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.