Unified Communications in 2013 - Is it Time to Change the Channel?

Rethinking Communications

Unified Communications in 2013 - Is it Time to Change the Channel?

By Jon Arnold, Principal, J Arnold & Associates  |  June 10, 2013

The channel is an aspect of unified communications I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, and the time is now right.

In my last column, I provided a state-of-the-market update on UC, and touched on some of the challenges that are holding back adoption. There’s a lot of rethinking opportunity with UC, but the line is very fine between it being a loose collection of applications and an integrated platform to enable transformative change. The line may be fine, but the gap is large – perhaps more so than with other technologies.

For technology to have a transformative impact it must be both easy to use and easy to diffuse. Nobody knows this better than Apple (News - Alert), as its products are built around creating a great user experience. You never hear people talk about Apple products being difficult to use, and aside from the first day of availability of a new product, they’re generally easy to buy. Apple may be obsessive about secrecy and control, but diffusion is not a weakness.

This doesn’t describe UC very well, does it? UC can be easy to use – but only when two conditions are in place. First, the underlying technology must be squeaky clean. In theory this may be true, but vendor interoperability and network capacity are common issues when businesses run UC pilots. The second condition is that end users have to actually know that UC is there and they don’t have to learn much to make it work for them. Of course, this implies they need a reason to use UC, and just because it’s good for IT, doesn’t necessarily mean end users will feel the same way.

Making end users aware of UC speaks to the second driver of transformation: diffusion. IT has to find ways to get UC in the hands of end users, and increasingly that means all the endpoints and screens that touch our workflows – desk phones, PC screens, video monitors, tablets, smartphones and for some remote workers, their TV screens. Of course, this is when BYOD enters the picture and the need for a broader discussion about managing the marriage of mobility and broadband in the workplace. Again, in theory, diffusion should be easy, but in practice it most definitely is not.

Even from these high-level issues, it should be clear that IT has a lot of challenges they didn’t sign up for when UC crossed their radar. Each specific issue adds a bit more risk, especially since the benefits of UC are difficult to measure and not nearly as clear cut as the payoff for using VoIP. In today’s do-more-with-less mentality that’s choking IT, thinking big and trying to be transformative are daunting tasks that only the most visionary types are game to take on.

This brings us to the channel and the need for IT to think differently or simply expect more. Most INTERNET TELEPHONY readers deploying UC rely on a channel partner to some extent. Channel partners take the pressure off IT to stay on top of all the latest technologies, and can really put the value add in the VAR moniker by making UC deployments as seamless as possible. While this is what you should expect from your channel partner, the reality can be pretty hit and miss when it comes to UC.

To be transformative with UC, you’re going to need a lot from your channel partner – unless you have a really strong IT team, but that’s not likely the case with this audience. As you may know, not all partners are created equal – some do data very well but not voice, and vice versa for others. You need both for UC, and that’s just for covering the basics. Mobile integration will be needed to some extent, and if that’s not your strong suit this will fall to the channel partner. The same holds for video, and when you have all these channels working together, network security is going to be more important than ever.

On top of this, your success with UC depends heavily on gaining end user adoption. This is where the ease of use piece comes into play, and you need to get it right first time around. IT may see UC as a great solution, but it usually isn’t addressing a specific problem among end users, so if the experience is clunky, changing that first impression will take some work. While all the vendors will talk about their great end user experiences, UC is not usually out-of-the-box ready, and this is where the channel earns its keep.

Finally, you have to keep in mind that UC is new for the channels, and the business model is different from what they’ve been selling up until now. UC may not be as financially rewarding as legacy telephony, and that could impact your channel partner’s enthusiasm for taking you down this path.

To sum up, unless you’re planning to go it alone, your channel partner has a key role to play in having success with UC. If you’re aiming high to achieve transformative results and position IT as a more strategic resource for the business, you need to candidly assess if your current partner can support this vision. Long-term relationships build trust, but also complacency, so you need to be certain that they’re rethinking communications the same way you are – otherwise, it’s time to change the channel.

Jon Arnold (News - Alert) is principal of J Arnold & Associates, an independent telecom analyst and marketing consultancy with a focus on IP communications, and writes the Analyst 2.0 blog. Previously, he was the VoIP program leader at Frost & Sullivan.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi