What is UC All About? Revisiting the Definition of Unified Communications

What is UC All About? Revisiting the Definition of Unified Communications

By Jim Burton August 3, 2010 1 Comments
Jim Burton
What is UC All About? Revisiting the Definition of Unified Communications by Jim Burton

In this Industry Buzz podcast, the UCStrategies experts debate the definition of unified communications, and the validity of trying to define the term.

The expert panel includes Jim Burton, Art Rosenberg, Marty Parker, Nancy Jamison, Don Van Doren, Dave Michels, Jay Brandstadter, and Steve Leaden.

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Transcript for What is UC All About? Revisiting the Definition of Unified Communications

Jim Burton: Welcome to UCStrategies Industry Buzz. This is Jim Burton. I’m here with the UCStrategies expert team as usual, missing one, that would be Blair Pleasant, and unfortunately this is a topic near and dear to her heart. It’s a discussion of the definition of unified communications. One of the challenges that we’ve had ever since Microsoft and Cisco came out defining some of their products as unified communications was a group of vendors who just automatically one day put UC in front of every product in their portfolio when none of it was really UC. I’ll have to say that some of those vendors have come quite a long ways and they really do have unified communications components today.

The other problem we’ve had is that the marketing people inside a number of these vendors have taken liberties with what the definition of UC could be so they could differentiate their product. This has created a lot of confusion in the marketplace and quite frankly I think a lot of problems. But I think that we can address those issues in our panel discussion today and kind of get back to where it is. One point of interest, one of the most clicked-on items on our website is under UC Resources and it’s the definition of unified communications. So I’m going to turn it over to Art Rosenberg who’s the one who kind of instigated this as our discussion for today. Let him make a few comments and then turn it over to Marty who’s going to follow up with kind of getting us back where we really need to be today discussing the definition of unified communications and we’ll open it up to the team.  So Art, over to you.

Art Rosenberg: When you talk about any technology, especially one that people use, you have to break it down to what I consider three main factors. One is the infrastructure which end users couldn’t care less about. They just want it to be there and be cost efficient and so on. Then there’s the user interfaces and how they will communicate and use the technology. And last but not least are the automated business process applications—they’re to me like users. An application is like a user when it wants to communicate with a person. The bottom line is, how do you communicate with a person in whatever form you can, for whatever reason and it’s not just person-to-person, in fact we want to minimize people getting in the middle of communication, but also a process the person that wants to notify.

Going back to the term, unified communications, I have in front of me an editorial dated January 24, 2000 and the title of it is The Users Need Unified Messaging or Unified Communications. Because I was interested in unified messaging primarily; email and voicemail and so on make it interchangeable. I was trying to bring in the need for having real time communication be able to initiate a voice call, not just a message. So when you can’t connect them you can leave a message but if you get a message you want to maybe respond with a voice call not just another message. So that was the original incentive for end users to be able to have the flexibility of communicating anyway they want, being as a contact initiator or as a recipient. And both roles have their individual needs and responsibilities and requirements from the technology. So, the problem that I see today is too many of the providers are focused on the real time part only, which is not correct. There’s more and more messaging going on, more and more texting going on and it’s not that the real time is not necessary, it just to be put into the context of one of the choices and not the only choice. And on that note I’ll turn it over to Marty.

Marty Parker: Thank you, Art, for setting that stage. This is Marty Parker and I’m really thrilled to be having this conversation. Over 10 years ago when I started in unified communications nobody knew what the definition was. As people started announcing products in the early 2000’s the definitions were kind of roughly defined. Gartner put out their first UC Magic Quadrant in 2003 and began to define it, mostly around an integration of technology.  By 2006, UCstrategies.com was founded and we put out a definition at that time: “communications integrated to optimize business processes,” which has pretty well stood the test of time.

