Top 10 Risks you Take with UC

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.

Permanent link to this article:


Top 10 Questions to Ask UC Vendors, Part 2

This post is the second aspect of the broader topic regarding what questions you should be asking of UC vendors. In the spirit of the “top 10” theme I’ve been writing about lately, I broke this topic into two focus areas – five questions to ask about the vendor, and five to ask about their offerings. I addressed the former in my last post, and now it’s time to look at the latter. Here are the top five questions you should be asking UC vendors about their offerings, and rounds out my top 10 list for this topic.

6.  What is the focus of your UC offering?

Presuming you now have a comfort level about vendors based on the earlier questions, this is the starting point for questions about their offerings. When asking about their focus, we’re really talking about the value proposition, and at a high level, everyone knows this is about productivity.

All vendors have to provide that, and what you’re looking for is how well they articulate the value proposition. If all you hear are generic platitudes about great accessibility, faster response times, more productive meetings, etc., you should be wary about this being a one-size-fits-all offering.

This will be fine for a basic deployment or if you really want to play it safe. Of course, this all flows from what your focus is for UC. If you don’t have a clearly-defined objective for UC, then a generic offering will do the job. However, if you have very specific outcomes in mind, you have to hear messaging that tells you the vendor’s focus is aligned with your needs.

7.  What deployment models are you favoring?

This is another question that may seem obvious, but needs to be explored. As per above, the expectations will depend on your knowledge and/or preferences of deployment models. If all you know is premise-based systems, then cloud-based UC may seem exotic. When vendors start talking about the cloud and you’re not ready for it, the pitch could sound too good to be true – at which point you have to be careful. If you don’t know what questions to ask, there’s a risk in relying too heavily on what the vendor or their channel partner are saying.

Hopefully you know there are three basic deployment models for UC – premise-based, cloud and hybrid. Each has a valid use case, and to make the right choice, you need to know how each would impact your business. Not only do you need to know the impact on your network, but also what to expect from vendors. This is why asking the right questions of vendors is so important. You need to know why they favor a particular model, why it’s good for them and for you, as well as how long they plan to stick with it. You don’t want to buy premise-based UC from a vendor who plans to go all-cloud in two years.

8.  How are you developing a partner ecosystem for applications?

One of the most fundamental realities of UC is that no single vendor has all the pieces. Aside from the fact that UC can be a very broad concept, even a pretty basic solution will require partners. Even the Tier 1 UC players have a partner ecosystem, and vendors are increasingly being judged by the strength of this ecosystem. New applications are coming all the time, and when it comes to vertical market requirements, this is how UC vendors can really differentiate.

This holds true for most lines of business in technology, but is especially true with UC. Initially, UC offerings were telephony-centric, but they are quickly becoming software and cloud-based. Along with that, the value proposition is becoming less about the hardware elements attached to your network, and more about the applications that run over your network and on to the endpoints of your employees. This is where the true innovation lies, and as core connectivity blends in with the plumbing, you need to know what types of company potential UC providers are keeping with applications developers.

9.  How can you help me with performance metrics to gauge my ROI?

The relevance of this question depends on how important it is to have hard ROI metrics to support a buying decision for UC. Since UC has no precedent, true ROI-style metrics are hard to come by. In most cases, UC will be a step up from an IP PBX, but you can’t apply telephony metrics to UC. Productivity gains will be the best yardstick for UC, but most businesses don’t have the expertise to do this, and this is where vendors have a great opportunity to add value.

Along those lines, a second consideration is that UC presents an opportunity to rethink your overall IT ROI. In other words, aside from the performance metrics of UC itself, you can also be looking at your network infrastructure. Just as UC shifts the investment from Capex to Opex, pushing more applications to the cloud allows you to think that way about the network as well. If so, this could heavily influence the kind of UC vendor you end up doing business with.

10.  What UC successes have you had with customers similar to me?

Proof-of-concept is the best selling point of them all, and not much needs to be said here. However, it’s particularly relevant with UC given its short track record and sometimes-fuzzy value proposition. You don’t want to be their first customer unless you see something really special in the offering and/or you feel compelled to deploy right now to stay ahead of the competition.

Beyond that, however, you also need to ask more focused questions to reduce the perceived risks for your business. For starters, you should ask about results with companies with a comparable size and structure to yours. Generally speaking, UC has more value the more decentralized the business is. Probing further, you need evidence of their expertise deploying UC in your industry. Vertical market success will go a long way to assure you that they truly understand your needs.

