Unified Communications: An Enterprise Cornerstone
By Samuel Greengard
Over the last decade, unified communications (UC) has helped organizations slice through the inefficiencies of managing separate data and voice networks. It also has introduced a variety of features and capabilities that aren't available through conventional PBX systems, including presence, visual voice mail, audio bridges, shared Web collaboration spaces and so-called follow-me capabilities.
As Karen Kervin, senior research analyst at Nemertes Research, puts it: "UC represents a substantial step forward in enterprise communications."
Nevertheless, for many organizations, UC is suddenly sliding from the tactical to strategic category. Not only does UC slash costs and prune the administrative overhead associated with operating separate voice and data networks, it also unleashes far more sophisticated digital capabilities that span enterprise communication and collaboration. These days, UC is extending and amplifying the power of messaging, collaboration, social media and mobility across a wide swath of industries and situations.
Of course, interconnecting a vast array of devices and systems can be daunting. Consequently, business and IT leaders must work together to forge an effective strategy and identify ways to put the technology to work. They must understand key UC capabilities and match opportunities with workflows and business processes. What's more, they must determine how best to plug UC into contact centers and enterprise applications, so that an enterprise can achieve seamless integration across communication channels.
That's not a trivial task, Kervin points out. "Many of today's solutions have rich feature sets," she says. "The challenge is to build an overall UC framework that takes advantage of the technology and puts it to work across the business."
Dialing Into Gains
An effective unified communications strategy typically revolves around several key issues. First, it's critical to avoid vendor or system silos that make it difficult—if not impossible—to seamlessly move data and work tasks across the enterprise.
Messaging streams, social media connections, video conferencing and Web meeting tools must function across platforms and devices, particularly in today's mobile BYOD world. What's more, UC systems must connect beyond the four walls of the enterprise so that business partners and customers can use these communication tools to maximum advantage.
Second, many tools that fall under the UC umbrella must connect to other enterprise systems, including customer relationship management (CRM), enterprise resource planning (ERP) and supply chain management (SCM). They must also function across different communication channels.
This is particularly important within contact centers, where systems must route customer data while handling voice, video and messaging. Increasingly, these call centers must also be equipped to accommodate virtual workers, and pass calls and data to other support centers that might be located in a different part of the world.
Finally, it's important to design and build a platform that delivers a high level of flexibility and scalability. Traditionally, this has meant designing internal capabilities to support a unified IP network. However, a growing number of vendors now offer cloud-based UC environments that essentially provide a turn-key approach and eliminate the IT tasks traditionally associated with managing infrastructure and specific capabilities.
For example, at Stanford Federal Credit Union (SFCU), UC has played a key role in building a more agile and efficient enterprise. The organization, which was founded in the early 1950s, has four branch locations, more than 50,000 members and $1.5 billion in assets, along with 140 full-time employees.
Three years ago, the organization began looking into its telecom expenses, and CIO Jim Phillips noticed that they were "really high for the size of the organization and the number of employees we have." At the time, the organization had outsourced its telephony systems to a major telecom provider. SFCU relied on a standard PBX for call routing and had to manually transfer calls to a contact center. This led to disconnects and other problems.
In early 2011, Phillips decided to adopt unified communications. Working with IT reseller and advisor CDW, Phillips began analyzing systems and tools to determine how best to approach the technology. By August, SFCU had a new NTLS network in place, and it had installed a Cisco UC bundled solution.
Today, the company relies on a robust VoIP system, and staff can use video and a messaging client that seamlessly ties together on-premises telephony, mobile phones, email and IM streams through Microsoft's SharePoint. They can use advanced telephony features, such as presence and call routing, and can connect VoIP phones to their laptops. Employees can also tap into UC systems and message streams via specialized iPad apps.
The result? SFCU has slashed its telecom bill by nearly 60 percent. Meanwhile, the IT staff spends about 30 percent less time administering the network. And it now takes minutes—instead of hours or days—to make system changes.
No less important: If UC systems in a branch go down, a fully meshed redundant network provides near-immediate failover capabilities. "We have 20 percent of our staff working remotely, including call center staff working at home," Phillips explains. "We have taken our communications capabilities to an entirely different level."