But today, the definition hardly matters. And that’s a funny thing to say in a conversation about definitions. The reason it hardly matters is today unified communications is defined by the results. You can call it whatever you want today and people will know what it is based on the results as reported in a thousand or so case studies. You can see an index to those on our website. The case studies basically show where the payoffs are. We’ve seen white papers quoting dozens of case studies and defining thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars of savings per employee per year across a handful of categories.

And the customers are smart. The marketing teams at any vendor you want to name can define UC the way they want to position their products, but the customers will follow the money. Jerry Maguire's "Show me the money" is a customer mantra. They will follow the money to the applications, whether they’re the UC User productivity or the UC Business Process applications; and they’ll base it on the game-changing communications solutions that consume presence or IM or social networks or conferencing – whether it’s voice or web or some videoconferencing, collaborative work spaces, global or remote office communication options; especially if they’re information based mobile portals, you know, the Blackberry model at large, or even IP telephony. A SIP client on an iPod Touch would categorize as a game-changing option that would enable new solutions for healthcare care providers. We have a client doing that today.

So it’s that kind of idea, that new technologies enable transformative solutions which produce major financial benefits and results for the clients and that’s where the clients go. So we’re past, I think, the day of arguing definitions just as a set of opinions. Now we can make the definitions reflect the actual consumption. Sounds like “communications integrated to optimize business processes” still works pretty well to me. So who else would like to comment on that?

Nancy Jamison: Oh, this is Nancy; I’d like to jump in because I think you’re right. I think a definition is irrelevant and the proof’s in the pudding. So one of the things that’s kind of obvious is that, we made this so important so that everybody had to jump on the bandwagon even if they, like you said, took liberties with what the definition was or the products that they have. So, you know it doesn’t really matter what the definition is, it’s the results. So when somebody says they have unified communications capabilities, they have to prove it. So the customers are going to say what they want; the vendors are going to say this is what we have and it’s not easy like it used to be. If you said unified messaging, we knew what that was; voice messaging, we knew what that was, right? But then with UC there are so many components to it that it’s who cares about arguing the definition now, it’s about the results.

Marty Parker: If I could jump back in on Nancy’s comment, and say, I think one of the reasons it becomes more complex Nancy, is that we’re linking up with the business processes.  And business processes vary by vertical industry. Each industry has its typical value chain but then various companies within that industry tweak the value change. Southwest Airlines is different from United Airlines. So they have different models that they’re trying to serve which is exciting—that’s where they get the big results. But it also leads as you say to this diversity that makes it harder to define.

Nancy Jamison: One more comment. We’re also combining markets. Now we’re looking at UC being part of a contact center and vice versa. We’re adding social media, then we’re adding all the things that are peripheral to that like workforce management and quality monitoring and it gets really blurred. I think the onus is going to be on the vendors to actually prove the value of what they can do by listening to those customers.

Art Rosenberg: This is Art. I also want to make a comment on what Marty just said. And that is, it’s not just the applications, it’s also a focus on the individual end-user whoever they may be; whether they’re in your company or a customer or a partner, it makes no difference. But every individual user has different applications they need to deal with, not just one. They deal with many. And those applications may or may not be applications within the business. It could be somebody else’s business. And you need that kind of flexibility for the individual end-user to be able to deal with any application in any way that’s appropriate.

Dave Michels: I think that’s the key thing, Art, that UC as a definition has to be defined by the customer and the customer’s requirements vary widely and therefore it’s a fuzzy definition. The vendors defining it are based on a set of tools that we may or may not, the customer may or may not want. It used to be so simple with the PBX and voice—it was pretty straightforward—that’s what it did, that’s what it was. But voice used to be 100% of the solution, now it’s a small percent of the solution compared with collaboration and IM and presence and messaging mobility, video, SMS, VoIP, APIs, etc. For a vendor to be UC ready needs to have a fairly broad offering. However, if the customer does not necessarily require all this stuff, let’s just say a customer has no need for voice, that doesn’t mean that their new solution isn’t a UC solution. That’s the fuzziness, or the problem that we have. A lot of the vendors are very proud to distance themselves from the PBX term, but I find that kind of pointless because there’s nobody that makes PBX’s anymore. Any of the PBX vendors of 10 years ago have rebranded themselves as UC vendors. They all like to make fun of, “this isn’t a PBX anymore,” but really the PBX has just morphed into a multi-modal communications solution—at least the good ones have. It really boils down to what Marty was saying, it’s the eye of the customers, the results of the customer that matter and because the customer’s requirements are so varied, it’s very difficult to come up with a definition that works for everybody.

