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Is UC Failing Because It's Too Small?

In my most recent survey of enterprises I picked up on a point that interested me, and somewhat to my surprise I just saw an article that made the very same point. The article's suggestion was that UC was an increasing imperative but that it was "too expensive". My survey said that UC benefits couldn't balance its costs for many buyers.

All of this could be taken to mean that we need to sharpen our pencils and discount the heck out of UC. OK, that's one approach. Another might be that we need to consider the possibility that UC is, or must be, the tip of some sort of iceberg of change. UC might be failing because we're thinking small.

Unified communications is a technical term for an attempt to remake worker communication and collaboration around a new and broader set of tools. This, at a time when the notion of keeping in touch is so rooted in basic telephony that we say "I'll call you" as a synonym for a promise to stay connected. The notion of UC is that there has to be some central collection point for the services and applications that represent cooperative work behavior. All this is very logical but it's also very different, and that difference creates two problems.

Problem number one is that people don't like changes, and that's likely most true with older workers who happen to be the ones in charge. Changes in work practices build resistance, and also increase the need for support. Support costs for technology are already, in some areas, higher than the capital cost for equipment and software.

Problem number two is that things that are very different also tend to obsolete a lot of current stuff, which creates both a transition cost and a transition risk. Suppose all these great benefits don't pan out? How do you test and validate UC assumptions in a small community when by definition a small community is a small piece of the total worker interactions? Changing communications is an all-or-nothing process; it's hard to limit the scope of the change to control impact.

All this cost and risk can work if there's a massive benefit to justify it, but that's also been problematic with UC. Unified communications sounds like it ought to be more efficient than dispersed communications, and yet companies have grown and profited in the dispersed era. What exactly is the gain here, then? Not only is it hard to quantify the benefit objective; it would be hard to do a pilot test to prove you could achieve that objective, whatever it was. You start to see the problem.

This is where thinking small hurts, I think. UC is a re-socialization of the enterprise. That process has to move beyond communication, to strike into mobility, into application structure, and even into computing architecture. A unified enterprise has to be unified in more than communication. If we forget that, what happens is that we pay the price of unity without unifying enough to generate a convincing benefit case.

There have been a lot of arguments over whether UC should be hosted in the cloud. Maybe the real question is whether UC should be a part of the larger cloud revolution. Maybe if we thought through the way that workers would operate in a cloud-supported world, we'd see that some form of UC was a part of that larger transition. Then, maybe, we'd realize that accepting--even embracing--the cloud means accepting a new paradigm for communicating in that new IT age.

Communication is arguably the heart of working, just as it's at the heart of society overall. Why then would UC walk away from an opportunity to be not just a cloud application, but the heart of the cloud? All of the critical notions of cloud computing--ubiquity of service, elasticity of resources, flexibility of component relationships--represent things that UC also aims at addressing. Could UC have addressed them first, and created the basis for the rest? I think it could have.

It didn't, of course, and maybe this kind of aggression and insight was just too much to expect from the vendors in what's obviously the most conservative space in all of networking. The thing is, it may not be too late. Buyers who conceptualize the "ideal UC" today conceptualize a cloud-hosted framework that nobody really supplies yet. Why not, even at this late stage, stop trying to relive the Glorious Telephony Past and embrace a new model of work and living built, as before, around communication?

The market is going to change profoundly in 2012, either by default or by assault. For five years now people have predicted the Year of UC and that year hasn't come. It's not coming, ever, if we stick with our limited notion of UC as the evolution of voice. It's a behavioral evolution, a new way of working, if it's anything at all; and if it is such an evolution, then more evolves than just talking.

Happy Holidays, everyone.