Permanent link to this article:


Top 10 Questions to Ask UC Vendors

This post picks up from a top 10 item from last week, namely how to evaluate UC vendors and their offerings. At the end of the day, it’s all about the vendor you choose and how well they live up to their end of the bargain. As such, this needs further consideration, and what follows is Part 1 of this top 10 analysis. Here I will focus on what you need to ask about the vendor, and my next post follows with what you need to ask about their UC offerings.

1.  Why are you offering UC?

This may seem unnecessary, but not all vendors are in this business for the same reasons. Telephony vendors offer UC to have the next generation solution once their core IP PBX base migrates in this direction. Networking and software-based vendors can build on their strengths with a different path to UC, but one that is quite viable. Hosted and Web-based operators can offer light versions of UC that barely require any on-premise equipment, and can meet the needs of budget-conscious SMBs.

Other types of players exist, and each will have a distinct rationale for UC. Before asking these vendors “why”, you should do the same for yourself. Aside from trying to understand at face value why vendors are offering UC, you really need to see how well-aligned their motivation is with yours. If your ambitions are fairly modest and conservative, you may want to partner with a vendor who is looking to reinvent themselves by entering a new line of business.

On another level, you also need to read between the lines to see if vendors are offering UC purely as a defensive measure to protect their installed base – or an offensive strategy to expand their customer base and enter new markets.  This will help determine how much leverage you have when it comes to picking the right UC partner.

2.  What is your vision for UC?

The above question sets the stage for this, and if they dovetail nicely, then the vendor is probably in the UC space for the right reasons. When asking about their vision, you should listen carefully for indications as to how well they’ve thought UC through. If it’s all about protecting their base, they probably won’t be very adventurous. This should also provide clues as to whether their vision is telecom-centric or Web-centric. The former is still tied to a legacy mindset, and if you want to move further along the innovation curve, this won’t be the right vision.

This line of questioning should also tell you if they are a technology follower or leader. Many UC offerings have a me-too feel, covering the same generic ground as everyone else. If that’s all you want, it probably doesn’t much matter which vendor you choose. However, if UC is strategic for you and a potential source of competitive advantage, you want a vision that comes from a leader, not a follower.

3.  How core is UC to your business?

The above two questions will give you a sense of this, but you also need to ask more specifically, even if you think you already know. What you really want to see is how well they can articulate these things and if it sounds authentic. Telecom vendors, for example, will be in the UC game for the long run. They may be entering the space with a fairly basic solution, but over time, will likely upgrade it to meet evolving needs. If they can express that to you in plain language, chances are UC is pretty core for them. However, if you get fuzzy answers, UC may not be as core to them as you’ve been led to think.

For vendors not so native to UC, the issue of being core is harder to gauge. Initially, it won’t likely be core, but that focus could change depending on their success. Technology keeps on changing, and UC’s value proposition has yet to be fully defined. This also means that its full potential is yet to be realized, and if that promise proves elusive, these particular vendors may choose to exit and revert focus to their true core business. Conversely, if they can unlock new value by tying UC to their other lines of business – such as data analytics – UC could very well become core to them.

4.  How are you going support me and help me be successful with UC?

This will tell you a lot about the character of a vendor, as it reflects how confident they are in this new solution. A vendor with a solid UC track record will know exactly how to answer these questions, and can be forthright in telling you there will be integration and interoperability challenges. However, they know how to resolve them and prevent this from being a deal breaker.

Providing the right support to ensure success requires many posts to address, and the main thing here is to ask the question and press the vendor for as much detail as possible. For both parties, an IP PBX is likely the purchase that preceded UC, and being a hardware-based standalone solution, these questions weren’t very applicable. Success with UC depends heavily on post-deployment support, and the more you show that you understand this, the better the answers you’re going to get.

5.  What is your go-to-market strategy?

In most cases, you’ll be dealing with a channel partner, but some vendors also sell directly. On a basic level, then, you need to understand how they go to market, not just for selling UC but also supporting it. This is important, as UC vendors are struggling to find the right types of channel partners. Traditionally, channels have had a solid business selling hardware-based phone systems. UC is a very different business opportunity, and not all vendors can or want to move in this direction. As such, if you’ll be dealing with a channel partner, you’ve got to be sure they are right for the job.

There’s more to consider in a vendor’s overall go-to-market strategy, but their channel plans will be a good starting point, and should tell you a lot about how ready they are to offer UC. On that note, I’ve now covered five vendor-focused questions, and I’ll address the second set in my next post, with the focus shifting to their UC offerings.


Permanent link to this article:


Top 10 Questions about UC, Part 2

I started this topic in a recent post, where 5 of the top 10 questions were addressed. Since then, I got diverted to other topics, but am now coming back to this one and will present 5 more questions to round out the list.

