Thinking out of the box with Unified Communications

Summer has come and gone, and my “top 10 list” theme has run its course. We’re all back to work now, and I’m going to move on to themes that are more practical, but also provocative in terms of how you should be thinking about Unified Communications.

Thinking out of the box isn’t easy for anybody, but you cannot afford to take a passive approach with UC. If you read my last two posts here, you’ll know that UC carries risk, and it can be significant without the right preparation. A big part of that preparation is about thinking outside the box, and I’m going to explore that over the next few posts.

Buying a phone system doesn’t require an active approach, but UC sure does. As you know, with an IP PBX, you’re either updating another IP PBX or replacing an end-of-life legacy PBX. This is basically swapping like-for-like, and aside from some network tweaks to support VoIP, it’s pretty transparent to your employees. This may seem moot if you believe – as I do – that we’re in a post-PBX world now, but this scenario still speaks for most businesses.

Who cares about the IP PBX?

I’m stressing this point because most of you will still be in this mindset when it comes to UC. There is no precedent for investing UC, and that’s where the risk comes from. There is no like-to-like replacement, and by default, the phone system is the closest proxy for driving your buying decisions. UC may be very different from an IP PBX, but in many cases, you’ll be assessing offerings from the same vendors. You may have had a decades-long history with your phone vendor, and that history will invariably come into play when they now try to sell you UC.

The worst thing you can do in that situation is to continue taking a passive approach, where you basically buy it, deploy it and move on to the next IT project. If you’ve been reading my posts, you’ll know that approach will be disastrous for UC. The fluid nature of UC means this is not a plug-and-play deployment, not just at the network level, but among end users as well.

Engaging end users is where you really need an active approach, and you should expect this will be harder to do than it looks. When rolling out a new phone system, end users really won’t be doing anything new or different. There is only one phone system, and everyone will use it on a regular basis. With UC, you face a much bigger challenge. While you know what UC is – and the vendors know what UC is – your employees do not.

So, right off the bat, this is different from IP telephony, and you have to go on the basis that you’re starting from scratch. The applications that comprise a UC offering may be familiar and in everyday use already, but UC itself is a vendor-driven concept. Employees don’t think about communications technology this way, and they may well be “doing” UC now but don’t realize it.

Shift your thinking

Hopefully, it’s clear by now why you have to move on from the IP PBX mindset – and your employees have to as well. This is where IT’s job gets harder, since it’s up to you to figure out ways to engage employees and get them schooled in the UC “way” of doing things. For UC to earn its stripes, employees have to move on from using communications applications in a standalone fashion – and they won’t do that unless they know how, as well as see why this is a better way to work.

You can certainly rely on the stock benefits and use cases that UC vendors provide – and even from the channels. These will lay the foundation for mainstream adoption, and that may be sufficient for however you define success. That’s a safe plan, but you don’t have to stop there. In fact, if you do, you’ll never really own UC; this is the passive approach where employees find their own way and IT doesn’t really put a stamp on it.

That’s the difference between a passive and active approach, and I’m only interested in the latter. My message is that you need to think outside the box to really make UC yours, as well as show employees the higher order benefits that can transform the business. Isn’t this where you’d rather be? If so, you’ll want to read my upcoming posts, where I’ll be examining what this kind of thinking looks like.

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Top 10 Risks you take with UC, Part 2

As summer’s end approaches, it’s time to close out my season-long series of “Top 10” themes for UC. My intent has been to provide short reads with concise lists of items that you can quickly glean to ensure you stay on the right track with UC. Some are cautionary reality checks and others have focused on the various forms of upside that come with a well-planned deployment.

My last post focused on the former in the form of risks you take with UC. The first five were covered there, and this post brings things to a close with the second set of five for ten in total. For all of these, the main message is that UC can be a great move, but all forms of change carry risk, and these are the key factors to be aware of.

6.  No perceived benefit for UC

This form of risk is subtle, but very real. Note that I haven’t specified who is doing the perceiving here. Chances are good that employees won’t perceive any benefit since they know little about UC in the first place, and they aren’t the economic buyers.

Things get more complicated with senior management, especially if they see UC as an abstract concept, and that’s not a big stretch. If the value proposition does not resonate for them, they could dismiss UC on the basis that the existing applications work just fine and they don’t see how UC is additive. The power of this perception should not be underestimated since the proof points are difficult to demonstrate.

