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ROI and Unified Communications

In the future, an even richer array of communications functionality will be embedded in business processes and applications. Increasingly, communications will be initiated by software in a workflow application rather than by a person picking up a handset to make a phone call. Some of this will be fueled by system integrators and applications developers building on the APIs and standards in this emerging, horizontally layered communications environment. But it also will be the result of a shift in how people work--communications bottlenecks will no longer impede information flow.

A hot topic of discussion, of course, is finding the ROI in UC. In the future, I believe that this will be much less of an issue as UC functionality becomes woven into the infrastructure and becomes integrated into how we do our jobs. But for now, it's an important consideration, both for those seeking to implement UC and those seeking to sell it.

My colleague Blair Pleasant, along with Nancy Jamison, recently completed a study of how end users are using UC and the types of benefits it's producing. Blair and Nancy interviewed enterprise end users to document the extent to which UC is helping them be more productive and effective at their jobs.

Blair and Nancy found that user productivity dominates much of the discussion and the examples of UC's benefits. They heard the "I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have it!" kinds of responses from the people they interviewed.

But that enthusiasm shouldn't be confused with ROI benefits. The typical way that user productivity gets translated into ROI is by estimating the time saved through the use of the tool, multiplying that by a salary cost, and then extrapolating that to the entire population. This approach is usually skewered by the bean-counters.

Blair and Nancy also found evidence that UC already is being used to change the way people work. There are examples in technical support, marketing, HR and many others. Blair refers to some of these outcomes as "hidden benefits"--crisis management/avoidance, improved rapport and camaraderie among geographically dispersed workgroups, and an increased talent pool of potential workers. My view is that these "work-changing" and "hidden" areas are where the most meaningful ROI opportunities are to be found.

The trick is figuring out how to quantify the ROI lurking there. One approach is to identify "what changes" and then to measure that. My experience is that a requirement for an ROI calculation is often not so much trying to estimate dollars, but rather understanding that the change really results in *something positive* happening. I find that senior management is really good at understanding the business impact of a change--for example, improving the close rate by 10%, responding to customer requests a day faster or accelerating time-to-market by two months.

In our work with enterprises, we therefore look at how UC functionality can eliminate communications bottlenecks and what changes as a result. If ROI estimates are needed, we build a case study that shows (a.) how things work today, (b.) how will things work with UC, and (c.) what changes. Documenting the changes and showing the logical way that these will occur usually helps line-of-business managers understand the magnitude of the impact on the business.

Of course it's important to both measure and document the results, so you need to begin with a baseline--measuring the key variables that will be affected by the UC implementation. Tracking changes in these variables builds a powerful case study, and helps prove the value of the UC application.

Rich UC applications will become much more common in the future. The industry's challenge today is to get through these early, awkward, growing years until the benefits become obvious.