Getting the most from UC

01 April 2018

After being largely overlooked for years, has video conferencing as a standalone application finally come of age? PHOTO: Logitech Video Collaboration

After being largely overlooked for years, has video conferencing as a standalone application finally come of age? PHOTO: Logitech Video Collaboration

The unified communications (UC) solutions sector looks set to have a profitable future over the next few years, with analysts forecasting market values ranging from $57bn (Global Market Insights, 2018) to $143.49bn (Grand View Research, 2017).

Meanwhile, fervent competitive activity between UC platform vendors bears-out sustained investment in this technology by customers of all sizes and sectors. 

Furthermore, unified communications seems to have shaken-off what could be called the ‘UC paradox’ that dogged it for years: expanding installed base without increased user adoption. Indications are that take-up among workforces has increased. This is perhaps a sign that digital startups and digitally-transformative companies are applying more strident policies toward requiring their workforces to demonstrably learn and use the communications tools provided, and not favoured alternatives and/or ‘shadow UC’.

So, with growth assured and better utilisation on track, the larger UC question shifts to whether enterprises are making the best use of their investments in these solutions.

If you build it…

For some, UC adoption rates are an instructive tracker for enterprise video conferencing uptake. As a standalone application, video conferencing’s fortunes waited year after year for the one in which it would ‘finally come of age’. The tipping point argument here has sometimes been ‘install it in rooms, and workers will use it’. But according to some observers, that mantra will be superseded by the millennial behaviours of enterprise mobility.

Analyst Wainhouse Research points out that although many meeting rooms might now be equipped with audio- or video conferencing endpoints/devices, in privacy-constrained open-plan offices, workgroup meetings are increasingly taking place in huddle rooms – unassigned or utility rooms that can only accommodate up to six attendees. Wainhouse Research estimates that while there are some two million group video conferencing rooms in use worldwide, there are additionally 30-50 million huddle rooms, of which only a tiny percentage are enabled with video conferencing endpoints/devices. This therefore represents a massive potential instalment base for UC video conferencing, and a way for enterprises to add extra value to their systems.

“Use of these smaller rooms is set to rise, and collaboration solutions are being developed specifically to accommodate this adoption uptake,” says Ann Marie Ginn, senior category manager at Logitech Video Collaboration. “Video is increasingly integrated into workflow communications, and we are seeing this trend across multiple platforms – SlackCisco Sparkor Microsoft Skype for Business, are examples. Good news for legacy users, as it promises to make workaday collaboration more straightforward.”

However, as any seasoned network manager will tell, installation of video conferencing endpoints/devices to huddle rooms is one thing; building the backend capacity to support multiple simultaneous video conferences presents a challenge of a quite different order. Experience of degraded video conferencing across over-crowded and over-contended networks, while group decision deadlines loom, might cause users to revert to conventional audio conferencing, leaving video conferencing ROI decidedly unreturned.

“Video calling and video conferencing remains a major concern for network managers, especially in UCaaS deployments,” notes Mike Wilkinson, VP international at real-time communication services specialist Edgewater Networks. “The majority of UCaaS deployments size bandwidth requirements on the assumption that the vast majority of traffic is based on voice. In many cases, video traffic is restricted to ensure the quality of voice connections are not impaired.” 

Steve Harris, EVP of IT distributor Nuvias Unified Communications, believes that the reduction in costs for both meeting/huddle room hardware and cloud-based virtual meeting rooms (VMRs) is certainly driving video as a ubiquitous application. He says: “A clear industry move to open standards is making this possible, and cloud VMRs are becoming more agnostic to endpoints and looking to provide a consistent experience regardless. 

“For the network manager this presents a challenge on user adoption and education. Previously, this would have caused more quality-of-service-related networking issues, but the costs and availability of bandwidth now means this is not so much of an issue.”

According to Mark Russell, director of operations, UK & Ireland at Swyx, the challenge with UC video conferencing is that it requires substantial bandwidth to “look good and stay reliable”. He reckons that is why it will still be a long time before it is ubiquitous in every size of company.

According to 3CX, a dream of cloud-based UC solutions is to avoid investments in technology that inevitably becomes outdated or requires complex and costly maintenance.

According to 3CX, a dream of cloud-based UC solutions is to avoid investments in technology that inevitably becomes outdated or requires complex and costly maintenance.

But for Paul Clarke, UK manager at 3CX, it’s the other way round. He argues that increased demand for video conferencing makes it necessary to envisage an appropriate infrastructure that supports web meetings – but that does not mean organisations have to invest in conferencing hardware. For instance, Clarke reckons using WebRTC can make UC-based video conferencing browser-based and accessible via a simple click from any device that supports AV streaming. “This means the only real challenge for network managers is to ensure that there is enough bandwidth available for video conferencing without disruption to any other communication or operational processes – which any UC management tool worth its salt should support.”

Greg Zweig, director of solutions marketing at cloud-based real-time communications provider Ribbon Communications, agrees that network capacity upgrades (including security upgrades) are of higher importance to video conferencing uptake than in-premise endpoint availability.

