Unified Communications: An End to the Hype?

Fact #1: We are knee deep into a unified business communications (UBC) revolution that is revamping how we communicate, internally and externally, at work. Right now, under 25 percent of large companies say they have no interest in UBC; meaning 75 percent are keenly interested, said Steve Hardy, director of the UBC unit at Avaya.

Fact #2: Within five years pretty much all of us will be using UBC tools, said John Delpizzo, IBM director of Unified Communications Collaboration Software.

Add these two facts up and what are you left with? A big, expensive question: When should you hop on the UBC express? The vendors touting UBC (which emerged as a powerful theme at this year’s Interop) have polished their pitch: There’s a global, distributed workforce, they say. This means more people, in more places, have to work together and the result is the proliferation of mobile tech tools ranging from voice to VM, IM, videoconferencing, and more. Traditionally these tools have been siloed, disconnected, and difficult to piece into one inbox.

Enter the UBC tools that are supposed to tie all the disparate threads into a neat package. There is big news, too. A decade ago when what then was called unified communications emerged as a theme, the dirty reality was that under the hood it was a mess of incompatible parts. Not so now because the change that has brought UBC back into the frame is the emergence of SIP (session initiation protocol) as a standard involved in user initiated video, voice, and IM. SIP. The UBC proponents say, SIP will become as important as “http” and will play much the same role by forcing the many parts to play together, no matter which vendor provided them. SIP promises interoperability and that is a powerful draw.

Kickstarting this and adding muscular credibility was the May 19 announcement of the formation of the Unified Communications Interoperability Forum, an industry group backed by HP, Microsoft, Juniper, Polycom and others. “A lot of real effort now is happening to make UBC work,” said Mark Gorzynski, chief scientist for HP’s Halo telepresence products and an active member in the UCIF. “Now what this is about is slow growth in UC installations as opposed to the hype of the past.”

So where does that leave you, the corporate CIO? Gorzynski had a few words of advice: “For the CIO, don’t look at UBC as something that will magically help your bottom line. You need instead to realistically look at processes you need to improve and if UBC can help, try it.”

For instance, if engineers in Santa Clara are griping about their conversations with counterparts in Bangalore, might UBC (videoconferencing in particular) help improve communications? Lots of anecdotal studies say it will indeed. So, by Gorzynski’s logic, that’s a possible place to start. Remember, too, that the UBC revolution already has started in your company, with or without you approval, said Gunjan Bhow, VP of Unified Communication at Plantronics. “Employees are not waiting for IT. They are adopting these technologies on their own.”

Sarah Carter, a vice president, marketing at Facetime, a developer of UBC tools, said her company’s research indicates 53 percent of employees believe Web 2.0 UBC tools such as Skype and Google Talk simply are better than what they are offered by their employers and an upshot is that these tools are coming in, unapproved, through the corporate backdoor. Already some business users are deploying a species of unified communications by pulling together free Google tools such as GMail, Google Talk, and Google Voice.

But just maybe this consumerization of IT also points the path a shrewd CIO ought to take, said Joyce Tang, principal consultant at IT provider AgilisIT. Her clients, she said, aren’t deploying UBC; more IT spending just isn’t in the budget. What they are doing is “replacing bits and pieces,” she said — especially when an existing tool breaks, or when user pressures hit a fever pitch (for instance most companies have scrambled to find ways to integrate mobile phones into their legacy phone systems).

This ties in with more Facetime research data that said only 34 percent of IT organizations report the existence of UBC suites in their companies (wide deployment has been slowed by reduced IT spending due to tough economic times) and so a piece at a time approach to UBC seems to be the norm. Even here, there is more good news: UBC is more mature today, said Bhow, who explained that “today’s theme is working with what you have and encouraging small investments to integrate UBC into what you already have.”

As a busy freelance writer for more than 30 years, Rob McGarvey has written over 1500 articles for many of the nation’s leading publications―from Reader’s Digest to Playboy and from the NY Times to Harvard Business Review. McGarvey covers CEOs, business, high tech, human resources, real estate, and the energy sector. A particular specialty is advertorial sections for many top outlets including the New York Times, Crain’s New York, and Fortune Magazine.