Reaping the Benefits of Unified Communications

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 05-22-2013

Reaping the Benefits of Unified Communications

By Samuel Greengard

The complexity of today's business environment is nothing short of remarkable. Global workforces, deeply intertwined supply chains, e-commerce, pervasive mobility and social media have radically transformed the workplace and served up enormous and growing communication challenges. Today, many organizations—and their CIOs—are struggling to enable comprehensive and seamless collaboration across platforms, systems and devices. Although voice communication isn't going away, it's increasingly critical to build networks that also accommodate data and merge the two worlds in a transparent way.

Enter unified communications (UC). Although the technology has existed for years and a large number of enterprises have already put it into play, many CIOs are now exploring ways to ratchet up the capabilities to match today's digital workplace. Among other things, they're hoping to enhance collaboration tools, social media, messaging capabilities and mobile interaction across a wide range of applications and situations. "There is a need to create an overall communications experience," states Matthias Machowinski, directing analyst for enterprise networks and video at Infonetics Research.

Sliding the dial from tactical to strategic is more easily said than done, however. Although UC was originally viewed as a way to trim costs and simplify IT administration by converging data and voice networks, it has evolved into a mission-critical resource. "Rather than serving as a way to merely converge a network, it's a way to extend the network and facilitate greater connectedness," Machowinski explains. In fact, network integrator Nexus says that more than a 60 percent of firms using UC report savings of three hours per week for per mobile worker.

Increasingly, says Karen Kervin, an independent analyst who specializes in unified communications, the technology involves telephony, video and audio conferencing systems, collaboration tools, presence, messaging and social media. "Organizations are finding that it's necessary to incorporate and integrate a variety of tools and features in order to communicate and collaborate effectively," says Kervin.

Productivity Calling

Today's business environment is putting pressure on organizations like never before. The ability to access data, information and knowledge at digital speed can be the difference between an enterprise soaring or stumbling. UC aims to address many of these challenges by connecting people in more efficient and intuitive ways. It can reduce overlapping work and errors, spur innovation, speed development cycles and improve service levels. But a UC strategy is more than a system or collections of tools from a vendor or group of vendors. It's about building a strategy that spans locations, systems, devices and operating system platforms.

How to approach UC isn't getting any easier. In most cases, UC users—many of which also fall into the BYOD category—want to take UC applications with them and use them on laptops, tablets and smartphones. They desire presence capabilities and unified messaging across devices, including tie-ins to social media platforms. However, UC isn't so much a checklist of features as a way to approach communication and collaboration in a more holistic and dynamic way. It's about providing "the level of flexibility and functionality needed in today's business environment," Kervin explains.

But tapping UC effectively requires both a strategy and an ability to bridge existing systems, tools and devices. Session initiation protocol (SIP) and clouds have made it simpler to connect applications and controls at a reasonable cost, but there's also the task of tearing down organizational silos and thinking about how to navigate the shortest distance between connection points. This, in turn, requires more innovative thinking and, in some cases, internal mash-ups and more advanced development skills in order to build tools and features that transform processes and workflows.

Reaping the Benefits of Unified Communications

One company banking on UC to boost connectedness is HarborOne Credit Union, a Brockton, Mass., financial institution with 14 full-service branches, 13 freestanding ATMs, 400 employees and approximately $1.8 billion in assets. The company, which was established in 1917, has always strived to stay current with technology, notes Wayne Dunn, senior vice president and chief technology officer. "About five years ago we recognized a need to transition to a unified communications and collaboration platform. It was part of an overall business process optimization strategy," Dunn says.

Previously, HarborOne relied on a frame relay network and a series of disconnected services, tools and applications to manage IP telephony and communications. "We recognized that we had to have a more holistic solution in place," Dunn says. But, at the same time, "we were faced with the challenge of building out endpoints at a reasonable cost,” says Dunn. “We needed to have robust capabilities, but have everything fit into a defined budget." The company had already settled on Microsoft Lync to provide unified communications software for voice, IM, Web conferencing and video. But it needed to build an environment that could connect effectively to its contact center.

After conducting an extensive review of existing infrastructure and analyzing the organization's future needs, the credit union adopted a unified IP solution from Aspect Software. The integrated approach to collaboration and customer contact allows HarborOne to provide customer service by telephone and direct IM. In addition, because of the integration with Lync, bankers, representatives and others can more easily pinpoint available experts in the organization and route questions or issues to them for quick resolution.

"With the call center client on the desktop, we can easily hand off a customer question, a problem or an interaction to Microsoft Lync and find the right person to address the issue," Dunn explains. For example, when a customer walks into a HarborOne branch and asks about a mortgage or refinance, a manager can immediately connect the customer to a mortgage origination expert—even if the person is located in a different office. It's also possible to initiate a videoconferencing session or instant messaging stream to obtain immediate answers and fill out an application. In addition, customers can use the videoconferencing and IM features from home.

UC has profoundly changed the way the institution interacts with its customers. "We can take care of the customer's needs immediately," Dunn says. "The process can take place immediately rather than it involving call-backs and a series of back-and-forth exchanges that can span days." As a result, the firm's customer satisfaction level now ranks consistently above 95 percent in the "very good" to "excellent" categories. Moreover, HarborOne has increased its market share across many of the communities it serves and witnessed a 20 percent spike in contact center sales. The credit union is now making a growing array of UC features available on mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets, as well.

Making New Connections

In the past, unified communications has centered on technology that's used and managed on premises. These systems deliver a high degree of control and configurability, particularly for enterprises with workers clustered at central locations. However, cloud-based solutions are now also drifting into the enterprise landscape. In many instances, they offer a more flexible and scalable approach for organizations with numerous offices and large numbers of mobile workers. They're also attractive because they can lower capital expenditure costs.

Approximately 25 percent of organizations have adopted a cloud-based approach to UC videoconferencing and 38 percent are using, evaluating or planning for a cloud-based contact center, Nemertes Research shows. Kervin says the growing acceptance of cloud-based UC demonstrates that executives are comfortable using the technologies to manage key capabilities and infrastructure. Some organizations are also using hybrid UC systems that tap into both on-premise capabilities for large offices and domestic locations but also cloud-based systems for international offices.

Reaping the Benefits of Unified Communications

A cloud-based approach to UC appealed to Corporate Cost Control, a Londonderry, New Hampshire, firm that provides employment verification and unemployment cost management services for employers ranging from small firms to Fortune 500 companies. It has about 75 employees spread across 20 work locations. "We require a platform that allows us to communicate and collaborate across the country," says chief technology officer Dan Tienes. Among other things, the firm required integrated voice, messaging and fax capabilities. "We have to document conversations and actions because of the type of work we do," Tienes says. "We must be able to access these conversations."

Corporate Cost Control turned to a cloud-based UC solution, Whaleback's CrystalBlue cloud-based managed unified communications services. It allows staff to access messaging, collaboration and mobility features anywhere and at any time via the Internet, mobile networks or the public telecommunications network. In addition, employees can plug in IP phones and instantly access high-definition voice and network services. "We were able to add a variety of advanced features and build a far better communications platform for the organization," Tienes notes. This has resulted in lower IT costs and better service levels.

Kervin says that UC is increasingly the foundation for today's enterprise. It's unleashing greater productivity by effectively weaving together mobility, field offices, teleworkers and customers. It's making it easier to seamlessly manage tasks and connect data and voice in more natural and useful ways. What's more, cloud-based tools and solutions are allowing organizations to deploy features and capabilities at the speed of today's business environment—and allow information and knowledge to flow across the enterprise. As Kervin says, "It's helping companies better realize the potential of today's communication devices and tools."