Unified communications: growth, interrupted

Maintaining a comms rack

The unified communications (UC) market is worth 3.6 billion in EMEA, according to IDC, the industry analysts. But unified communications is no longer the priority it was.

The market is expected to grow to around 10 billion by 2015 but deploying unified communications technology ranks only fifth in an IDC survey of CIO priorities.

Unified communications has failed to overcome some initial hurdles.

This represents a turnaround from just a few years ago, when businesses were expected to invest heavily in unified communications, and related technologies such as video conferencing or telepresence. UC would improve collaboration, make for more efficient business processes and reduce costs for companies that deployed it.

But unified communications has failed to overcome some initial hurdles. Systems such as Microsoft's Lync and Cisco's IP telephony have done well replacing conventional phone lines, but too few companies are seeing the full benefits of UC.

There are a couple of possible explanations. The technology requires upfront investment, especially where companies need to replace on-premise communications equipment, such as PBX systems, and install higher-capacity internet connections. In the last few years, that investment has been hard to come by.

Then there is the complexity of UC communications itself. At a recent IDC summit on the technology, analyst John Neville identified no fewer than 13 different components of unified communications. With that level of complexity, even the most dedicated IT department would struggle to identify the UC capabilities they need, let alone the right mix of vendors and products.

Neville suggests that IT departments have also moved, over the last couple of years, from a return on investment (ROI) model to a total cost of ownership model. This, too, goes against deploying technologies such as UC which are both complex, and which rely at least in part on "soft" benefits to bring a payback to the business.

Companies can measure hard savings, such as cutting on phone line rental costs or system maintenance, but it is more difficult to put a cash figure on improvements in, say, customer service, let alone in a better work-life balance for employees.

The answer, IDC suggests, is to move away from the vendor speak and to break UC back down into components. The "communications" side of UC is more important than the "unified" side for most employees.

John Neville cites the example of a company that was able to use fixed-mobile convergence, one of the unified communications technologies, to forward landline calls to its security guards' mobile phones. That was all the UC that organisation needed, and it made it that much easier to prove the business case.

Modelling employees' job roles before deploying unified communications helps to remove complexity and cost from UC deployment, not least because much of the functionality is now in software. So, if someone's job changes, or the organisation's needs change, the IT team can switch on new features later.

It is still early days for UC so if businesses want to capture the benefits, it pays to start small, and build both knowledge and capabilities.

Stephen Pritchard is a contributing editor at IT Pro