Art Rosenberg: Agreed.

Don Van Doren: This is Don. That’s exactly the point I was going to make. I mean vendors sell tools, enterprises implement solutions, and I think that if somebody wants to hop on a hot trend they’re going to claim that their tools do exactly whatever this hot trend is all about. That’s what the vendors have done and I think that has added to some of the confusion. I don’t know that we need to define it in terms of what the enterprises are doing though exactly either. I think really what’s going on here is that we have a transformative way of thinking about how communications, not just voice; not just data; not just between people, but the broad spectrum of communication and communicating information how that is going to be able to done in the future based on some fundamental technology shifts that have been occurring over the last decade and will be continuing for about the next decade. I think that we get all hung up in the definition in part because the vendors have money to spend on pushing their own positioning, and as I mentioned and as Dave Michels just said, the vendors are just selling tools and so they’re going to map that definition anyway they can. But I think what’s important for us as we are moving forward is to keep our eyes focused on the shift in the way all of these things happen. As many of us have said in speeches or articles, unified communications isn’t a product, it isn’t even a solution, it’s really much more a way of thinking about how communications changes business processes. And that’s why that six-word definition has really stood the test of time: communication integrated to optimize business processes.

Art Rosenberg: The question there to add is, that’s the objective, obviously. That justifies it. The question is, how do you do that – implementation?

Marty Parker: We’ve actually found the answer to that; it’s probably a different podcast, Jim, but the answer is use spaces within a value chain. Each industry has a typical value chain, airlines different from hospitals obviously, and within the value chain you find specific spots like in healthcare, the inpatient caregivers have a different need set than the administration and billing departments. So, you can actually begin to get to use cases which define the needs going back to the earlier comments Nancy and Dave and others, it’s needs driven; use cases define the needs. Steve, you were commenting on that?

Steve Leaden: Just to Art’s point and to your point, Marty, I think we’re in this evolving stage of what the definition is, and I think to Don’s point, about the six word definition I’m in total agreement about that and I think that will stand the test of time. Yet, as we’re going through procurements right now with clients who are migrating from a traditional TDM digital environment now into a total IT telephony environment, they’re all, all of them, either seriously considering UC in the strict sense, IM and chat and the other kinds of presence functions, cell phone, etc. But on top of that they’re also looking at emergency notification and unified messaging and all the other elements with the end game of basically helping to deliver a, for lack of a better word, transformed organization that literally can be modified in terms of culture from the ground up. So all of the CIO’s that we’re working for that have vision are definitely including this as part of their deployment and as part of the total strategy. So I think in the interim, in the short space of time, maybe within this window of 24 to 36 months, I think the enterprise community is scratching their head and saying really what is UC knowing that I already have IP telephony or looking at it. But I think in the broader sense, in the longer term sense I think it’ll go back to definition that Don shared before. So I think again, the definition that Don shared will stand the test of time from beginning through the next 20 years. I think we’ll have these interim stages where again we have to help the enterprise community focus on exactly what some of these components are as they’re looking at them.

Jay Brandstadter: Steve, this is Jay Brandstadter, let me pick up on what you just said. These CIO’s, how do they perceive UC? Do they have a vision of it? What is their view? Or how do you tell them to define it or its definition? What is it to them?