7.  No actual benefit for UC

Prior to making the decision to deploy UC, perception is reality, and that’s why the above factor is so important. However, once the decision-makers get past that, all that really matters is performance. Of course, by getting to this point, the perceived benefits set the bar for expectations, and the burden of risk shifts from perception to reality.

Again, this is a subtle shift, but if UC does not perform as advertised, you have an even bigger problem to manage. This is why it’s essential for IT to get a defensible promise of performance from the vendor before sealing the deal. Vendors have their own pressures to make sales, but UC is still a work in progress, and you have to have a clear sense of your management’s tolerance for risk. If they expect a perfect deployment with measurable results off the bat, you need to get those expectations in line with the performance promise you believe the vendor can deliver.

8.  Channel not able to properly support UC

While much of the risk ultimately lies with the vendor, there is plenty of risk in play with their channel partners. Depending on the customer relationship, most vendors rely extensively on dealers, resellers, VARs and systems integrators for the UC deployment and its ongoing management. Businesses have their own relationships to manage with the channel, so they have two masters to serve. As such, you have to be careful about how much faith you put in the channel.

To whatever extent you do trust the channel, it’s important to realize that vendors face an ongoing challenge finding the right channel partners for UC. To date, those relationships have been built around selling phone systems, and UC requires different expertise. Not only that, but as the cloud emerges as the deployment model of choice, the economics of UC change, and this won’t be attractive to everyone. These factors point to the need to be sure you have the right channel partner in place and not to assume they’re all created equal.

9.  Employees feel imposed upon

Risk comes in many forms, and your employees are certainly part of the equation with UC. Let’s just assume that you’ve done all the right things to ensure both the vendor and channel partner are on target. As mentioned earlier, employees are not part of the buying process, but they are the ultimate end users.

This makes UC different from other forms of technology, especially those that are legacy-based. You cannot impose UC on them, since many of the core applications are already in use on a standalone basis. They need to see a reason to go with UC, and you can’t assume they’ll intuitively find the integrated environment a better way of doing things.

There is also a workload expectation that needs to be managed here. UC can be a great driver for productivity, but you’ll be adding risk if they don’t see this as a good thing. Everyone wants to be more productive, but you must take care to not present UC as a top-down mandate to make employees work harder without any additional reward.

10.  Management has unrealistic expectations

This is a variation of some earlier risks, but speaks to something different. Having unrealistic perceptions or expectations of UC and what the vendor can provide is one class of risk. However, they may well have grander expectations based on what peers are telling them, and these could also be misplaced notions.

One such idea is that UC is just a simple suite of applications that is easy and fast to implement. IT knows otherwise, and you don’t want that mindset in the picture. Furthermore, management may well only focus on the big picture benefits without considering the technical challenges that will be transparent to them.

Another bad idea is for management to think of UC like VoIP in terms of being a cost savings exercise. That outcome is possible with UC, but it’s not the main selling point. To mitigate this form of risk, you need to get management to see UC as a strategic investment that may have some short-term hiccups, but over time, the productivity benefits will far outweigh these long forgotten disruptions.


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Top 10 Risks you Take with UC

Over the course of this summer-long series of “top 10” lists, I’ve examined many facets of UC, with much of the focus being on the benefits. Setting the right expectations is a big part of this, and my intent is for these lists to provide a set of quick reference points to make sure your thinking is on the right path.

Having said that, I haven’t looked much yet at the potential downside for UC. I’m not trying to talk you out of UC, but you need a balanced perspective, and one that’s vendor-neutral. To provide that balance, the next two posts will review my “top 10” set of risks that are attached to UC. You might find the range of risks to be quite broad, but this is the picture that emerges throughout my ongoing industry research. To get started, I’ll address five risks below, and five more in the follow-on post.

1.  Lack of vendor interoperability

This risk is more common in larger enterprises, which tend to have a multivendor environment for many things, including telephony. Even though VoIP and all things IP are in spirit, standards-based, we are still lacking universality. Vendors have varying degrees of openness, but there is a lot of lip service involved, and standardization efforts are an ongoing work in progress.

