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UC Outlook: 2008
2007, to me, represented the year that all communications and collaboration products became "unified communications", not so much in functionality, but from a marketing perspective. We saw pretty much every vendor in the VOIP, video, messaging, conferencing, and collaboration space attempt to redefine their product, and perhaps more importantly their message, to underscore how their products and services were part of an enterprise unified communications solution. We saw a number of vendors in the VOIP space re-define their licensing programs to incorporate UC functions such as unified messaging, presence, and instant messaging into their base communications license programs. We also saw a slew of announcements highlighting interoperability between VOIP and video systems, and both Microsoft's Office Communications Server 2007 and IBM Lotus Sametime, both of which vendors made tremendous strides in positioning their respective platforms as the centerpiece of an enterprise unified communications architecture.
So if 2007 was the year in which UC went from "hype" to "reality", what can we expect in 2008? From speaking with dozens of companies about their unified communications projects, plans, and concerns, a number of key areas are emerging, including the need to reshape the enterprise organization, the need to create cost justifications for UC adoption, and the need to change the thought process from 'systems' to 'applications'.
The biggest roadblock we've seen to UC isn't technical, it's organizational. Enterprises have spent the last several years integrating voice and data organizations to support "convergence", now they are finding that they must go a different route as unified communications becomes more about applications than systems. They must bring together groups involved with messaging, security/compliance, governance, content management, and collaboration. Perhaps more importantly, they must figure out how to create a bridge between enterprise application developers and communication service owners to figure out how to apply the opportunities presented by UC to the business operations and processes that they support. This means developing a deep understanding of the business functions/processes/needs and looking at opportunities to apply UC tools to solve specific challenges.
Without such an understanding, IT leaders may find themselves in a situation where they are looking at deploying technology for technology's sake, without a clear business case or ROI model. Our research has consistently shown that enterprise IT decision makers will rarely approve new technology deployments with a clear understanding of the business benefit, including but not limited to cost reduction, improved sales, improved customer retention, or improved productivity that leads to tangible business benefit (rather than 15 minutes a day more to surf the web).
To meet these requirements vendors are quickly developing vertically focused strategies. Already we're seeing a number of UC solutions focused on markets such as health care, financial services, and hospitality as the "low hanging fruit" of the UC market, areas where UC features such as presence, call routing, and queuing of resources can solve specific challenges related to improving response times, or more efficiently using available resources.
Educating application developers on the wonders of UC is another challenge that vendors are quickly addressing. Companies such as Microsoft, IBM Lotus, Avaya are rapidly building out developer programs designed to provide tools to enable integration of business processes with application platforms. These tools enable developers to build linkages between the operational and enterprise resource planning systems and UC services. But again this requires creating a triad of linkages between business managers, communications system managers, and application developers to share information and create a common strategy.
So as we look to 2008 I think we'll continue to see a focus around the tactical more than the strategic. I think that unified communications has won mind-share, people see and understand the benefit and potential that UC brings to the way people communicate and collaborate. Now, we're looking more at the tactical strategies - how do we organize to develop a UC strategy, how do we apply UC to solve specific business challenges, how do we create a cost justification, and how to do we build the linkages so that UC becomes ingrained in the enterprise application infrastructure moving forward. The organizations that answer these questions stand the potential to gain significant competitive advantage.