Unified communications strategy suffers when IT 'civil war' wages

Divisions within IT lead to a splintered unified communications strategy, resulting in poor execution, lackluster adoption and unnecessary expenses, according to one expert.

The highly specialized and stovepiped culture of enterprise IT can derail a unified communications (UC) strategy by eschewing UC's very principles: communication and collaboration. Divisions within IT often lead to a splintered UC roadmap, resulting in poor execution, lackluster adoption and unnecessary expenses, according to one expert.

UC is not a discrete technology, like storage or application development; rather, it describes a diverse set of communications channels that range from telephony to intranets to telepresence. Each requires its own skill set. As a result, finding a large enterprise with a defined UC team or even an IT pro with the title UC manager or UC specialist is "a rarity, if not nonexistent," according to Art Schoeller, principal analyst at Forrester Research.

"Does a classic telephony person really understand IP networking or email that well? And do they want to?" said Schoeller, who addressed the topic in a recent research note, "The Unified Communications Civil War." "There's only so much they can learn in order to do their job well, but it means we've got to rise above that to work across [the divisions in IT] and understand the roadmap."

One group within IT, with its own biases favoring one technology over others, usually spearheads a unified communications strategy, he said. A unified communications strategy led by the telecom department will favor IP telephony features and voice-centric vendors, such as Avaya, Cisco Systems and Alcatel-Lucent, whereas data networking teams will likely defer to Cisco and focus purchasing decisions on tools and equipment to manage real-time traffic on the network, Schoeller said.

Does a classic telephony person really understand IP networking or email that well? And do they want to?

Art Schoeller
Principal Analyst, Forrester Research

Other factions in the UC tug-of-war include facilities managers, whose strategy would likely have more of a video conferencing slant and favor vendors such as Cisco and Polycom; collaboration pros who build a unified communications strategy around intranets and portals with IBM and Microsoft software; and application developers who base purchasing decisions around which scripting language and vendors best enable communications-enabled business processes (CEBP), Schoeller said.

"Everyone's feeling a different part of the elephant. One person thinks it's the trunk, one person thinks it's a big floppy ear and one person thinks it's a big stuffy leg," he said. "Not being able to get people to take the blinders off and look at the entire element is a pain point."

A small business with a shoestring IT shop may have less specialized technologists and a broader vision about its unified communications strategy, but it usually lacks the resources to develop and execute a sophisticated UC roadmap, Schoeller said. Midsized businesses with moderately-sized IT shops may be at the least risk for erupting into a UC civil war, Schoeller said.

Tim Hays, director of IT at Lextron Inc., an animal health product supplier in Greeley, Colo., has deployed nearly every technology under the UC umbrella, but they are far from unified. His team of 19 IT pros is too small to develop too much in-fighting or miscommunication.  He said he faces a bigger problem: Users' needs are too diverse for him to commit to a long-term roadmap. A "menu" strategy has been more efficient, supporting users with what they need as they need it, he said.

"Personally, I'm not sure we've figured out what's best," Hays said. "I kind of figured everyone would jump on group chat because that way you had one place to look for what's the buzz ... but it turns out some of the pushback I got was, 'This is one more thing I've got to monitor.'" 

Vendor landscape complicating unified communications strategy

With millions of dollars worth of UC-related investments on the table, large enterprises cannot afford to go with the flow, Schoeller said. The most successful UC deployments typically show up at enterprises that have designed a long-term unified communications roadmap, whereas the biggest flops occur when IT pros blindly follow their preferred vendor's UC roadmap, he said.

"I see folks saying, 'We just signed a big enterprise agreement with Microsoft and we got the Lync client,' so they're just going to use that," Schoeller said. "But did you make a conscious decision or just decide to use it because it was part of your overall [licensing] agreement?"

IT's splintered culture may bear much of the blame for failed UC deployments dominated by one subgroup's preferred niche technology, but vendors aren't making the process of mapping out a unified communications strategy easy either, he said.

Enterprises traditionally favored a multi-vendor UC strategy with a mix of niche and incumbent UC vendors. But UC vendors have gradually broadened their portfolios in an effort to become one-stop-shops, which has pressured enterprises to commit themselves to a single vendor's UC roadmap, Schoeller said.

Avaya has come a long way from its heritage as just a PBX vendor. This week, it announced a series of updates to its one-X mobile UC products—including mobile presence and fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) on iPhones and iPads—at the International Avaya User Group conference in Las Vegas.

Microsoft—historically known for messaging, email and calendaring—is getting into IP telephony with its push for the soft public branch exchange (PBX) on its new Lync 2010 server as an alternative to dedicated IP PBXs. Earlier this month, Microsoft also announced its plans to buy Skype for $8.5 billion, signaling its intentions to gain a stronger foothold in VoIP and desktop video conferencing.

But it's not just the larger, incumbent UC vendors that are expanding their reach. Siemens Enterprise Communications announced at the Interop trade show this month the release of a proprietary session border controller (SBC) for its OpenScape platform. The SBC market has largely been dominated by niche vendors—namely Acme Packet—with other UC vendors reselling those products in original equipment manufacturer (OEM) agreements.

Enterprises that fail to chart their own unified communications roadmap often amass products with overlapping features, which wastes money and complicates management, Schoeller said. The lack of vision can also trickle down into the user experience, causing adoption to suffer, he said.

"Because unified communications is not a mandated technology, [the user experience] is really a critical element here. Call center agents have got to use that [CRM] application, whether it's pretty or not," he said. "But do you really have to use IM? When you have a team that you're working with, is there any mandate that you use Web conferencing to knock down travel expenses?"

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer.

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