As noted earlier, this “top 10” series is intended to give you quick reads that summarize a lot of ongoing industry research. Every item on these lists can be – and has been written about extensively, but it’s summer, and you probably have better things to do.

My list of questions to ask about UC isn’t comprehensive, but that’s not the point. I cover a lot of ground in the UC space, and these 10 will give you plenty of food for thought to more tightly frame the discussions you need to be having before making any substantive decisions. So, let’s continue where the initial post left off.

6.  How well do I really understand UC?

This may seem like a trick question, but it definitely isn’t.  Every vendor has their own take on UC, and the concept is still pretty new for IT decision makers. Most businesses don’t know enough about UC to be asking for it, so they generally have to rely on what vendors tell them, and that could be colored by their needs at that particular point in time.  They have their own motives for selling UC, and if you’re not paying attention that could well shape the vision they have in mind for you.

Vendors may have created UC, but it’s not a standardized offering, and it’s important to understand that you have a key role to play in shaping the offering for your needs. On the plus side, UC is very flexible, making it adaptable to any business scenario or network environment. However, this also means that UC can be an abstract concept, and it’s incumbent on you to get beyond this, otherwise UC may end up serving the vendor’s needs ahead of yours.

7.  How do I evaluate UC vendors and their offerings?

This question is closely tied to the above, as your understanding of UC needs to include what to expect from vendors. Unlike an IP PBX, this is a hands-on deployment, whereby buyers and sellers will need to work closely together, especially during the deployment phase. UC can be complex to deploy, especially in a multi-vendor environment, and if the vendor is new to your network.

In that regard, your evaluation of them needs to include how well they manage the deployment process. Since this will likely be your first go-round with UC, you have to rely heavily on their experience, not just for the underlying technology, but in working with what you have and minimizing disruption. UC has many more touch points than your phone system, so you need to evaluate how well they manage complexity in addition to their ability to deliver on overall performance.

8.  Is there a right time to be doing this?

This is an inward-looking question, and is likely tied to the fundamental question of “why”. As noted earlier, UC does not address a direct problem, and the “right time” will not likely be triggered by a specific event. Again, when you migrated from TDM to VoIP, there likely was a right time that initiated a clear path of events in order to keep phone service up and running.

With UC, the right time has more to do with strategy and a sense of vision. Since UC will never be a finished product, it doesn’t matter when you deploy, especially since you’ll likely just start with a limited set of integrated applications. In this context, the question of right time has more to do with broader issues driving your business, such as becoming more competitive, accelerating growth by boosting productivity, or enabling remote collaboration as operations become decentralized, etc.

9.  How will I know if UC is paying off?

Now, look ahead past the “right time” and this will be toughest question of them all. I raised the ROI metric in the first post, and by now you should know this isn’t the right or best way to do this. Since UC is not a hard asset, TCO is a better metric, especially if hosted. Again, though, this is a cost-based approach, and while that will appease your CFO, there are other ways to gauge the payoff.

This means thinking about UC differently, since it’s primarily consumed as a service, and delivers benefits that are not easy to measure. The true payoff is aligned with the vision-based examples cited above, and this can be summed up by productivity. You don’t buy a phone system to boost productivity, but that very much is the promise of UC. Most companies don’t know how to measure this, but metrics and methodologies do exist, and perhaps UC will be the catalyst to embrace them. Measuring productivity is a topic unto itself, but for now, the important thing is to frame the UC payoff this way, rather than what you’ve been doing all along with telephony.

10.  What do I have to lose?

To close out this analysis, it’s fair to pose this question. Since UC isn’t addressing a specific problem, there shouldn’t be any pressure to make a fast decision or a firm commitment to buy. You may need to educate yourself a fair bit, and whatever the outcome, this will be time well spent. UC may just be getting on your radar, and if you’re not ready now, you probably will be sooner than later.

As such, you have a lot to gain even it’s just getting up to speed. That way, you’ll be ready if management starts asking you about UC. They’ll likely be hearing about it from different sources and may have very different expectations, and you need to be prepared for that.

On a more practical level, you’re probably already using most of the applications that fall under the UC umbrella. This should mitigate a lot of deployment risk, since employees will be familiar with most of the core tools. The real payoff comes from getting them to use these applications in a new environment, and once there, UC can deliver new value. If that doesn’t happen, you can scale down or even back away from UC fairly easily, so there really is very little to lose.

Permanent link to this article:


Top 10 Clues you Might not need Unified Communications

Earlier in this “top 10” series, I outlined 10 clues that you might need Unified Communications. After all, UC is hard to define, and sometimes you have to look carefully for the positive signs. In the spirit of fairness, I’m going to flip the script now, and focus on clues that lead to the opposite conclusion.

