Is Today’s UC Space being Disruptive, Disrupted, or Both?

I’m asking this question for a good reason, and if you’ve been following UC over the past few months, you’ll know why. Having worked closely with the vendor community, I have seen UC evolve on a company-specific basis as well as overall for the broader ecosystem. This space has gone through some distinct phases, and the focus that’s shaping up right now is a very different type of value proposition.

Initially, UC was developed by legacy phone vendors, primarily as a successor to the IP PBX. They had already made the transition from legacy PBX systems to IP-based systems, but that really only served to keep them current with VoIP. At that time, communications was still telephony-centric, and businesses had little reason to question the need for a capitalized phone system. Perhaps more importantly, they had little reason to question the need for a standalone phone system; after all, telephony was still king, and the IP PBX was an important pillar for IT’s sphere of influence.

This brief time capsule is important because it goes a long way to explain the roots of UC, but also why it took the shape it did. As I’ll soon explain, if UC was being invented today, it would look a lot different. While UC vendors and IT buyers were good with the above status quo, other things were going on around it, that aside from being bigger, were moving a lot faster. Without going into detail, just think about the cloud, mobile broadband and social media. I will explore each of these in future posts, but the main point is that the initial value proposition of UC was not keeping pace with the changing needs of businesses.

Up to the cloud and out to your mobile device

UC’s more recent evolution mirrors the path all forms of technology are taking, namely a shift from hardware to software. Even though UC is still dominated by vendors that are either rooted in telecom or are major players in the telecom space, none consider themselves hardware companies any longer. They are very deliberate in explaining that they are either now a software company or cloud-based company. Furthermore, they are no longer in the business of providing UC hardware or even software. Rather, they are now in the business of providing collaboration solutions, or enabling communication experiences, or driving closer engagement between employees and customers.

Everyone is now focused on the outcomes, as that’s where they believe the value really lies now. Those outcomes, of course, are not IT’s concern, and this reflects how UC has now become a business investment, not a technology investment. Just as the phone system has become less relevant in the overall communications ecosystem, so too has IT in terms who owns UC and whose interest it is ultimately serving.

Initially, UC was completely within the realm of IT, as this was really just an extension of the IP PBX relationship – same vendors, same channel partners, same operational team to manage it, etc. Outside of IT nobody really understood the UC concept, but when the benefits were clearly articulated, the business case was pretty strong. Along the way, however, IT had its share of challenges deploying UC, as well as driving end user adoption. No matter how user-friendly vendors make UC out to be, it is still complex to deploy, especially since many businesses have multi-vendor environments with older systems that don’t integrate that easily.

As IT was struggling along this path, everything else just kept moving faster. Business couldn’t move to the cloud fast enough, and vendors have desperately been trying to follow suit. With 4G/LTE coming along, the same transition is happening in the mobile world. Younger people have had mobile broadband their entire adult life, and this is simply just the way they do everything now. I’ll continue exploring this in future posts, but basically, the work modes that UC was built for are being super-ceded now by something new and potentially very different.

Where to go from here?

At the heart of this is the speed of change, and that’s not going away any time soon. The major UC players are large companies, and they can only change so quickly. So far, only one of these companies has attempted a complete makeover with the sole purpose of serving this new world, but it’s too early to tell if they will be successful. The rest are trying to do the right things – changing as quickly as they can, and focusing on where value appears to be residing. At least that’s how it looks to me – for now.

The UC vendors we’re all familiar with are facing new waves of competition, and the space has never been more disruptive – and disrupted. There’s a lot at stake here, with many factors to consider regarding why and how these changes are happening. If you’re wondering about this as much as I am, then you’ll want to stick with me over the next few posts. As we do that, what do you think – is UC being disruptive or disrupted?


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Managing UC when all your Employees are Tech-Savvy

I’m continuing the thread from my last post which set the stage for this analysis. As noted there, my focus is on scenarios where most all your employees are quite tech-savvy, perhaps more so than IT. That poses challenges for both groups, and I’ve already addressed the former. Now it’s time to review what this challenge looks like to IT.

To reiterate, I’m building this analysis around the generational shift that most businesses are experiencing. This shift is giving rise to challenges in cases where the workforce is heavy on Millennials, and IT is largely rooted in the pre-Internet era. When it comes to deploying UC, my research points to two implications that IT needs to address. I’ll cover one now and the second in my next post.

IT implication #1 – how to make UC relevant for end users?

