Unified forces

If there is one technology that has become indispensable in the CIO’s arsenal during these tough economic times, it is Unified Communications. The technology, which simplifies and integrates all forms of communications, and improves employee productivity multi-fold in the process, is steadily gaining ground the world over.

The sheer economics of consolidating networks, thus saving on operating and capital expenditure has made UC a strategic priority for IT decision makers who are mandated with the task of doing more with less. Another factor which wraps a compelling business case around it is the unprecedented connectivity that UC can provide to the ever-growing tribe of road warriors who carry out much of business outside traditional network boundaries.

“Globally, the economic slump has applied pressure on companies to invest in technologies that drive cost control. Unified communications technologies fall squarely in this category, with several Companies beginning to adopt wide-scale UC strategies,” says Rajeev Soni, GM – South Asia and Middle East – of the UC solutions vendor Aspect.

According to a recent CIO survey carried out by Orange Business Services, on average, organisations support at least seven different communication tools and applications used by employees. Too many communication tools not only challenge internal collaboration but it also slows down business processes and decision-making.

When asked about the challenges faced due to multiple communications, the majority (95%) of the respondents said they have improved the business productivity but are not satisfied by the resulting slow speed of communication. Around 45% of CIOs agree that colleague response time decreases significantly due to multiple communication channels and 35% said this uncoordinated colleague contact can ultimately lead to decreased profitability and unhappy customers.

The lack of coordinated communication has driven many companies (41%) to consider adopting unified communication solutions and around 15% are already trying out or evaluating these systems. Around six per cent of the companies surveyed are using a unified communication solution and reported improvement in both sales and customer services.

Unified communications simplifies and integrates all forms of communications. The survey respondents said all these activities–integrating mobile devices into the enterprise, implementing real-time identification through presence, unified messaging, instant messaging, audio conferencing and desktop videoconferencing–can contribute to organisations' bottom line.

While industry surveys after surveys have CIOs agree unanimously that UC can lead to significant cost savings and improved productivity, the technology hasn’t made much headway in the Middle East, despite this being the buzzword for quite some time now. What are the barriers to the adoption in the region? “Although there is an increasing interest from enterprises across the region in understanding the value proposition of UC, adoption is taking place in phases, with enterprises picking applications based on their business and user needs. Return on Investment (ROI) is one of the biggest obstacles for deploying UC, followed by interoperability,” says Roger El-Tawil, Managing Director- Gulf and Pakistan, Avaya.

Ahmed Hamzawy, VP-MENA, Orange Business Services, offers another perspective on the issues: “The major challenge in the adoption of UC, which includes telephony, unified messaging and collaborative workspace, is that many markets in the Middle East are closed to offering voice and video services, outside of national telecoms providers. For example, only the regulatory authorities in Saudi Arabia and the UAE have committed to granting licenses to offer real-time services, such as voice, video, VoIP, within their domestic markets. The major opportunity relates to the amount of business and commerce emerging in the Middle East, which is creating pent-up demand for these services.”

Another issue that is rapidly coming to the forefront is VoIP regulation and cost of bandwidth. “Unified Communications, mobility, cloud services, video and other communications applications demand more bandwidth than traditional communications systems. VoIP is core to these services. We are seeing only the tip of the Iceberg; once regulation ease on VoIP and bandwidth becomes more affordable, we should expect a sharp growth of UC adoptions especially around video,” says Wael Abdulal, Collaboration Manager, Cisco UAE .

A big but unfulfilled promise of Unified Communications is return on investment, which is throwing a monkey wrench into the UC plans of many regional organisations. “The well established potential for cost avoidances and lower operational budgets with UC don't necessarily pan out in practice, says Henry Dewing, an analyst with Forrester Research. “They're not deriving the benefits they expected,” he says.

Unified Communications brings incremental value and better ROI to organizations. It’s not surprising that companies in the region see ROI as one of the key obstacles to implementing UC, says El-Tawil. He says Avaya has identified this concern and developed an architecture by which organizations can achieve rapid returns on their business communications investments, while simplifying the development of applications that improve operational performance. “Avaya Aura enables businesses to leave existing multi-vendor equipment and applications in place while delivering significant cost savings by reducing infrastructure costs and quickly delivering UC applications such as voice, video, messaging and presence to employees regardless of their location or what device they use.”

Many put off crafting Unified Communications strategy because it can be a maze where you can get lost as there are many ways to approach the opportunity, lots of competing technologies, and questions about everything from how to identify key business processes to how to measure success. What factor should you consider before biting the bullet? Most experts advocate a phased approach.

“Unified Communications has the potential to transform the way people work and communicate by embedding the act of communicating into what people do instead. It is important, therefore, to consider factors such as the need for UC, the scope of the UC deployment within the organization, the goals of the organization, the existing IT infrastructure, and budgets,” says El-Tawil.

Hamzawy says enterprises deploying UC should look at specific target end-user groups who would benefit from an immediate business process improvement due to finding the right person the first time. “Then definitely use a phased approach with employee user groups (specific departments) along one dimension, and identify which communications tools and applications to integrate along another dimension. This might include IM & presence, telephony, conferencing, unified messaging, mobile or shared workspace.”

Abdulal recommends a phased approach and he says requirements need to be influenced by the relevant departments rather than just IT. “People are resistant to change even when they there is benefit. The ease of making UC accessible to users definitely help a successful deployment.”

UC for SMBs

The fact that even some of the largest companies haven’t figured out the UC puzzle makes it almost a gargantuan task for organizations with only a couple of hundreds of employees to piece together a vision, a roadmap and an architecture for UC. A solution is to go the hosted route. “SMB customers have the choice. The way we do business is changing and even SMB customers need to cope with the changes so they need to look for new means of communications to stay competitive. SMBs have the choice to either invest in the technology or go completed hosted. This is not new in UAE or the Middle East. Hosted UC is already adopted by many SMB customers and this proves to be in many cases a more cost effective way of investment,” says Abdulal.

Soni from Aspect adds that from a hosted UC perspective, the focus is really growing with increased availability of hosted UC to complement either hosted e-mail solutions or hosted IP-PBX services. In terms of hosted services, businesses may already have IP telephony and they want to take it one step further by adding integrated presence, IM and email all controlled through a single user interface. This single interface is all about providing users the ability to communicate – phone, IM, e-mail – in the most effective manner possible, he says.

Although the adoption of UC might still be slow and low in the Middle East, there is no doubt that the technology is tried and tested with proven benefits. It is really about stitching together various systems employees rely on. What you need to keep in mind before stepping into the new brave world of UC is that it is not a single solution or technology. The market is awash with various choices and platforms and you need to be cognizant of the various capabilities/limitations of the platforms. Don’t pick one before you know where you want to go.

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