Everyone says Unified Communications increases productivity – therefore, it must be true…
Unified Communications is often portrayed as a poster child for cloud-based business services. By bringing together different communications elements into a single interface and service, it is said to offer significant new productivity benefits. Many providers repeatedly make significant claims for the benefits that will result, if you only you sign up to their service and commit to the (often lengthy) contract they offer.
If you are looking to move away from legacy solutions or obsolete PBX technology, you will almost certainly be asked to consider migrating to Unified Communications. As part of the pitch, the vendor will tell you how their solution will increase your productivity, enhance the efficiency of your communication and generally boost your businesses bottom line. But, are these claims really true? Unified Communications may be in vogue, but does it offer what you need, and will it deliver the promised benefits?
Perhaps surprisingly, it turns out that there is little research material available to really quantify the benefits. If these cannot be quantified with any degree of certainty, then the claims made by vendors must be assertions, based on what they want you to believe, rather than on any hard and fast facts. So, what’s the truth? How can you decide if Unified Communications is really for you, or if it’s just over-blown hype?
What is Unified Communications anyway?
While there are many definitions of Unified Communications, its purpose is really to bring together different communications and information processes into a single, combined interface and experience. Such processes include telephony, chat and instant messaging, team conferencing and others. These can be used separately, in disconnected silos, but by bringing them together, users can, in theory, optimise how they use them.
As such, Unified Communications is seen as an evolution of existing communications solutions, that consolidates and unifies other processes that have been adopted in the workplace. The claims that have been made about benefits are based on this notion of a single environment. Do they stack up?
Data from the market – vendor bias, vendor sponsored, incomplete
This is where marketing takes over. Vendors of Unified Communications solutions will assert that their offer will increase your productivity, but these claims are rarely backed by facts collected from the workplace. As such, these claims are largely meaningless. It’s all very well for a vendor to say that their solution will increase efficiency, but unless they can say by how much and under what circumstances, then it’s simply an assertion, with no basis in fact.
And, if you are being asked to invest in a new service, you need to have confidence that it can really deliver. Of course, testimonials from other users can help, but without numbers, you are simply taking a leap of faith to hope that you obtain the same outcome as your peers – who may be unrepresentative of your business or your industry sector.
Somewhat surprisingly, there is little independent or academic analysis that evaluates Unified Communications solutions against measurable, objective criteria, or which provides properly researched data. Most reports are, in fact, sponsored by vendors, which removes much of their objectivity. So, where does this leave us? Is Unified Communications all hype?
No, it’s not – but we need to be very careful how we evaluate claims and how we relate these to the needs of our businesses.
Let’s look at it from another perspective
If Unified Communications is said to benefit users, we might want to start off by looking at what users really want. By switching perspective, we can move from that vendors want us to think to something that is likely to be more representative of people like us – people who use tools in the workplace and can really understand what they expect to obtain from them.
With this in mind, there is some research that offers insights regarding workplace attitudes and needs. Although somewhat dated, it’s still relevant because of the demand for features it exposes.
Figure 1, below ,shows the results of a survey of employees that work in the Small / Medium Business segment (also known as Small and Medium Enterprises, or SMEs in Europe). The survey was carried out in 2014 .
Gartner defines an SMB as having fewer than 100 employees, while the European Union, or EU, takes a somewhat broader view and counts companies with up to 250 employees as SMEs. In all countries, this segment has the largest number of businesses – in the EU, it’s 99% of all companies. As such, research that focuses on SME / SMB segments can yield very useful information that can really help to understand what business customers actually want and need.
Figure 1: What do the employees of SMBs really want?
Figure 2 addresses the same topic, but this time from the perspective of business owners.
Figure 2: What do SMB business owners really want?
In summary, the key features identified are aligned and cover:
These features essentially combine to form the base definition of a Unified Communications solution. So, if these features are what businesses actually want, what benefits can they deliver?
How can you really benefit from Unified Communications?