This challenge applies to all employees, but when they’re at the high end of the geek scale, it’s particularly important to read your audience correctly. When IT has to look up to them for the leading edge trends, this becomes very hard to do, as you don’t want to risk looking out-of-touch. Today’s trends change more often and more quickly than IT is accustomed to, and the real challenge comes from the fact that trends related to UC will likely be driven from the consumer world rather than your end.

When end users are leading the way in terms of adopting new communications applications, it becomes difficult for either IT or UC vendors to establish a leadership role. Since UC vendors are in business to make money, it’s important to understand that you’re up against pretty stiff competition. I’m not talking about the ever-broadening world of UC vendors; rather, I’m talking about the even broader universe of free applications end users can pick and choose from in the cloud.

At the heart of this lies the simple reality that only vendors think in terms of UC. Tech savvy employees are very adept at seeking out applications on their own that help them be more productive, but they don’t call that UC. Aside from the fact that they’re not coming to IT for help, they think about collaboration in personal terms with a consumer-based mindset. In other words, they take a self-serve approach of searching online for things like free conferencing tools, file sharing platforms, call recording applications, etc. Ultimately, they’re doing UC, but on their terms without IT’s involvement.

When things go this far, you have a real uphill battle to make UC relevant for them. On this plane, IT will always be a follower, and you won’t be seen in the right light. For these employees, IT’s value is little more than providing reliable network connectivity so they can work they way they want to work. For IT people steeped the legacy world, this is very much the tail wagging the dog and you have to change the rules of engagement. Here are two things you can do.

1.  Listen and learn

You might need to flip the teacher/student script a bit here, but it’s the best way to discover what will make UC relevant to them. Your assumptions about tech laggards won’t apply here, and if they’re not adopting UC the way you want them to, it’s time to start fresh and find out directly from them. Think of this as being a fact-finding mission, and you could do this one-on-one with hand-picked tech mavens, or in a group setting where you can gauge their collective feedback.

A good starting point is to have them tell you in their own words what collaboration means to them, as well as how they go about both finding and using the right tools. Until you know their frame of reference, it won’t be possible to position UC as a better way to go. Once you establish this common ground, it will be much easier to then engage them with UC so they can see first-hand why this should be their core platform for collaboration.

2.  Make sure you have the right vendor

Not all UC vendors are created equal, and for the above scenario, you need to make sure the solution speaks to how this audience actually works. Vendors are trying very hard to refresh their UC offerings to reflect the changing nature of work, and if your environment is full of leading edge end users, this choice is critical. After all, we’ve already established that your pre-Internet worldview will always keep you one step behind the pack, so you need all the help you can get.

This problem will largely go away as Millennials move up the IT ranks, but if that’s not your reality, the UC vendors and their channel partners will be your best allies. They are living these challenges every day, and some are better than others at addressing the needs of these types of end users. By now you should know this means not being telephony-centric, but it also means being highly end-user centric, and this speaks to the self-serve expectations noted earlier.

You’ll know you have the right vendor when your hand-picked tech mavens try it out and conclude this is a better way to collaborate. This means these two ideas go hand-in-hand. Aside from directly involving some end users in learning how they view collaboration, you also do the same with them helping evaluate the best solution. Now you’ve got end users invested in UC from the start, and that will go a long way to driving broader adoption with their peers.

This may not be the way you’re used to working, but if that’s not working, you need a better plan. My message here is that you don’t have to be on the same level technology-wise with these particular employees to get a great result – it’s just working smart in a different way, and that’s exactly what they’ll do once they start embracing UC.


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Frequency Division Vectoring (FDV): What it is, and Why it will Matter (Part 2 of 3)

We’ve talked before about while Fiber is the end game for service providers around the world, depending on your location or geography, it may not be the most practical solution. As a result, we’ve seen advancements in DSL technologies over the last 10 to 15 years that have pushed the voice and data service launch point much closer to the customer and significantly boosted broadband speeds.  The latest of these technologies,, will take this even further by delivering near Gigabit speeds over existing phone wiring.  Practically speaking, however, what does this really mean?  If I know FTTH access is where I need to get to, what will these technologies do to help me get there?

Getting more out of the Cabinet

Network operators have invested heavily in Fiber-to-the-Cabinet (FTTCab) construction in recent years, deploying as many as 10 – 20x cabinets for every central exchange they managed.  This not only required the capital to construct these outside plant (OSP) DSL platforms, but there was also an investment in intellectual capital as well. Processes and procedures needed to be created and defined to turn up and maintain broadband services launched from these cabinets. In the end, there has been a lot of time, money and effort put into the infrastructure that no service provider will willingly or easily walk away from.