Given the fact the UC has so many touch points across the network, it’s not surprising how common this is as a risk factor. With UC, every major vendor has an opportunity to be the hub of all communications, whereas previously they had to interwork to provide a complete solution.

By retaining some – or many – proprietary elements, these vendors make it difficult for competitors to break into their customer base, and this is typical of what UC deployments come up against. For this reason, you may be best to start off with a modest UC deployment that keeps interoperability conflicts to a minimum.

2.  Complex deployment

On a broader scale, interoperability is just one facet of this common risk factor. By its nature, UC is complex, and never before has a technology offering attempted to integrate so many elements. Not only is it a challenge to pull these together into a common interface, but UC must also deliver some high value outcomes. By comparison, VoIP is a simple application that yields easy to understand results.

As such, a lot is expected of UC, even if the results are difficult to quantify. Everyone wants improved productivity, and the reason why UC has taken a long time to catch on is because this is hard to do. Again, you can minimize the complexity of UC by starting with a basic platform, but the productivity gains won’t be substantial. This really is a classic risk/reward scenario, but to get the big payoff, you have to be willing to take on the complex nature of a higher-end deployment.

3.  Nobody knows what it is

Once you get past the complexity of deploying UC, you face a different type of risk when it comes to end user adoption. Historically, IT has held all the cards whereby employees had to take what was given, but the balance of power has definitely shifted with the advent of IP. UC in particular poses risk here, as employees are not the economic buyers, but they are the primary end users. They have no stake in UC, and will likely be the last ones to learn about it.

As such, if IT simply turns on a switch, expecting everyone to hit the ground running with UC, this risk will become evident right away. UC is a vendor-coined moniker, and while it’s native to them, end users don’t think like that. In fact, they may already be doing a form of UC with their existing applications, but don’t realize the industry has a name for it.

The risk comes from assuming employees know about UC, and from there, assuming they’ll be interested or even enthusiastic. That’s truly a best case scenario, but you should assume the opposite, meaning IT has an educational job to do before employees can help UC live up to its promise.

4.  Vendor offering not market-ready

Risk comes in many forms, and some of it certainly falls on the vendor.  UC can be a winner-take-all proposition, so there’s a lot at stake here. Virtually all the telephony vendors have migrated to UC, and as the range of applications keeps expanding, they are in constant motion upgrading their platforms. This pressure can be quite manageable for applications within their core competence. However, when adding pieces such video, mobility, security or even social media, the risks get higher in being able to do these as well as what you’ve always been known for.

The same holds for vendors outside the telephony space who are rushing into UC. They may be very good at something like video, but feel there’s an immediate opportunity to grab a bigger slice of the pie with UC. To do that, they have to move now before the incumbent telephony vendor does the same with their core customers.

These are just some high level examples where vendors come to market with half-baked UC offerings simply because there’s more risk in waiting too long. As a buyer, you need to be cognizant of how long prospective vendors have been working on UC, and what steps they’ve taken to ensure it’s ready for prime time.

5.  Fuzzy business case

This is another common risk factor, but one that is borne by both buyers and sellers. I’ve often written about the challenges of building a clear business case for UC. Unlike VoIP, there are no clear-cut cost savings, and while the productivity gains are readily understood, they are difficult to measure.

Some businesses – especially manufacturers – have highly-developed processes for tracking productivity, but most do not. Unless they are prepared to engage business process automation professionals, they will only have fuzzy metrics for building a UC business case.

UC vendors are generally not in the business of measuring productivity results, so if the buyer isn’t asking for it, they’ll focus on other attributes to close the deal. In this case, there is a high likelihood that your buying decision will be based as much on wishful thinking for productivity gains as on hard dollar savings you’ll get from the VoIP component of their UC offering. This translates into risk for the buyer by going into the deal without a clear sense of payback, and the seller bears some risk by not having answers to questions that buyers really should have a better sense of purpose about.

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Top 10 Questions to Ask UC Vendors, Part 2

This post is the second aspect of the broader topic regarding what questions you should be asking of UC vendors. In the spirit of the “top 10” theme I’ve been writing about lately, I broke this topic into two focus areas – five questions to ask about the vendor, and five to ask about their offerings. I addressed the former in my last post, and now it’s time to look at the latter. Here are the top five questions you should be asking UC vendors about their offerings, and rounds out my top 10 list for this topic.

