The unified communications (UC) market is crowded with vendors that offer presence, chat, voice, email and video rolled into a single package. UC vendors could eventually differentiate themselves by delivering communications-enabled business processes (CEBP). These integrated applications will embed communications directly into the business applications.
CEBPs could prove transformative, and all the major vendors are beginning to tout their application integration stories.
Some experts say that CEBPs -- which are usually implemented with a set of open programming APIs and possibly by using an open messaging standard like SIP or XMPP -- represent the next stage of evolution in UC.
"The way I've been looking at it is there are two types of unified communications," said Blair Pleasant, president and principal analyst, COMMfusion Unified Communications. The first type, and most common, is UC oriented toward the user (UC-U). The second type is UC for the business (UC-B).
During the last few years, many vendors and enterprises have relied on the soft benefits of improved productivity and collaboration for justifying UC investments. However, with communications-enabled business processes, UC starts to take a more business-oriented approach.
"UC-U is nice to have, but it's UC-B where the ROI really comes in," Pleasant said.
Business-oriented UC implementations can transform business processes, such as giving salespeople information on the road that they could not have otherwise accessed, or allowing a remote team to work together in such a substantially integrated fashion that they can cut the time-to-market significantly.
"Microsoft showed [in its OCS R2 case studies] some companies that were forward-thinking in that," Pleasant said. "But in reality most companies are starting with [UC for the users] and then further down the road they're looking into the [UC for the business]."
Enterprises don't jump into communications-enabled business processes immediately because they require a great deal more integration, planning and up-front investment.
Some vertical markets, such as retail and healthcare, have already begun tapping into CEBP's potential, but Pleasant said that other industries will delay investment while they familiarize themselves with pure unified communications and start to understand how they could transform their business processes with UC technology.
"You have to really understand your business processes. It's not just, 'We're going to give you IM and presence. Go for it,' " she said. "People aren't going to run out and start UC-ing their products."
Vendors on UC integration
All the major vendors have fairly similar CEBP stories, but they differ in how -- and with whom -- they are partnering. No matter which UC provider a company decides to go with, however, Pleasant suggested looking for robust API programming interfaces and a healthy, active VAR or integrator community.
Avaya has championed the concept of CEBP, using it extensively in conversations with its customers. Avaya's vision of CEBP breaks down into three distinct components:
- Communications process manager
- Event processor
- Software integration services
The communications process manager keeps track of data exchanged by business-related systems, flagging significant events, at which point the system will call in key individuals via various communications forms to address the flagged event. Software integration services help make the whole process as seamless as possible, building the communication and flagging architecture directly into a business application such as customer relationship management (CRM) software.
Cisco has been marketing its concept of "people network" for a while now, but Pleasant sees its business integration plays as quite strong as well.
"Cisco is definitely doing a lot in this area," she said. "They have an internal group dedicated to customer business transformation."
Initiatives like Cisco's Motion move past even what most other vendors are experimenting with, tying in everything from location-based data to connectivity options in order to automate and accelerate business processes throughout a company's operations.
Cisco also has a rich ecosystem of third parties hoping to cash in by making enterprise networks not just people-ready but business-process ready.
Microsoft has one of the more compelling business integration stories, Pleasant said, particularly when it comes to integrating with its own software suites, which already dominate the corporate world.
"Microsoft is being very aggressive with OCS," she said.
In a recap of the software giant's latest offerings earlier this month, Pleasant wrote that Microsoft was using presence to streamline communication and information sharing in new, more efficient ways. "Microsoft's vision for UC brings formerly separate modes or channels of communication and messaging together around a single identity, allowing for streamlined communications for the user and increased operational efficiency for IT."
For example, British Telecom used OCS programming hooks to help a global team collaborate across countries, time zones and continents, all embedded in their native tools.