Most businesses are trying to create unified communications (UC) systems to replace the disparate mixture of voice, email, video, instant messaging (IM), short message service (SMS) and even social-networking systems that their workers now use. Yet progress toward this unified communications and collaboration (UC/UCC) goal appears to be on the verge of colliding with bring your own device (BYOD) mobile device management.
Most companies have no hope of standardizing on a single mobile-device platform. Workers are accustomed to using their own personal devices and find switching back and forth from a company-provided appliance to their own to be intrusive and time-consuming. Beyond the practicalities, BYOD creates issues with IT user support for personal devices, compliance and security.
The question at this point is whether an exploding set of mobile device options, each with its own unique communications services and interfaces, can be reconciled with a corporate UC systems strategy that will only be effective if everyone is engaged at all levels. So how can enterprises make that happen?
Creating a mobile device matrix to reconcile UC systems and BYOD policy
The first step for any company with a UC strategy should be to determine what mobile appliances its current UC vendors can support, what UC features are supported and how they are supported. Not only are the communications tools available on tablets and smartphones different, the features available on their software platforms are probably different too. In practical terms, most large enterprises will need to deal with a range of user Apple, Android, and Research in Motion (RIM) BlackBerry products. Employees may use other devices as well.
Next, IT organizations should categorize the mobile devices they currently support by building a matrix by device that notes how each is supported in terms of voice, video, email, IM/SMS, and any special collaborative tools, like online whiteboards.
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Most companies find that some of the UC features on their existing UC products are not fully available with their users' mobile devices. For example, tablets are not easily used for voice calls without special software or accessories. With the proper accessories or applications, it may be possible to get most devices to work with all of the key features of a flexible UC system, but there will certainly be voice and video tools for devices that most or any popular UC products will not support.
Companies need to be able to ask BYOD users to add components to their devices so they conform to company communications standards, just as they expect them to meet security and compliance requirements. In turn, employees have to be prepared to make some choices if the right components aren't available.
Building BYOD compatibility and UC feature matrix from scratch
Where the collision between BYOD policy and current UC systems can't be resolved, or if the company has no UC strategy, the same matrix of devices and UC features can be built for each of the UC platforms under consideration; this would help the company select the right product. Generally, it's best to avoid setting specific mobile device guidelines; the easiest approach is to mandate compatibility with standard interfaces and protocols.
The weight IT professionals should give BYOD compatibility in a UC selection matrix will depend on how many employees will be bringing devices, and whether the company has any ability to limit the growth in the type of devices that can be used.
If BYOD will be limited to relatively few workers, it may be possible for IT to control growth. If a large population of workers will be bringing their own devices, some steps will be necessary to ensure that the evolution of the mobile device market doesn't create more problems every year.
In an organization driven by BYOD needs, fitting UC into mobile device capabilities is the requirement. In that case, enterprises need to consider hosted UC systems that are accessed via a browser rather than those that rely on software installed on devices. Browser-based systems work well with collaboration whiteboards, email and IM tools, but for browser tools to work for voice and video, a plug-in or tool may be required. Again, this may pose a problem for some devices. Because smartphones typically use standard mobile voice services, they can almost always be integrated into voice UC systems that can support any PSTN device. But tablets typically require a compatible VoIP client, even for browser-based UC systems.
Getting real about mobile users' UC participation
A final issue to be considered before embarking on a major project to integrate UC and BYOD policies is the extent to which mobile users will really be expected to participate in UC activities. While companies generally agree that providing UC support for any mobile device is desirable, they also agree that the driver to extend UC to BYOD is more about future use than current need. UC vendors are evolving their own BYOD support features. So if there's no current requirement, it may be smarter to wait until a business case for BYOD-UC integration can be made than to pick a less-than-optimal path now -- the future capabilities may be far better.