Can an Enterprise Get to a Single UC Platform?

Many enterprises are on a quest for the Holy Grail of enterprise UC, a single UC client and platform for all audio, Web, and video conferencing. The hard phone, they believe, has no place in this perfect future.

In a recent report, "The Mobile Phone Is the Only Phone the Digital Workplace Employee Needs!," Gartner recommends enterprises go on this quest. Gartner argues that many employees "only need a mobile device (with minutes) and a meeting solution." It predicts that, by 2021, 90% of voice calls in the digital workplace will be planned, up from less than 50% in 2017.

In the real world, the Holy Grail in UC will remain elusive because:

  1. Unplanned Events Will Increase -- The number one driver of important calls is something gone awry. In large enterprises there's always the crisis du jour, and the number of crises is going up in the digital, just-in-time world. Managers, customers, partners, and employees will be calling one another when things don't go as expected. Voice still rules in getting something non-standard done in a timely manner.
  2. Phone Quality Still Matters -- Coverage within large facilities and the 99.999% voice quality that people expect still aren't there with mobile or softphones. Years ago when I was at Gartner, one of my colleagues started using Skype and noticed the score for his client calls went down. It's hard to give good UC advice when you keep cutting out. Same holds true when a CEO talks to investors.
  3. Power Users Need Desk Phones -- Operators, executive administrators, and front-entrance personnel need a phone with many buttons and features. If some of your users still need a PBX (on-site or cloud) then don't count on significant cost savings from reducing the number of users on it. I've seen many telephony migrations to IP or cloud fail because the CEO's admin couldn't do the job with the new phone system.
  4. Theft -- Devices that can be used outside of an enterprise go missing at an alarmingly high rate. Ask any retailer or manufacturer why it still uses walkie-talkies and hard phones; it'll cite that they cost less per unit, are ruggedized, and don't get stolen.
  5. Privacy -- Many employees carry two mobile phones, one for business, one personal. While some solutions allow one mobile phone to separate the two functions, they've never taken off. If you've ever been fired or leave to work for the competition, the first thing the company does is take back its hardware and shut down all your accounts. No one trusts Big Brother, either.
  6. 911 -- Meeting the regulatory requirements with mobile and softphones is still challenging. If someone has a heart attack in a conference room, getting an emergency responder there in a timely manner can be challenging. Many enterprises set up their PBXes to notify their security desk personnel when a 911 call is placed and allow them to listen in so they can more effectively guide the responders upon arrival.
  7. Everyone's Different -- Different business units, departments, and teams have different ways of doing things. For some groups, low cost is more important than features or quality. For others, it's the opposite. Software developers have different communications needs than salespeople or engineers in R&D. One trend in team collaboration applications is to add features for specific roles. One reason Slack took off early on is that software developers could easily put snippets of code into the chat session.
  8. Embedding UC Into Applications -- With UC's future of being embedded in applications, we'll be talking through more devices on more applications, not fewer.

Dictating the device and conferencing software that all employees at a Global 1000 enterprise must use is impossible! Enterprises have tried and failed, which is one reason why BYOD took off and consumer technology now drives enterprise technology. Likewise, freemium offerings took off because employees would add paid services after the free versions they started off with hit critical mass and became business critical. IT hates this, because it doesn't want to manage multiple services. So, shadow IT has taken off.

Cisco, Avaya, Mitel, NEC, and others are still shipping lots of hard phones and producing new models for the future. The future hard phone will have sensors and be IoT-enabled. These phones are powered on 24/7 with backup power and can have fixed IP addresses.

If an enterprise wants to cut communications costs, it can find a lot easier way to do this than dictating what types of devices and software employees must use. Options include moving to SIP trunking, finding more competitive sourcing, getting rid of hardware/software maintenance on legacy systems, using freemium UC offerings, and more.

Every enterprise struggles with application bloat, having many instances of applications like CRM. New systems are easy to put in, old systems are hard to retire. Every business unit can justify why it needs XYZ vendor or its own instance of Salesforce. The CIO has little power, for the business unit chief will tell the CEO that in order to make its numbers, it needs XYZ vendor. The same holds true in communications.

We've been talking about getting rid of hard phones for more than 15 years, just like getting rid of enterprise voice mail. While it sounds good in theory, reality is another matter.

What I've seen many large enterprises do successfully is to have a hard phone, a softphone, and a mobile phone service, but only offer one or two of the three services to employees depending on their roles and requirements. Enterprise voicemail becomes an opt-in feature, not automatically given. Enterprises offer different tiers of conferencing -- free, standard, and premium -- and allow users to choose between cost, quality, and features.

Bottom line, before you begin your quest to reduce the number of UC platforms and endpoints, be pragmatic and strive to go from many to some, knowing one size doesn't fit all.