Workers demand the flexibility of unified communications in the cloud

Unified communications adoption is driven in part by users who demand more flexibility in when, where and how they work. They are using cloud-based consumer tools to transform how they work. IT organizations need to adapt.

While enterprises have been methodically planning multi-year transitions to unified communications, some users have not been as patient. They have turned to cloud-based consumer technologies to fit their work style.

Knowledge workers have driven this trend because they want to dictate the terms of where, when and how they work.

Venkatesh Rao, a business innovation blogger and information work project leader for a Fortune 500 company, said he worked with his management to figure out a flexible remote-work arrangement that allows him and his wife to live in the same city, as well as allowing him to blend work and personal life more efficiently.

"Basically, I am a data point in a widespread shift from a one-size-fits-all career planning model to a my-size-fits-me," he wrote in an IM conversation.

He makes that lifestyle possible with a host of unified communications tools, including both corporate tools and consumer cloud-based technologies.

Companies like Microsoft, Cisco and IBM have been pushing unified communications from a top-down perspective, according to Daniel O'Connell, a Gartner analyst. They sell their products to the IT organizations. But companies like Google have found success with a bottom-up strategy, relying on end users who bring into the workplace Google Docs and Gmail, both of which have integrated chat and collaborative functionality built in.

"That becomes part of the culture informally in certain sub-groups in a company, without the blessing of the IT department, sort of like how instant messenger came in," O'Connell said.

While enterprises will probably be pushing most major unified communications initiatives, he said, IT departments often have trouble keeping up with what users want, particularly those on the bleeding edge.

"This requires a new type of skill set, and most IT departments will probably not want to fund their own staff to learn all this," O'Connell said. Many users will take it upon themselves to bring in unified communications, one way or another.

End users who adopt unified communications on their own often turn to cloud-based or Software as a Service (SaaS) tools. Now, as companies start their own corporate unified communications initiatives, they are also taking a harder look at cloud-based communications, as opposed to more traditional application models such as on-site servers, client applications and PBX hardware.

For example, Google offers affordable enterprise versions of its cloud-based communications services, with management capabilities and none of the ads that are found in the products' consumer versions.

The well-armed "cloudworker," as Rao has dubbed the modern mobile professional, needs a laptop, anywhere connectivity, an anywhere phone and good conferencing.

These tools are easy enough to acquire and deploy on an individual basis, according to Rao, but corporations face more hurdles.

"From an enterprise point of view, it takes more time," he said. "First, there is the shift from land lines to VoIP, and then VoIP to softphones." And that covers only one, albeit critical, piece of the modern communications infrastructure.

Enterprise IT organizations need to have centralized control over unified communications, and they need to be able to guarantee service levels. Many of the cloud-based solutions favored by employees are weak in these areas.

"The cloud won't dominate," O'Connell said. "But it is a viable alternative."

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