forrester have deployed some form of unified communications. Half of those who haven't say they are investigating or piloting UC, up from 30 percent in 2007.

Yet UC isn't on fire this year, as the recession continues to batter IT spending. In Forrester's survey, 42 percent of respondents who said they weren't investing in UC cited lack of money or the absence of clear business value to justify the investment.

To read more on this topic, see: How to Get the Most From Unified Communications and Video Conference Software Now Works with Other Apps.

"Certainly it does make sense to connect voice mail, e-mail and mobile systems," says Jerry Hodge, senior director of information services at appliance distributor Hamilton Beach. "Unfortunately, the current economic situation has limited my aggressiveness in moving forward." The same is true at movie-rental chain Blockbuster and food and beverage maker Shaklee, their CIOs say.

Still, if you have money and want to move forward with UC, early adopters have advice about planning projects and measuring returns.

The Original Social Networking

UC has evolved from a back-room effort to simplify networking by, for example, running data and voice traffic on the same infrastructure, to applications that let employees share information no matter the device in front of them. Well, almost. We're not quite at the point yet where a BlackBerry, say, can get you into any corporate system and connect you to any colleague. But it's coming, predicts Steven John, CIO of manufacturing company H.B. Fuller.

The rise of consumer social networking platforms such as Facebook, Flikr and Twitter reinforce daily the desire among corporate employees to strip the friction from communicating at work, too, John says. He says he feels that heat and is studying potential UC systems, but he hasn't yet decided on any.

Presence, meanwhile, is moving from a cool, gadgety technology to real corporate tool. That's when computer devices detect each other and indicate the fastest or preferred way to reach the person on the other end. It's like instant messaging for every kind of connection you might make to your corporate network or, if configured for it, the public Internet. One simpler UC move is to integrate voice mail and e-mail so that users can listen to e-mail or read voice mail. Another is to allow instant messaging or document sharing during video conferences.

According to Autodesk VP of Strategic Initiatives Billy Hinners, the ultimate in video istelepresence technology. Autodesk went whole hog into Cisco's TelePresence system, which involves super high-quality video conferencing that can connect up to 48 locations at once, along with on-screen, interactive data sharing. Cisco calls it an "immersive" experience--think Star Trek's Holodeck.

Of course, the price for such a system is steep. Autodesk spent $350,000 to outfit its first six-person TelePresence room. It runs 15 rooms now, ranging from two-person to 12-person sites, and spends about $10,000 per month on networking costs.

"Cost savings was not a big driver for us," Hinners says. Rather, the company initially wanted better collaboration between software designers and engineers in the United States and its 1,000-plus software engineers in Shanghai to pump out products faster at an improved quality. Subsequent installations have also been aimed at improving sales communications and efficiency as well as reducing travel and carbon emissions. Employees embraced the technology right away, he says. Time booked in the TelePresence rooms for regular video conferencing has become "a precious commodity."

In fact, if there is any project for which success depends on users rather than IT guiding the planning and rollout, it's unified communications. UC projects are some of the most technical ones that CIOs have to contend with today, integrating data and voice in ways that some IT groups have never done before. But communicating is, by nature, a personal act. Foisting upon people unwanted changes to how they talk and type to each other makes people uncomfortable, says Don Lewis, president of consultancy Strategic Intersect. "You think all you're doing is taking away someone's phone and giving them another one but you're not," says Lewis. "Changing the button they push to forward a call to someone is hugely disruptive."

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