Now, I’m playing UC the other way – since it is hard to define, there are plenty of indicators that this might not be worth the trouble. Don’t get me wrong – I’m definitely a fan of UC – but it’s not for everyone, at least right now, so you need to see both sides of the coin.

1.  Business is good or even booming

The worst of the 2011 recession is behind us, and the U.S. economy is recovering. Some sectors are booming and profitability has returned. Other sectors, however, are being seriously disrupted by technology, and unless they catch up to things like UC, will struggle to remain viable. However, if your business is on the right side of the growth curve, and current technology is doing the job, you’ll be hard-pressed to see a reason to inject something new into a well-oiled machine. Maybe later, but not right now.

2.  No idea what UC is

Ignorance can be bliss, and building on the above scenario, if things are going well, why would you pursue something you’ve never heard of? UC may be first nature for vendors, but many businesses – especially SMBs – are still taking baby steps with VoIP. Aside from being difficult to define, UC is still new, and if businesses have managed without it so far, they’re not really missing anything. Of course, the converse is what makes UC so exciting, but getting to that point of discovery is another story and merits a separate series of posts.

3.  Vendors can’t explain it

This is related to the above challenge, but falls squarely on the vendor’s shoulders. Telecom vendors have no problem explaining the virtues of an IP PBX; it’s a self-contained point solution that has barely evolved in decades. UC is much more abstract, even for vendors, and this is a big reason why market adoption has been middling. Even if you’re open to hearing about UC, vendors struggle to get the messaging right, and if that raises more questions than answers, you may well conclude that if it’s this complicated, you don’t need it.

4.  No clear ROI or economic benefit

Many businesses still have a legacy mindset, and will view UC the same way. For them, phone systems are assets that have practical utility, and are purchased based on having a clear ROI. UC has a different value proposition and does not conform to that business model. Being a service, UC is better viewed as a TCO decision, but that can be a difficult shift for people to make. For businesses that insist on seeing a tangible economic benefit as the first consideration, UC’s business case will be difficult to establish.

5.  Status quo working well

Even if a business is just doing okay, there may be a tight comfort zone when it comes to adopting new technology. There are many reasons for this, but basically when change is viewed as risky, inertia takes over. Businesses in mature industries are slow to adopt new things, and their realities are very different from growth industries where staying on the leading edge of technology is not an option. For these businesses, the promise of UC is not reason enough to make a change.

6.  Telephony-centric culture

A big part of what defines the above status quo is having a telephony-centric culture. This is a byproduct of legacy thinking, and it’s still prevalent among SMBs. In cases where the business is performing well and the phone system is doing its job, the merits of UC will be difficult to see. Employees may well be using their PCs and mobile devices increasingly for everyday communication, but if the culture remains phone-centric, the time probably isn’t right for UC. Down the road, this will change, but not today.

7.  Been burned before by disruptive offerings

When disruption makes things better, we call it innovation, but there will be losers too, and for them it’s a disaster. Technology has always had a patchy track record, and no vendor is immune. Every business experiences both outcomes over time, and that mix will determine how you view UC. Sometimes this is solely dependent on the vendors, but having limited IT resources, SMBs are often the problem. UC is not without risk, and businesses should expect deployment challenges, so there can be good reason to pass on this basis.

8.  Business is highly centralized

This is a structural factor, and may carry the day even if you’re willing and able to consider UC. There are many drivers for UC adoption, but generally the more decentralized the business, the stronger the case will be. Businesses with a single site or just a few local branches can get some benefit from UC, but the impact is much greater the further dispersed your workforce. Some businesses simply work best with a centralized model, and for them, UC will hold limited appeal.

9.  Management only cares about cost reduction

In top-down organizations, management’s wishes can trump even the best ideas for improving the business. This can be the most frustrating obstacle of all, as short-term priorities often come at the expense of ensuring long-term viability. Technology changes constantly, and the further behind a company falls, operational costs will only rise, not fall. In cases where management thinks that reducing costs now is all that matters, UC will not be the answer.

10.  Productivity claims hard to believe

This factor arises from a positive beginning, where your business is in fact receptive to the UC concept. However, the deeper you dig to understand what form these productivity gains will take, the more fuzzy the vendor’s claims seem to be. For many businesses, this is the key selling point, as productivity has become a competitive differentiator. However, it’s difficult to achieve, especially from UC vendors who are generally not native to the world of workplace productivity. Their forte is communications technologies, but linking that to business processes requires another layer of expertise, and if that’s your criteria for buying, you may conclude that UC isn’t quite ready for your needs – at least from the vendors that are on your radar.

Permanent link to this article:

Older posts «