The new standard builds off the FTTCab investment that service providers have already made, but takes a different deployment approach. Due to the very short copper access lines needed to support very high service rates, the services launch point again moves closer to the customer but this time from the cabinet to the copper wiring distribution point (dp). The deployment strategy is known as Fiber-to-the-distribution point (FTTdp), and while it requires further investment before 500Mbps or more service rates can reach an area, the cost is still significantly less than a full blown FTTH access upgrade.

Something in between?

Frequency Division Vectoring (FDV) is a super-vectoring technology that allows incumbent telcos to once again go back to the well and squeeze more premium services supporting bandwidth out of their FTTCab deployments. Just like they have done for decades they will do what they have gotten pretty good at doing – add a new card to an existing street cabinet, send out a new low cost modem and keep customers by staving off cable and wireless service providers for another few years while they shore up their FTTH plans and budgets.

FDV can be used to double the vectored VDSL2 rate to deliver 200 – 300Mbps service rates and extend the service reach up to 40% further. It takes advantage of the shorter copper loops that are too short for VDSL2 vectoring technology to use to any meaningful effect, and are too long for technology to leverage. This is generally 200 – 400 meter copper loops. These shorter copper loops extended from more deeply deployed street cabinets are common in throughout Central Europe and makes a cabinet sitting in “no man’s land” a means to deliver premium broadband services.

Ultimately, FDV cleverly combines VDSL2 and to produce an improved performance. A performance that is near that of full spectrum, but is not handicapped by having to vacate the lower frequencies reserved for the previously deployed VDSL2 services. This allows technology to be deployed in existing FTTCab installations rather than to-be-constructed-FTTdp-installations by removing the 80% – 90% performance tax levied by existing VDSL2 services.

Now that we’ve looked at some of the challenges in the market and the technologies that have emerged to address those challenges, in our next installment we’ll explore what this means for service providers and the business opportunities ahead.

Kurt Raaflaub, a 20-year telecom veteran, has global responsibility for directing ADTRAN’s carrier networks solutions marketing activities.


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What Happens with UC When All Your Employees are Tech-Savvy?

Well, maybe not all, but the vast majority. So much so that it’s clear that IT isn’t the smartest one in the room, and everyone knows it.  This may not be your exact situation, but I think there are many cases out there where IT is a bit heavy on the old-school side and employees are sporting a lot of beards, Converse All Stars and floppy toques. Millennials haven’t taken over quite yet, but the above dynamic isn’t that far-fetched. The more research I do, the more I come up against this, and these differences will only become more pronounced as the workplace trends younger.

If you don’t know the term “generation lap,” that’s what I’m talking about. In other words, this is the first generation in history that has grown up knowing more about something that’s important to their parents than they do. That’s a pretty scary reality, but in most families these days, it’s clear who the IT director is, and chances are they don’t drive and haven’t even had a first date yet.

When it comes to UC, most decision-makers will be pre-Millennials, otherwise known as “digital immigrants”. If that’s you, your decision-making power may be the only real form of influence remaining with digital natives, and it must be used wisely.

Over the past few posts in this series, I’ve been writing about various scenarios based on how tech-savvy employees are. Of course, the definition of “tech savvy” is as broad as UC itself, and I’m not going to split hairs here. The main idea, really, is this generational divide, and what it means for both parties. Every business is struggling with these demographic shifts, not just with employees but even more so with their customers.

When it comes to driving business success, I can’t think of a bigger challenge, and since UC is all about improving productivity, both buyers and sellers need all the help they can get. In that context, I’m going to share what the market is telling me, first for what this looks like to your employees. I’ll switch over to the IT point of view in my next post, and together I hope that will guide your response to this challenge.

Two Implications for Employees

1.  What’s UC and why should I care?

This is what you should expect to hear, and you’d better have a good answer. Remember, UC is a vendor-coined term, and end users don’t think this way. Chances are they’re already doing forms of UC, but they just don’t know it. Most of the applications found in any UC offering are already widely used – VoIP, IM, conferencing, video, presence, etc. The main difference is that currently, employees are using them on a standalone basis, and are integrating them to the extent they know how.

UC, of course, offers an integrated environment where they can use these applications in a more powerful way across all devices and screens. The challenge is that this is an abstract concept to articulate, but once they experience it, they will see the benefits quickly. As such, the challenge lies in getting employees to see how UC works right away, and that it won’t really change their habits. This is easier said than done, but unless you can do that, the inertia level to use UC will be high.

