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Unified communications' business value cloudy, but enterprises want it

Shamus McGillicuddy

Unified communications is changing the way companies think about enterprise communications, but many are still unsure of the technology's business value, according to new survey data from Forrester Research.

The potential for unified communications (UC) to transform productivity has many line-of-business managers getting involved in evaluating and adopting UC for the first time.

"It's really, really interesting," said Ellen Daley, vice president and research director at Forrester. "When you think about who used to buy telecom services or telecom equipment, it was the telecom manager and sometimes IT in a midsized company. But because unified communications is really affecting business outcomes – [for instance] it changes how a sales force might interact with itself but also with customers -- we're seeing business leaders becoming more and more involved."

Forrester uncovered this trend in its research,

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The State of Enterprise Networks and Telecommunications: 2008. Forty-three percent of respondents said business unit executives have heavy influence on UC purchasing decisions. Another 34% said business unit executives had some influence, and 15% said these executives had final decision-making authority.

"I was just talking to a company the other day that has [its] vice president of supply chain [involved in unified communications adoption]," Daley said. "He's all about logistics, and he was saying that UC features were going to expedite his supply chain. He said it was going to give him gains within his supply chain of 2% to 3% over the next three years. That's huge for him, so he feels he needs to get involved in making some of the decisions."

This trend will force UC vendors to adjust how they market and sell their technology, Daley said, but it will also force IT and telecom managers to adjust.

"It's just proving and enforcing the point that IT and telecom managers and directors have to be more business savvy," she said. "They have to work in collaboration back and forth with the business guys. No longer is it the business guys who have to understand all this tech stuff. IT and telecom managers have got to understand the business stuff. And they can elevate their impact on the business if they can do it."

Companies are certainly "kicking the tires" on UC, but the market is still waiting for broad adoption.

"We saw a 20% to 21% jump in enterprise interest in unified communications, but purchases and deployments have not really grown since last year," Daley said. "There's a lot more interest in unified communications -- kicking of tires -- but that hasn't translated into people buying."

Only 11% of 184 companies surveyed by Forrester said they had deployed UC, and just 16% said they were rolling it out this year. However, 57% said they are evaluating or piloting it.

Daley said the interest in UC seems to be driven by an enhanced focus on increasing productivity during the current economic downturn. She said the interest is also driven by the hype surrounding UC.

"We see a lot of hype going on with unified communications as a buzzword, which I hate to say, but we know this means CIOs will typically ask IT managers, 'What are we doing on unified communications? Do we have a plan?' And so they start tire kicking," Daley said.

Companies have been slow to invest, however, because there appears to be a lot of confusion about UC, she said. Only 28% of survey respondents felt strongly that they could make a good business case for the technology. And just 31% said they felt strongly that they understood how UC would affect the way their companies do business.

Companies are even confused by what features and functions are critical to a UC deployment, Daley said. Fifty-eight percent of respondents agreed that integrated voice, email and instant messaging was very important to a UC deployment, and 62% said that audio, Web and videoconferencing capabilities were also very important. But respondents were less certain about other features, such as presence, integration with collaboration software, and call control from the desktop.

Daley said potential adopters of UC are also gun-shy because they're not sure which vendors are going to reach the top of the heap in the industry. Part of the problem stems from confusion over which sector of the technology industry will end up leading the market. Daley asked respondents what types of vendors they would like to buy UC from (they were allowed to give more than one answer). Thirty-nine percent said they would buy from a traditional voice systems provider such as Avaya, Alcatel-Lucent, Nortel or Siemens. Fifty percent said they would buy from a data networking provider such as Cisco. Thirty-two percent said they would buy from a software vendor such as Microsoft, and 23% said they would buy from a network operator such as AT&T or Verizon.

"People are not sure who's going to win or where they should place their bets yet," Daley said. "Seventy-one percent said they were somewhat to very interested in a managed unified communications solution. That mitigates risk because there are a lot of technology vendors out there but not a big landscape solution out there yet. Is it going to be a software solution with Microsoft or a hardware solution with Nortel? [Managed services] limit capital expenses, but they also mitigate risk because the industry hasn't [yet] made up its mind about where it wants to go."