Steve Leaden: We’ve worked now on seven medium-to-large projects now in the recent past and we’ve helped define for clients basically UC in the IM, chat, presence, cell phone, audio and videoconferencing and unified messaging components. The steps that have taken place is yes, we need to replace our older infrastructure that’s at manufacturer discontinuance, end-of-life, can’t increase capacity, can’t sign technicians, whatever the end of life for capacity drivers are. And then of course we add into the conversation, “well let’s look at some of the newer technologies that are available in the market,” and we talk about the at-home workers and the field that can be working in a virtual way, etcetera, and all of that seems very appealing. So then, when we’ve created a pro-forma kind of baseline adding these UC-specific components as an option its very, very interesting because what we’re finding from experience is that once the customers have seen UC added onto a traditional IP telephony change out, they all of a sudden say “I can do this, I can do that with my organization, I can be conversing with people in real time mode knowing exactly where they are. This is just going to change my whole business model in terms of being virtual...” We’re finding really that customers really want to embrace it. And then when they see the price point that, “hey you know what maybe for another twenty cents on the dollar up to thirty cents on the dollar, I can get all of this and transform my organization...” So we have found in our space that seven out of the seven last customers have bought both IP telephony as well as again UC in the strict short term sense.

Marty Parker: I’d like to comment on what Steve said, if that’s okay Jay.

Jay Brandstadter: Yes, then I have a comment.

Marty Parker: Steve, Don and I have been invited in by CIO’s with a different question. It’s not always an end-of-life question although sometimes we get those too. We get invited in with the question of, “I’ve heard about UC, what can it do for my organization?” Now, almost every time we have to stop and answer Jay’s question, which is – well, what does it mean, what is UC? And we start with the six-word definition but we get into use cases and the transformative work. So, Steve, we get in some cases to the same place, the transformative work, but once the CIO and the CTO realize that they actually can get most of what they need, if not all of it, without touching their existing PBX, we actually end up saving millions of dollars rather than spending another twenty cents on top of the IP telephony swap out. And that’s happened in 60% of our engagements in the past three years that the customers have said, “oh, I really don’t have to worry so much about the end-of-support questions, sure at some point I’ll have to upgrade,”... in some cases they buy the upgrade to their existing gear rather than going shopping for a new IP PBX because they can keep all the same phones; they convert all that phone replacement money into either savings, or the investment in the UC development. So it’s an interesting thing. Some see it as on top of IP and some can see it as get up.

Jay Brandstadter: That’s a very interesting point because to many, UC is a dimension of ever-increasing IP communications. It doesn’t have to be. In fact, most of mobility at this point as Michael I’m sure will add, he has to, is not on an IP basis just yet. The thing about definitions and I agree with Marty’s earlier comment, we don’t need definitions. What we need is results be it use case or business case, whatever we choose to call it, but the value of these new and emerging communications to the organization be it the commercial enterprise or the non-commercial organization. The bone I have to pick with UC is it’s become such an overused and abused marketing term it has no meaning. It’s a rather empty term. People put UC in front of their product name because the term UC has stuck. Somehow or other a lot of us are living with it and reacting to it and it’s there. But it has not real value. As a term, the value is of course in the applications and what it can do for people. But its so vendor driven and analyst/consultant driven that it gets lost in the equation in my view.

Steve Leaden: Just a footnote on yours, Jay, what we’re seeing is also the reason why we’re seeing now especially why people are adapting to again UC in the strict sense of the word in a Greenfield or a replacement environment especially because most of the vendors now have re-proportioned their licensing programs and have added again things that you used to have buy a separate license for, let’s say a presence license—oh by the way that present license is now included as part of your basic IP telephony license or your cell phone license is included in that as well. So all of a sudden it makes it I think we’re going to see a lot of adoption now of all of these components in the market because of again this licensing being thrown in as all-inclusive.