6.  What is the focus of your UC offering?

Presuming you now have a comfort level about vendors based on the earlier questions, this is the starting point for questions about their offerings. When asking about their focus, we’re really talking about the value proposition, and at a high level, everyone knows this is about productivity.

All vendors have to provide that, and what you’re looking for is how well they articulate the value proposition. If all you hear are generic platitudes about great accessibility, faster response times, more productive meetings, etc., you should be wary about this being a one-size-fits-all offering.

This will be fine for a basic deployment or if you really want to play it safe. Of course, this all flows from what your focus is for UC. If you don’t have a clearly-defined objective for UC, then a generic offering will do the job. However, if you have very specific outcomes in mind, you have to hear messaging that tells you the vendor’s focus is aligned with your needs.

7.  What deployment models are you favoring?

This is another question that may seem obvious, but needs to be explored. As per above, the expectations will depend on your knowledge and/or preferences of deployment models. If all you know is premise-based systems, then cloud-based UC may seem exotic. When vendors start talking about the cloud and you’re not ready for it, the pitch could sound too good to be true – at which point you have to be careful. If you don’t know what questions to ask, there’s a risk in relying too heavily on what the vendor or their channel partner are saying.

Hopefully you know there are three basic deployment models for UC – premise-based, cloud and hybrid. Each has a valid use case, and to make the right choice, you need to know how each would impact your business. Not only do you need to know the impact on your network, but also what to expect from vendors. This is why asking the right questions of vendors is so important. You need to know why they favor a particular model, why it’s good for them and for you, as well as how long they plan to stick with it. You don’t want to buy premise-based UC from a vendor who plans to go all-cloud in two years.

8.  How are you developing a partner ecosystem for applications?

One of the most fundamental realities of UC is that no single vendor has all the pieces. Aside from the fact that UC can be a very broad concept, even a pretty basic solution will require partners. Even the Tier 1 UC players have a partner ecosystem, and vendors are increasingly being judged by the strength of this ecosystem. New applications are coming all the time, and when it comes to vertical market requirements, this is how UC vendors can really differentiate.

This holds true for most lines of business in technology, but is especially true with UC. Initially, UC offerings were telephony-centric, but they are quickly becoming software and cloud-based. Along with that, the value proposition is becoming less about the hardware elements attached to your network, and more about the applications that run over your network and on to the endpoints of your employees. This is where the true innovation lies, and as core connectivity blends in with the plumbing, you need to know what types of company potential UC providers are keeping with applications developers.

9.  How can you help me with performance metrics to gauge my ROI?

The relevance of this question depends on how important it is to have hard ROI metrics to support a buying decision for UC. Since UC has no precedent, true ROI-style metrics are hard to come by. In most cases, UC will be a step up from an IP PBX, but you can’t apply telephony metrics to UC. Productivity gains will be the best yardstick for UC, but most businesses don’t have the expertise to do this, and this is where vendors have a great opportunity to add value.

Along those lines, a second consideration is that UC presents an opportunity to rethink your overall IT ROI. In other words, aside from the performance metrics of UC itself, you can also be looking at your network infrastructure. Just as UC shifts the investment from Capex to Opex, pushing more applications to the cloud allows you to think that way about the network as well. If so, this could heavily influence the kind of UC vendor you end up doing business with.

10.  What UC successes have you had with customers similar to me?

Proof-of-concept is the best selling point of them all, and not much needs to be said here. However, it’s particularly relevant with UC given its short track record and sometimes-fuzzy value proposition. You don’t want to be their first customer unless you see something really special in the offering and/or you feel compelled to deploy right now to stay ahead of the competition.

Beyond that, however, you also need to ask more focused questions to reduce the perceived risks for your business. For starters, you should ask about results with companies with a comparable size and structure to yours. Generally speaking, UC has more value the more decentralized the business is. Probing further, you need evidence of their expertise deploying UC in your industry. Vertical market success will go a long way to assure you that they truly understand your needs.

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Top 10 Questions to Ask UC Vendors

This post picks up from a top 10 item from last week, namely how to evaluate UC vendors and their offerings. At the end of the day, it’s all about the vendor you choose and how well they live up to their end of the bargain. As such, this needs further consideration, and what follows is Part 1 of this top 10 analysis. Here I will focus on what you need to ask about the vendor, and my next post follows with what you need to ask about their UC offerings.

