Best of Breed Isn't Always Best

Last week my colleague Jim Burton wrote about choosing between best-in-class (also called best-of-breed) and a "one throat to choke" business communication solution, suggesting that working with a consultant or managed service provider with expertise in your vertical on a best-in-class solution may be the optimal choice. I'm going to expand on this topic, and take a slightly different stance.

For years we've been hearing about the benefits of open, standards-based products that make an easy task of creating best-of-breed business communication systems. Interoperability has been the rallying cry, with businesses wanting to leverage existing investments as they add new products and technologies to their arsenals. Rather than investing in one platform from a single vendor, businesses have moved toward a hodge-podge of supposedly interoperable products and technologies they need to integrate and tie together to somehow provide a seamless user experience.

Recently, I've been hearing from some vendors and consultants about why tightly coupled or all-in-one systems, which are most often proprietary, may be better options than interoperable, best-of-breed solutions. This is especially the case when it comes to business communication solutions that include call control (PBX functionality), video, conferencing, messaging, meetings, and chat.

During these briefings and discussions, an interesting underlying theme had popped up. While open systems can be beneficial in allowing a business to integrate various capabilities from different vendors to create a total solution, a tightly-coupled cloud-based solution from a single vendor may provide better outcomes in some situations.

For example, single platform solutions allow for seamless movement through communications channels. If workers are using Microsoft Office 365 for office productivity, Slack for messaging, Avaya for telephony, and Cisco for videoconferencing, they may have a hard time figuring out how to schedule a meeting (and doing so would require multiple Outlook plugins). Similarly, if users in a chat session want to move from chat to a meeting, they should be able to just press a "Meet" button. Having a single platform solution from companies like Cisco, Microsoft, and StarLeaf allow teams and individuals to move seamlessly from one communications medium to another, without having to struggle with the technology.

Is Best of Breed Best?

In many organizations today, users have too many tools and are confused by which one to use for which job. This impacts user adoption of the technologies, as workers don't know which one to use for different scenarios. Workers want tools that are easy to use without having to learn new ways of doing something.

Additionally, in many cases IT departments are shrinking and don't have time to support disparate systems. They want to move to new UCC platforms while also leveraging their investments in legacy equipment, which is a big challenge. While interoperability solves part of this problem, it also creates new challenges.

Having a single platform, and in many cases, a single vendor, provides many benefits. For IT, there's one throat to choke when issues arise, as well as one-stop shopping. There's less tweaking needed to ensure everything works as advertised, with little need to add code or software to make the pieces work together. In addition, you don't have to worry about ensuring that everything is on the same release or version.

On the other hand, there are many benefits to interoperability and best-of-breed solutions. These products better enable integration with a business' existing equipment, leveraging previous investments and providing cost savings. Also, rather than getting a great calling experience but a so-so conferencing experience, best-of-breed solutions let businesses get -- well, best-of-breed functionality.

Today's Challenges and Possible Solutions

UCC systems are inherently complex, especially when video is thrown into the mix, and managing these systems can be a tremendous challenge. To reduce the challenges and complexity, businesses have several options:

  • Buy from a single vendor (there are limited choices, however)
  • As Jim suggested in that earlier No Jitter piece, use a managed service provider that can manage the system from the cloud. This could be the vendor, a systems integrator, or a service provider.
  • Work with a systems integrator that can leverage APIs and tightly integrate multiple solutions to provide a seamless user experience. In this case, however, the IT staff still has to manage multiple systems.

You must figure out what works best for your company -- there's no one right answer. If your focus is on a platform or "one throat" choice, then it may be advisable to pick a platform that does the most important thing best. For example, if meetings including video and room systems is most important, then choose the best product for that option that also includes the other required UC elements. If your workflows are email centric, then choose the platform with the best integration of UC with email, that also includes the other tools. You get the picture.

While a single vendor or platform solution may be the best option for some companies, it's not always feasible. The key is to find ways to minimize the complexity while providing the best user experience.