When placing a traditional phone call, several things can happen. Clearly, the call might be answered, in which case a conversation will ensue. However, the called party might be engaged or absent, in which case, the call may be terminated to voicemail. In this case, the caller will have placed the call and will probably expect the person they called to return it, once they have listened to the voicemail. All of this takes time.
If, instead, the caller can see the status of the person whom they are trying to reach (let’s imagine it’s “busy” for the sake of this discussion), they can decide whether to call or to wait until the person becomes available. If they also have the option of chat, they can send a simple message to be person and begin a discussion, without waiting for the person to become available.
So, the combination of chat, presence and voice can be used selectively to determine status and then, when the time is convenient, make a real call. All of which helps people manage their time more effectively. Similarly, if a voicemail can be delivered to someone’s email inbox, then it can be played back easily without the need to retrieve it from a server by dialling in.
If a team wishes to have a discussion, then conferencing – that is, creating a multi-party call – allows this to happen. And, as many people now have multiple devices on which they can be reached, forwarding to all of these means that the most convenient terminal can be selected in order to answer the call.
And, there is the dynamic dimension to consider. If a user has a chat with a colleague, they may obtain the answer they need. However, if more detail is required, they can use chat as a gateway to move on to a real conversation. Users can switch from one mode to another, while retaining the context of the dialogue in which they are engaged.
Unified Communications provides a way of using time more effectively. Quantifying the benefits will, naturally, depend on the calling habits and patterns of your business. Variables such as the number of calls each day to the company and the number of internal calls, as well as the time spent on each, will all contribute.
Reducing time spent on non-productive activities (missed calls, voicemail retrieval) adds up but will differ from business to business. While there are objective measures that could be captured for any business, the ability to use multiple channels and to switch between them, seamlessly, can result in subjective impressions – in other words, how your business perceives the advantages.
Perhaps the best way of assessing the impact of Unified Communications, then, is in terms of perception. And, it turns out, this is where we finally find some useful insights from academic research.
How Unified Communications enhances the perception of productivity
In an article published in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Information, Knowledge and Management, Fluker and Murray reviewed work practice and adoption of Unified Communications in a major multi-national enterprise. Their findings suggest that “UC facilitate(s) better and easier communication in the workplace”. This is because Unified Communications enables better “efficiency, speed, multi-tasking and interpersonal relationships”.
This delivers a perception of greater productivity – it takes less time to complete tasks and there is less wasted effort. Crucially, it also enables multi-tasking, so a user can be in a chat session with multiple colleagues, hold several individual chat sessions at once, all while talking to someone else. So, people feel more flexible, more available and more accessible.
The real value is not in replacing other forms of communications, but rather of providing a new and “innovative way of using” them. People can experience and benefit from a more “effective communication flow”.
So, let’s return to our original point. Many vendors make bold claims about how their Unified Communications solution will positively impact your business. However, few, if any, are actually able to substantiate these claims. In order to understand if Unified Communications is suitable for you, you need to think about what you and your colleagues need in order to save time and to focus more on productive tasks. That’s where perception comes in.
We do have strong positive signals, as seen in Figures 1 & 2, regarding what matters to employees and owners. The actual time impact (and hence contribution to productivity) will depend on the specific needs of your business. Thus, selecting the right communications tools requires an understanding of how people interact and the channels they use to accomplish this.
As a business, you need to think about the ways in which you interact internally and with customers. Unified Communications can help, but the ways in which it helps are not complex – it brings things together, so that you have a single interface for multiple channels and modes of communication.
If you cannot understand the ways in which it might benefit, then the chances are that your colleagues won’t either. The reality is that individual perception is what matters. If your vendors sell a myth, the benefits will be equally mythical. What you need is the ability to try and then find out what is right for your business.
That’s why VoIPstudio is available to try before you buy – simply sign up and see if it fits your business and if it can be adopted in your workplace. It’s a no risk proposition that is based on a practical understanding of what people do, how they communicate and how they interact. Explore VoIPstudio today.
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