1.  Why are you offering UC?

This may seem unnecessary, but not all vendors are in this business for the same reasons. Telephony vendors offer UC to have the next generation solution once their core IP PBX base migrates in this direction. Networking and software-based vendors can build on their strengths with a different path to UC, but one that is quite viable. Hosted and Web-based operators can offer light versions of UC that barely require any on-premise equipment, and can meet the needs of budget-conscious SMBs.

Other types of players exist, and each will have a distinct rationale for UC. Before asking these vendors “why”, you should do the same for yourself. Aside from trying to understand at face value why vendors are offering UC, you really need to see how well-aligned their motivation is with yours. If your ambitions are fairly modest and conservative, you may want to partner with a vendor who is looking to reinvent themselves by entering a new line of business.

On another level, you also need to read between the lines to see if vendors are offering UC purely as a defensive measure to protect their installed base – or an offensive strategy to expand their customer base and enter new markets.  This will help determine how much leverage you have when it comes to picking the right UC partner.

2.  What is your vision for UC?

The above question sets the stage for this, and if they dovetail nicely, then the vendor is probably in the UC space for the right reasons. When asking about their vision, you should listen carefully for indications as to how well they’ve thought UC through. If it’s all about protecting their base, they probably won’t be very adventurous. This should also provide clues as to whether their vision is telecom-centric or Web-centric. The former is still tied to a legacy mindset, and if you want to move further along the innovation curve, this won’t be the right vision.

This line of questioning should also tell you if they are a technology follower or leader. Many UC offerings have a me-too feel, covering the same generic ground as everyone else. If that’s all you want, it probably doesn’t much matter which vendor you choose. However, if UC is strategic for you and a potential source of competitive advantage, you want a vision that comes from a leader, not a follower.

3.  How core is UC to your business?

The above two questions will give you a sense of this, but you also need to ask more specifically, even if you think you already know. What you really want to see is how well they can articulate these things and if it sounds authentic. Telecom vendors, for example, will be in the UC game for the long run. They may be entering the space with a fairly basic solution, but over time, will likely upgrade it to meet evolving needs. If they can express that to you in plain language, chances are UC is pretty core for them. However, if you get fuzzy answers, UC may not be as core to them as you’ve been led to think.

For vendors not so native to UC, the issue of being core is harder to gauge. Initially, it won’t likely be core, but that focus could change depending on their success. Technology keeps on changing, and UC’s value proposition has yet to be fully defined. This also means that its full potential is yet to be realized, and if that promise proves elusive, these particular vendors may choose to exit and revert focus to their true core business. Conversely, if they can unlock new value by tying UC to their other lines of business – such as data analytics – UC could very well become core to them.

4.  How are you going support me and help me be successful with UC?

This will tell you a lot about the character of a vendor, as it reflects how confident they are in this new solution. A vendor with a solid UC track record will know exactly how to answer these questions, and can be forthright in telling you there will be integration and interoperability challenges. However, they know how to resolve them and prevent this from being a deal breaker.

Providing the right support to ensure success requires many posts to address, and the main thing here is to ask the question and press the vendor for as much detail as possible. For both parties, an IP PBX is likely the purchase that preceded UC, and being a hardware-based standalone solution, these questions weren’t very applicable. Success with UC depends heavily on post-deployment support, and the more you show that you understand this, the better the answers you’re going to get.

5.  What is your go-to-market strategy?

In most cases, you’ll be dealing with a channel partner, but some vendors also sell directly. On a basic level, then, you need to understand how they go to market, not just for selling UC but also supporting it. This is important, as UC vendors are struggling to find the right types of channel partners. Traditionally, channels have had a solid business selling hardware-based phone systems. UC is a very different business opportunity, and not all vendors can or want to move in this direction. As such, if you’ll be dealing with a channel partner, you’ve got to be sure they are right for the job.

There’s more to consider in a vendor’s overall go-to-market strategy, but their channel plans will be a good starting point, and should tell you a lot about how ready they are to offer UC. On that note, I’ve now covered five vendor-focused questions, and I’ll address the second set in my next post, with the focus shifting to their UC offerings.


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