Marty Parker: Right, and the licensing however, turns out to...they’re working to some extent on the wrong end of deliver saying to some extent with all the virtualization that ‘s being done because the main money now has moved over to professional services. And it is the creation of the UC applications, perhaps even with a portal-based user interface and the adoption models, the change management or change leadership as Don would call it, and the training and process evolution work will turn out to be the money. So thank you to all the vendors for lowering the license price so we can put all the other money into professional services. That’s why Dimension Data by the way is being sold to NTT for lower than the IP telephony revenues of Avaya.

Jim Burton: Marty, following up a little what you said about all of the money going into professional services, I know in the early days I contacted a number of vendors and asked, “why do you call it UC,” because is it unifying communications? Well, in many ways it’s integrating communication. And they said as they did their studies they found out the customers didn’t like the word integration because it really meant some heavy lifting when it came to the services, integrating those services. So, the reality is that’s what it is, but it’s not. I suggest we go back to calling it CTI, except the CTI words have changed a little bit, its communications technology integration. I don’t think that’ll fly, but I’ll throw that out there.

Art Rosenberg: I’ve got to object to that. It’s not just, it’s obviously the technology has to change you can change anything that works. But it’s the user perception of integrating communications, making it easy for them to switch from one to the other when needed, not being stuck especially when you’re mobile. That’s where the payoff is because if the end-users don’t use it you can forget the rest.

Marty Parker: Maybe, Jim it’s an invitation to us to do some more thinking about what’s the next, in response to Jay Brandstadter’s point, what’s the next syntax taxonomy that we need here? And so maybe naming the application sets might be helpful. It’s worth some thought.

Jay Brandstadter: I really am not looking for taxonomy so much as I am a little bit more of a reality check. Again, the definitions per se don’t matter whether this “UC” is a variation of what’s been called convergence in this digital age, or something else. That doesn’t really matter in terms of a pseudo science. And the pseudo science asks that of UC is wrong in my opinion. Things like worrying about human latency. Well I think the economy is taking care of human latency very much by laying off the humans. Seriously pseudo science does not belong in communications applications and this is what we’re all about and I think this is kind of a disservice to users and others trying to get their hands around UC to create a myth and a mythology of science. Its communications applications to serve people and their organizations so that’s it.

Marty Parker: So Jim, I think we’re back to the conversation from the beginning which has had a lot of concurrence here which is it’s about results. So probably it’s an invite and a challenge to us all to keep posting about results. I think we’ll be doing some updates to the application case study library. Maybe that can be a real bell weather, help people see where the results are being achieved and follow those trails.

Art Rosenberg: Well you know what I think will be very useful addendum to this is, you want to look at results, where are the metrics that you’re going to be looking at to measure those results?

Marty Parker: Those are in the case studies, or they’re either in the case studies Art or they’re in our analysis of the case studies, and so that’s probably an opportunity.

Jim Burton: I think that it was brought up talking about case studies in use cases that I know that a number of you are working on things in healthcare and I think for next week’s topic, I think that’s what we should talk about, our use cases in healthcare and really go into some of the things that you’ve seen and observed there. Anything else before we call it a day? Thank you everybody, appreciate your time and next week it’ll be use cases on healthcare. Thanks everybody.



1 Responses to "What is UC All About? Revisiting the Definition of Unified Communications" - Add Yours

Howard Baldwin 8/4/2010 9:36:15 AM

This was a terrific, enlightening conversation to hear. I have been following unified communications for more than ten years, back to the time when companies were trying to embed it into their proprietary products (was it Lotus, among others?). This was probably long before IP telephony was a gleam in anyone’s eye.
The mention of the SIP client on the BlackBerry was also exciting, because I think that SIP applications are the unheralded next frontier of application development, especially now that smartphones actually have the internal storage, processing, and network power to support them. It’s an exciting world ahead.
For more on the trends and technologies affecting UC, I would recommend reading this Qwest white paper on the topic (http://bit.ly/acmOQB). About me: http://bit.ly/aE9rMB.

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