2.  This just means I have to work harder.

While the benefits of UC may be crystal clear to IT, tech-savvy employees may be somewhat skeptical. After all, UC doesn’t solve any specific problems, and to a large extent, the standalone tools they’re using now do the job. This, of course, is the crux of the core value proposition, and that’s where the Millennials are so key to UC’s success.

For one strain of Millennials, they have devised their own workarounds to get the most out of these applications, and simply accept that this patchwork approach represents best practices. Others, however, will be frustrated by these limitations, especially compared to the seamless world of plug and play applications they use at home for personal communications. These are your dream end users, since there is a problem for them that UC addresses. If all your employees were like this, UC would be a raging success from the start.

Given UC’s slow ascent to mass adoption, this is far from the norm, and that’s why you need to be sensitive to any skepticism towards UC. In today’s always-on workplace, employees may view UC as a management-driven enabler to keep them on the clock at all times. Some Millennials thrive on this, but others won’t be so keen, especially if there is no corresponding incentive or reward.

While you’d like to think that everyone strives to be more productive in their work, you can only expect so much if they get nothing back in return for all this extra effort. Perception is reality, and this is just one example of how employees – or at least some of them – will view UC very differently from what IT or management has in mind.

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What’s your Plan for Tech-Savvy Employees with UC?

This continues the thread from my last post where I focused on the higher end of the spectrum in terms of how tech-savvy your employees are. All organizations will have a mix across that spectrum, but as workplace demographics trend younger, you’re going to have a lot of tech-savvy end users. These will be your early adopters and power users for UC, and it’s very much in your interest to have a plan for them.

The nature of your plan largely depends on where IT fits on that spectrum. By rights, you should be the alpha geeks and the smartest people in the technology room, and that’s probably what most employees think. Your reality, however, could be very different and that’s where the analysis needs to go next.

You can’t come up with a plan until you know where you truly stand, along with what you’re prepared to do to be in a position of strength. This comes back to the trust theme I’ve been stressing over the past few posts. If you have a solid relationship with tech-savvy employees, it’s much easier to develop a plan to drive broader adoption and deeper engagement with UC. All of this is predicated, of course, on the notion that you need end-user adoption for UC to be successful. That drives everything and that’s why you need a plan.

Is your plan offensive or defensive?

This will depend on who really has the upper hand. With UC, employees always have the upper hand since they are the ultimate end users, but I’ve seen situations where IT is still tops on the tech scale, but others where they are behind those tech-savvy Millennials.

So, if IT is looking to them for the bleeding edge, that’s ok as long as you don’t overplay your hand. These types of end users will be happy to share their expertise if they feel valued about it. Here’s where you need to ask rather than tell, and if they’re onboard, they can quickly become your test lab for mapping out which UC applications to focus on initially as well which ones should follow. This would be the defensive strategy, and while IT may have to come off their high horse a bit, just remember who needs who in this equation.

The offensive strategy is one where IT has a clear knowledge edge over your tech-savvy employees. Of course, that is difficult to determine, but even if you feel reasonably safe about this, IT has some valid agency for taking a leadership role to engage tech-savvy employees. In this context, you don’t need to tell them what to do, but can stay atop your high horse and respectfully move them in the direction you want UC to go. This presumes you know the direction – and have a plan – which allows you to maintain control over your vision. Otherwise, if you leave it in their hands, it will become their vision, and that may not align with your needs.

Either way, you need to do an honest assessment of your tech knowledge relative to this group of employees, and then you’ll be on firm ground for getting the most from them with UC. You need to do this because your engagement with them will be ongoing. Initially, you need them to help you map out the best path for UC, and then to help you in bringing along those who are less tech-savvy.

Either way, also, you need to view them as partners, not just end users. Tech-savvy employees will be the first to make inroads with UC, and if you’re under pressure from management to deliver quick results, you’ll have good reason to keep them on this path. Strategically, they don’t have to know that, and your plan should be driven by what will get the best results with UC rather than what’s in the best interest of keeping your job.


IT didn’t sign up for all this, and as you can see, different types of employees will engage with UC in different ways. Tech-savvy employees need to be your first group to work with, and success will depend on taking the right approach. That will in turn depend on how well you understand your strengths relative to theirs. I hope you can see this has nothing to do with being tech-savvy, and everything to do with being smart about the approach you take to engage with them. Once you have that figured out, coming up with a good game plan shouldn’t be all that difficult.



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