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Four ways unified communications benefits productivity

Telephony expert Jon Arnold examines the benefits of UC as businesses look to improve individual productivity, team collaboration and overall organizational agility.

A spectrum of services falls under the umbrella of unified communications. Yet the technology is still new, and the UC business case lacks an adequate precedent, making it difficult to identify the best UC product for your enterprise.

Before making a business case, the need for UC must be established. Since UC doesn't replace anything, the most relevant frame of reference is the phone system -- and this is where a change in thinking is required. Even though most UC offerings come from telecom vendors, the decision-making criteria are not the same. Unified communications benefits extend well beyond telephony systems.

Businesses need phone systems, and when replacement time comes, buying a new phone system is usually the next step. When businesses migrate from a legacy phone system to voice over IP, they are doing so primarily for cost savings – so, the reasons and expected benefits are clear.

UC, however, does not address a specific need or solve a specific problem, so telecom-centric thinking will not move the decision process in the right direction. On a functional level, businesses don't need UC because it generally doesn't introduce any new applications. Employees are already using the core communication applications offered by UC vendors, such as telephony, instant messaging, presence, video conferencing and file sharing.

Unified communications benefits existing processes

To properly understand how UC can benefit an organization, the decision-making mindset must go beyond telecom to the broader spectrum of communications. Unified communications benefits, or blunders, become clear when assessing how well employees are using all these communication applications. Since these apps are typically used in a standalone fashion, there is a lot of inefficiency, duplicated effort and wasted time. Not only does this lower workplace productivity, it also reduces the return on investment (ROI) for the underlying technologies.

Organizations must view UC through the eyes of management, not just the IT staff.

In this regard, UC becomes a strategic decision because it can address those issues in new ways by delivering an integrated platform where all these applications can be used in a common environment. UC allows applications to be used concurrently, creating multichannel sessions so employees can collaborate more effectively. Furthermore, UC delivers a consistent user experience, meaning employees can work the same way regardless of the endpoint, operating system or network used to access the platform.

If businesses believe their current approach to managing communications is limiting both individual and operational performance, then they need UC. Rather than introducing new applications or saving money, UC provides richer value from existing communications processes.

Since UC is not a hardware solution, conventional ROI metrics are not appropriate for supporting a buying decision. Metrics do exist to monitor productivity -- and this is standard for contact centers -- but they are not widely used in the workplace, and this has always been a challenge for UC. Vendors do offer versions of these metrics, but they can be difficult to compare accurately, so businesses need to look beyond the numbers for decision-making criteria. To support that strategy, here are four use cases where UC provides clear benefits and improvements over current practices.

Use case #1: Employee productivity

This is where UC has the greatest impact, since all employees use communications applications. For internal communication, presence is the key catalyst, since it allows employees to see the status of co-workers in real time. Not only does this technology cut down on wasted time, but by knowing which modes and team members are available, employees can choose the best form of communication for the task at hand.

Unified communications benefits employees by empowering them to work effectively from any broadband-accessible location -- and today, that's a key driver for personal productivity. For most employees, the desk is just one of many locations where work gets done, and UC is built around where the end user is, rather than where the desk phone is.

Use case #2: Team-based productivity

Aside from personal productivity, employees also work in teams, and in these settings, the need for effective communication is even more important. With today's disparate workforces and decentralized operations, teams rarely meet in-person all at once. This is where communications technology plays a major role, and businesses spend a lot of money on various conferencing services. The ROI is often disappointing because of the high cost and poor user experiences.

Another way unified communications benefits businesses is the consistent end-user experience, where everyone is using the same applications and can easily collaborate in real time. Again, with presence, other users can be added quickly to conversations when needed. Higher-end UC services will have a strong video component -- including high-definition video conferencing -- and this can help reduce the need for travel to attend a meeting in person.

Another key benefit is the persistent nature of UC -- it's always available, so ad hoc meetings are never a problem. Conventional conferencing systems are reservation-based and not ideal for informal collaboration -- a mode that many employees prefer given their busy schedules.

Use case #3: Organizational agility

When both employees and teams are more productive, the organization will be as well. This use case reflects the strategic value of UC, as these results have an additive impact on the business as a whole. To recognize how unified communications benefits business, however, the organization must view UC through the eyes of management, not just the IT staff. For management, communications may only have a utilitarian value, but when shown to drive productivity and better business outcomes, the UC value proposition will resonate.

Businesses need agility to be competitive, and management will support initiatives that deliver on this strategy. While the use case is strong, there really aren't metrics to make a numbers-driven decision, so the rationale needs to be built around the assurance that UC can perform as advertised.

Use case #4: IT operations

The onus will fall on IT to deploy and effectively roll out UC across the organization. However, unified communications benefits IT staff by deploying applications in a common environment. The use of third-party applications reduces the IT department's ability to monitor network usage for bandwidth management and data security.

For example, BYOD policies and shadow IT present ongoing challenges for IT, as control over network resources keeps slipping into the hands of end users. IT would welcome anything to level the playing field; and with network communications management, UC is an improvement over what's in place now.

Given the fluid nature of UC, these use cases demonstrate its value better than focusing on the underlying technology. UC is a strategic decision, but one that cannot be justified on numbers alone. UC's value will ultimately be reflected in employee performance. And for businesses that see a direct connection between communication and workflow outcomes, these use cases provide a solid foundation for making a decision that will serve management and IT equally well.

Next Steps

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This was last published in October 2015

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How can your organization capitalize on the benefits of UC?
Since I frequently communicate with clients and collaborators in other locations, my primary interest in unified communication is to improve interaction during meetings and reduce the friction caused by geographical distance.  I appreciate that this article discussed the not so obvious benefits to individual productivity through something as simple as a status message.
Increased spending on UC infrastructure has allowed us to make significant cost reductions in travel and expenses related to conducting business in our other office locations, both domestic and international.