Story image

Evolution of Unified Communications

01 Jul 10

The suite of applications known as Unified Communications can transform both the business itself, and the role of that the CIO and the IT department plays in advancing business goals. In this special Telecommunications Review feature we look at the evolution of UC and the business decisions being made around its deployment.
For the longest time it seems we’ve been talking, thinking and writing about Unified Communications.
Indeed, IDC telecommunications programme manager David Cannon says UC has been around for almost 12 years, but that applications such as presence, click-to-call and desktop video are only now being deployed widely throughout organisations.
In part this is because companies had to overhaul their telephony platform before UC applications could be seamlessly deployed. For IT departments this has involved upgrading switches, centralising applications and consolidating data centres – in other words the focus has been on getting the right infrastructure in place.
“What they (vendors) were finding is that they had all these great applications, but no one was using them and it was really tough sell when you’ve got to pay for the integration of the actual applications,” Cannon says.
It was also the way the UC applications were sold that dissuaded users, so vendors have been forced to make the applications commercially attractive and there is now a variety of ways to finance solutions. For example, rather than upfront capital cost, companies can be charged an ongoing licensing fee. Cannon says some vendors even offer ‘UC Lite’ applications for free, in the hope that companies will upgrade and pay for ‘UC Advanced’ applications.
The reason vendors are prepared to be flexible is because there are huge gains to be made as they take business from carriers, whose traditional business model is undermined. Gartner Research vice president Geoff Johnson says carriers are threatened by enterprise UC adoption.
“In the ‘good old days’ carriers had circuits and switches and billing, and controlled their customers pretty well. UC is supplied to carriers by companies like Microsoft and Cisco, so the carriers become just another reseller,” he says.
“All the carriers fear the rise of UC because they don’t control the customer as well as they used to. All they get is the low-margin business from broadband access and lose the primary billing relationship to ‘over the top’ competitors like Microsoft and Cisco.”
Which should give the CIO a huge advantage – as this is surely an opportunity to drive down prices and demand more innovative solutions from carriers and vendors alike.
UC strategies transform businesses
According to Johnson, there are very few companies with an active UC strategy. “Most are merely upgrading their communications infrastructure today – that is, PABX to IP telephone or IM becomes Communicator, or SharePoint attempts to bring users together in enterprise-defined ways,” he says. “CIOs and IT managers usually need a catalytic business event to actively consider a UC strategy as (an overdue) solution.”
But Cannon says UC can offer huge gains once you’ve made the migration from PSTN to IP systems, and data and voice networks are converged onto one platform.
“Once you go through that painful process you can then leverage the infrastructure to support business outcomes,” he says.
And that’s the exciting bit. Because then you can start implementing applications which not only make it easier for the company’s staff to be more productive; they can actually enhance and promote business goals.
“It’s not just vendor hype... these sorts of things are driving the real change in the role of CIOs and the role of IT itself,”
Cannon says. “CIOs now sit on the Board and talk about how the new technology can be leveraged to achieve a business outcome like business expansion, or acquiring another business or pulling it into the fold and getting quick wins and doing it faster, better, smarter; and there are many businesses doing that.”
Cannon points out that CIOs and IT departments generally make decisions about technology based on what internal stakeholders say. But with the smart deployment of UC applications, they can start thinking about what the customer wants, and that is really at the heart of what drives every business.
Communications Enabled Business Process (CEBP)
The next significant development in UC is Communication Enabled Business Process (CEBP). According to Johnson it is only a weak trend because several important architectures are missing; however within the next five years it, along with UC applications, will be a necessary utility in business.
“Organisations need to understand at least a little about how they will [deploy] CEBP in order to make UC decisions today. Avaya and Microsoft are thought leaders in CEBP, but numerous small companies with detailed messaging and communications tools and applications are needed to make useful and valuable mash-ups,” he says.
One home-grown company at the forefront of providing CEBP solutions is Zeacom. Founder and CEO Miles Valentine spoke at a recent conference about CEBP, or Process Automation, as he called it. He defined it as the automation of repetitive, predictable and time-consuming business processes such as customer notification, customer inquiries or workflow management.
Valentine says adoption in New Zealand is in line with, if not a little ahead of, what’s happening in overseas markets.
“Local and central government, financial services, utilities, telecommunications and retail are the biggest adopters of Process Automation at the moment. However it’s applicable to any organisation with lots of structured, repetitive calls and seeking efficiency gains from their existing processes.”
Zeacom develops solutions for the US market and Valentine says there are advantages in working with New Zealand organisations “which are smaller in scale and closer to our development resources, so offer good controllable test environments. The major business opportunities for Zeacom lie overseas with bigger volume call centres using Process Automation to manage their high number of transactions.”
One of those solutions was developed for Environment Canterbury, which needed to upgrade its IVR systems to deliver automated flood warnings, as well as messages about river and rainfall levels when there are water restrictions in place during the summer months.
Environment Canterbury software developer Jamie Glass says they had a system in place with Telecom, but it had been a pilot and the carrier was keen to move them off the technology. So they engaged Zeacom to create an automated system that would eliminate the need to manually record irrigation restriction messages for over 200 sites
. “The main thing is that it’s flexible and it has direct access into our databases so we can use real-time data,” Glass says.
Features include a customised dictionary, and the council has worked with local iwi Ngai Tahu to ensure Maori place names in the region are pronounced correctly.
He describes the process of implementing the system as “pretty painless” because they already had a Zeacom phone system. The setup cost was around $50,000 ex GST, with an ongoing monthly maintenance and service cost of $300 ex GST.
The system has been in place for two years and the main feedback from users is about the 0900 number, which means users have to pay 50c per call. The council pays the $30 monthly phone rental. It has been the council’s intention to review the system and possibly switch to an 0800 number now that they know how much it is likely to cost.
One of the chief advantages of the new system is its ability to record the number and frequency of the calls. Communications officer Sara McBride says this helps her department know whether the advertising around water levels is effective; it also assists with ongoing budgeting. “We didn’t know how much activity was going to be on the 0800 number, so we didn’t know how much to budget for.”
However, perhaps the most convincing argument for the new system is the savings that have been made in terms of staff time. Glass says automating the irrigation restrictions has saved up to one and half hours per day. The savings are calculated at 1.5 hours X 150 days X $65 per hour. Which is equal to $14,000 that is no longer charged to consent holders (who must pay for notification system as part of their compliance fee) each summer.
In addition to the irrigation restriction notifications, the system also generates flood alerts, and calls can spike during events such as flooding of the Waitaki River in May this year (see graph opposite). This has obvious benefits to the council, which is responsible for the largest land area of all regional councils in New Zealand – from Waitaki to Kaikoura – and whose contact centre staff number just five.
Video is the shining star
But while CEBP is in its infancy, video is the currently the shining star of all UC applications, according to David Cannon. He says that in the last 18 months it has come into its own with the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) curbing air travel. “We’re not going on planes anymore, but we’ve got the technology to facilitate your communication needs, and because the rest of the world was in the same boat there was no push-back from the business.”
He says before the GFC video communication vendors were doing 30% growth, but that this went down to around 10-20% and is now climbing back to pre-GFC rates. “There’s a real appetite for businesses to use video,” he says.
According to Cannon, video is leading a UC 2.0 wave or trend in the market. “The first [wave] was about voice and growth and being able to make phone calls with click to call; now the 2.0 bit is about the applications and the business process automation and video – it’s pretty exciting right now.”