Everybody knows by now that UC is the "next big thing," and many companies are rushing to implement some version of it. As with most tech trends, some are going in blindly, without really analyzing what the costs and benefits will be — or whether the latter outweighs the former. After all, if everyone's talking about it, it must be a good thing, right?
There are indeed many good things about integrating the various tools and methods that employees use to communicate with each other and those outside, but the "unify or die" mantra comes primarily from companies selling UC solutions, and particular solutions may or may not make sense for a particular organization. That's why it's important to assess and plan before you deploy.
Putting together the assessment team
The first step toward implementing UC within your organization often involves putting together a team to conduct an analysis and make recommendations. To be most effective, the team should consist of members drawn from different roles in the organization, including some or all of the following:
- Representatives of company management who can provide guidance on fitting the new UC deployment into the existing company philosophies and policies
- Representatives of the financial department who can crunch the numbers and give a realistic assessment of the UC deployment's impact on the bottom line
- Representatives of the IT department who can evaluate how to integrate UC into the company's existing network, realistic timeframes and estimates of administrative overhead involved in deployment, and potential technical problems
- Representatives from the legal department who can point out any ramifications that may affect regulatory compliance or other legal issues
- Representatives of ordinary end users who can help evaluate how a UC deployment will impact individual job performance, productivity, and job satisfaction
- An expert in UC who can make the rest aware of all the available options
Asking the hard questions
Once you've assembled the team, the members might start by putting together a list of questions to address. These will be different for different organizations, but here are some issues to consider:
- What do you want to accomplish by deploying UC, both in the short term and the long term? It's amazing that some companies embark on expensive and disruptive undertakings without first defining their goals and objectives. Ask yourselves, simply, why you're considering doing this.
- What existing problems will UC solve? For example, are workers currently missing calls and wasting time playing "telephone tag" because their calls go to voice mail if they're away from their desks instead of ringing through to their cell phones? Make a list of the problems and how you expect UC to solve them or reduce their impact.
- What are your priorities? You may not be able to address every problem on your list all at once. In that case, which are the most important? Which will save the most money, most improve worker efficiency and morale, most enhance the company's reputation, etc.? Which will affect more workers and/or the most mission-critical work? For example, if your company has moved away from faxes and now primarily uses e-mail attachments to exchange documents, an integrated fax solution may be of a lower priority.
- What's the budget? Unless your company is rolling in cash, you must always consider budgetary constraints. For example, your team may love the most comprehensive and sophisticated UC solution available, but if you can't afford it, you'll have to scale back your recommendations to something that will work with your budget. It's best to have an idea, going in, of the rough figures you'll be working with. And remember that no matter how well you plan, there will usually be some expenses that you overlooked, so give yourselves a cushion.
- What's your timeframe for implementation? Will you attempt to roll out a whole new communications system at once, or will you make changes in phases? Answers to the previous questions about priorities and the budget can help you determine how to order a multi-step deployment.
- Who will be responsible for what? For example, who will do the actual implementation? Will in-house personnel (IT or traditional communications) or an outside consultant set up and configure the equipment, or will the vendor provide "turn-key" setup? Who will act as the liaison between outside parties and the company? Who is responsible for training users?
These are only a few examples of the kinds of questions the team should attempt to answer.
Evaluating the options
Once you've constructed a fairly detailed road map based on the answers to the questions above, it's time to evaluate different vendors' solutions. Before you do so, though, you'll want to come up with yet another list of questions — these are questions to ask the vendors and address such issues as the length and extent of warranties, contract and cost details, and other items that only the vendor can answer about each particular solution.
A formal sales presentation from each vendor may be a starting point, but you should not make your decisions or recommendations based solely on that. Get client references from each vendor, and check with customers who are actually using the solutions.
To make the most informed decision, follow these guidelines:
- If possible, contact customers who have been using the solution for a while (at least several months), as well as brand-new customers, since some problems (both technical problems and problems with customer service) may not show up right away.
- Actually visit the companies that have deployed the solution rather than just discussing it over the phone. See the solution in action in a working environment that's similar to your own.
- Talk to end users and IT workers at the referenced company, not just managers. Management is not always aware of problems that may exist in day-to-day use and administration/support.
Unified communications is the wave of the future, and it's likely that your company will be deploying a UC solution at some point. To avoid costly mistakes when you do, you should have a structured plan for assessing the costs and benefits of UC for your organization, a road map to guide your deployment, and informed information on which to base your decisions regarding why, when, how, and how much, as well as which UC vendor's solution to choose.
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Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.