Study finds companies unprepared for unified communications

They're still being managed from multpile points in most organisations, Tim Greene finds

Businesses say they are interested in unified communications but still face some of the same obstacles that prevented them from adopting VoIP a few years ago, according to a study by Nemertes Research.

Interviews with 120 US IT executives reveal that 79% of respondents either already use or are planning to use unified communications. However, 60% say their collaboration and communications staffs are separate, according to the study’s author Irwin Lazar, a principal research analyst with Nemertes.

“We had some say instant messaging was being rolled out [via Microsoft Live Communications Server] by their email and Exchange groups, but their telecom group didn’t know about it,” Lazar says.

The idea of unified communications is to blend voice, video, instant messaging and conferencing with presence, collaboration, messaging and calendaring, but that requires multiple groups to cooperate, he says. So far only 10% of businesses have their IT departments structured to handle collaboration effectively, the study says.

Another hurdle is justifying the cost of implementing unified communications, he says. “You can understand some of the benefits of collaboration, but it’s hard to put numbers around it,” he says. So even if they can show collaboration would save employees an hour a week, there is no guarantee that would translate into increased productivity, said respondents in interviews for the study.

A call agent talking to a customer could use unified communications to conference-in a subject-matter expert to close a sale, for example. But that possibility doesn’t necessarily loosen purse strings to implement a unified communications project.

“They understand the value of mobility and collaboration, but it’s hard to demonstrate the actual [dollar] value,” he says.

Up to 75% of those interviewed say they are aware of Microsoft efforts in collaboration with Office Communications Server, but they still have reservations about relying on Microsoft for all elements of unified communications, Lazar says.

“Enterprises are comfortable with Microsoft as an uber-Buddy List for instant messaging, but less so with their phone system,” he says. “That’s something they don’t have much interest in.” They prefer to rely on a traditional telecom provider for VoIP and use middleware to blend it with instant messaging and presence, he says.

Other results from the study say that use of desktop videoconferencing has grown to 30%, up 8% compared with last year’s study, but businesses still have major reservations. Deployments so far are limited within companies. There is no good argument that it improves productivity and IT executives worry about demand for network bandwidth if desktop video was widely adopted across their companies, Lazar says.

Using IP for trunking of room-based videoconferencing is gaining popularity, he says, because there are clear savings using IP links rather than ISDN.

High-end telepresence systems are being evaluated by 23% of respondents and another 28% have plans to deploy it, he says. This is because many of these multinational firms can pay off the systems if they shave just 3% from their international travel budgets, he says.

In using instant messaging, most respondents have implemented a formal corporate IM platform and block all others, he says. This is because they want to be able to scan for and block IM-borne attacks and they have other security concerns as well.

For instance, employees using non-corporate IM to transact business could have professional contacts stored within their private IM that the business could not keep and pass on to their successors if they leave the company. The company would also lose the ability to store records of IM traffic that regulators might require it to keep, he says.

VoIP is part of unified communications and, even though VoIP is becoming more mainstream, the main reason for adopting it is still cost savings, particularly in call centres, Lazar says.

Enabling call agents to work from home and having the ability to integrate applications with calls can demonstrably save money. Most VoIP projects still start off as a way to upgrade call centres because there is a rapid return on investment, he says.

The Nemertes study, “Real-Time Collaboration” is based on interviews over the last three months of 2006. The last of nine volumes of the study has just been published.

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