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Growing pains: Navigating unified communications

2015 marked the beginning of a systemic transformation for enterprise communication and collaboration. Thanks to a crop of new tools, vendor alliances, and technology innovation, most organisations have graduated from unified communications (UC) infancy and entered a type of adolescence.

Last year, enterprise platforms like Box became bona fide workplace essentials; as of December, the platform was being used by over 41 million end-users with a paying customer base of more than 54,000 businesses. A handful of IT bellwethers also entered or solidified their positions in the UC space: Apple forged partnerships with the likes of Cisco and IBM to improve enterprise productivity and users' collaboration experience. Microsoft's first acquisition of 2016 indicates the company's plans to enhance its Skype for Business solution.

Unified communications: Broadening horizons

Given these developments, one thing is certain: unified communications no longer equates to just VoIP phones and email. The present and future landscape for this technology is much more diverse. According to our recent survey of more than 250 IT leaders, nearly seven in 10 organisations use UC tools beyond those essentials.

In order to endure and capitalise on UC's dynamic shift, business and IT decision-makers need a close understanding of the changes happening around them.

As 2016 unfolds, organisations must be prepared to deviate from their communication and collaboration status quo. Here are a few of the forces IT managers will confront sooner rather than later:

Video conferencing's tipping point

Based on our research, audio conferencing, web conferencing, and IM platforms still dominate organisations' communication technology adoption, but video is (finally) catching up. Sixty eight per cent of IT leaders report that their employees have access to video conferencing tools, and thirty six per cent plan to roll out or expand their video capabilities over the next few years.

These intentions aside, close to one third of IT managers still consider video tools to be the most difficult to support, a perception that could complicate future implementations. As employees continue to use consumer video apps like Skype and FaceTime in their personal lives, and take advantage of opportunities to work remotely, employers can expect more pressure to deliver rich video resources within and outside the office. To accommodate, IT managers need make sure they have the proper network speed and bandwidth to fully support video.

Technology demand trumps cost

Surprisingly, money is no longer the main deal-breaker when IT departments weigh new UC investments. Only twenty three per cent of technical leaders cite cost as their organisations' reason for putting off UC adoption; more than half claim that the number one deterrent is that a proposed solution isn't a 'must-have' resource. This pivot is an important one, bringing with it ramifications for how IT teams interact with the rest of their organisation. Currently, only eight per cent of IT leaders consider employee demand a primary motivation for UC adoption – indicating that IT teams may be determining which tools are must-haves without input from end users.

Making communication and collaboration tool investments in a silo is a recipe for stalled adoption and unrealised ROI. Going forward, organisations will have to set a precedent for communication between IT and the lines of business, one that ensures IT keeps track of end users' technology feedback and needs. At the same time, end users should know how to articulate the best case for UC purchases (including how a solution could enhance productivity, reduce expenses, or support customer engagement).

Vendor name loses cachet to quality

A handful of vendors have come to reign over the enterprise UC market, but brand name has less sway over IT managers' investment decisions than it used to. Just twenty nine per cent of IT managers would delay buying a new UC tool until their preferred vendor introduced its own version; more than half think it's more important to select best-of-breed communication and collaboration tools, rather than collect a homogenised group of products from the same vendor.

Per this strategy, IT leaders will need to be particularly mindful of compatibility when choosing new solutions. A patchwork of different vendor UC tools must still provide a cohesive end user experience, offering the same level of accessibility, convenience, and functionality employees would expect from a single-vendor setup.

In years past, organisations' main UC concerns revolved around navigating the adoption process and keeping enterprise-grade audio and email systems running. Today – thanks to a combination of end users' growing technical savvy, industry innovation, and the widespread evolution of workplace collaboration – the UC challenges business leaders face are much more elaborate.

The burden now falls on IT leaders not only to diversify the communication tools they roll out, but also to establish closer relationships with the end users they support. By addressing UC transformation through both technology and culture, organisations stand the best chance of enduring (and even avoiding) any growing pains.

Rob Bellmar, West Unified Communications

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