Indeed, he challenges assumptions that video conferencing adoption is predicated on in-room endpoint/device availability and points out that many workplaces are going beyond that operational model. 

“That threshold has long been met, as any iPhone/Androidsmartphone is now a capable video conferencing endpoint device,” says Zweig. The challenge nowadays is probably more generational. Younger employees simply do not think of a groupvideo interaction with five co-workers as a video conference – it’s simply ‘a call’.”

Thus, he predicts that the “writing is on the wall” for old-model video conferencing technology as older generations of co-workers retire from the physical workplace and notions of fixed-point video conferencing are left to fade into the past.

Cloud’s value proposition

For Logitech Video Collaboration, the key driver for UC value innovation is cloud. “Cloud now underpins everything,” says Ginn. “While smaller businesses have well-established collaboration platforms that have allowed them to pioneer modern-day working practices, [only recently have we seen] large enterprises comfortable with the reliability of cloud-based solutions.”

In fact, most enterprises are not procuring new UC hardware platforms, they are purchasing cloud-based UC services, suggests Ribbon’s Zweig. But he goes on to say that cloud users should not sit back and let service providers make too many decisions for them: “As such, they have the option to buy à la carteservices or choose packages designed for specific employee roles. Remember, not every employee is a ‘knowledge worker’. Tens of millions of users have roles that do not involve smartphones or PCs. A truck driver or hospital nurse probably won’t be more productive if they have their own video collaboration room.”

Zweig adds that UC providers need to provide the right tools for the right jobs. “One reason it’s so compelling to add Communications Platform-as-a-Service to UCaaS is because it’s possible to add the ‘right’ UC services to a business process, without burdening users with the cost and complexity of elements they do not need or value.”

Nuvias’ Harris rejects the possibility that more modular cloud-based UC offerings could offer voice-less UC where customerswant non-bundled voice services or feel that their voice comms need is waning. “There is a clear industry move to not isolate voice and video as separate applications. End users want access to video communications in meeting rooms and on their mobile devices as they use this extensively now in their personal lives with FaceTimeand Skype, and see the benefits.”

Cloud opex versus on-premise capex 

Edgewater Networks’ Mike Wilkinson reckons UCaaS is booming. He says two years ago, a big UCaaS operator would have had between 50,000-100,000 seats, but that figure is now in the hundreds of thousands. “Even smaller operators are managing estates of between 30,000-60,000 seats. Such growth in scale creates pressures on service providers’ operations – especially in cases where there are large amounts of manual process. Service providers are [therefore] increasingly investing in intelligent network assurance and orchestration platforms to improve their efficiency and performance.”

Swyx’s Russell says there has certainly been an increase in the demand for opex solutions. He believes this has fuelled the increase in cloud-based UC deployments as senior managers are now reluctant to tie-up thousands of pounds in a phone system when they can rent it on a per-user basis from as little as £5 per-month. 

But he continues by saying despite this, not all industries can use cloud. “They may be limited by insufficient connectivity or indeed [because they are] security-sensitive organisations, like banks or health centres, that prefer to keep everything on-premise. However, even with highly-sensitive business areas, that sensitivity is giving way to the advantages of cloud.”

While there certainly is a preference in some environments for opex over capex where a like-for-like option exists, Zweig says it is not what he hears as the most important aspect of acquiring UCaaS. “Customers do not want to be tied to long-term infrastructure purchases that then become outmoded. Becoming saddled with maintenance contracts, data centre space and staff cycles to maintain a system that is under-utilised or ineffective, is now their biggest concern. Customers tell us that the ability to ‘elastically’ scale up or down is far more important. UCaaS gives them exponentially greater flexibility to react to business conditions and their teams’ needs.”

3CX’s Clarke is likely to support this view when he says that a dream of cloud-based UC solutions is to avoid investments in technology – especially hardware – that, inevitably, becomes outdated or requires complex, costly maintenance in the near future. “Even if moving to cloud UC demands a much larger initial investment than upgrading existing local ICT infrastructure would, there is still the potential for a rapid return-on-investment – for instance, by centralising procedures and cutting local maintenance costs.”

Harris says that even organisations who want to purchase an on-premise solution and who look for leased options will not be interested in owning that asset at the end of the lease term. He says companies now want a predictable and transparent monthly cost for the technology, regardless of how they deploy.”

Will UCaaS see the netman off the premises?

Such budgetary expediencies are having a knock-on effect for network management professionals. “For [organisations] that do go cloud-based UC, the role of the network manager changes,” says Swyx’s Russell. “This often results in a smaller team to manage internally, but then with more emphasis on management of special relationships with external providers to ensure they fulfil all their SLAs. As they are now one step removed from actually managing the system themselves, they have less control – but also heightened responsibility to ensure that quality-of-service is maintained.”

Harris adds that the role of the on-premise network manager is becoming much more focused on user adoption and education: “Whereas the challenge before was making the system work and maintaining adds, moves and changes, it is now about facilitating end-user adoption and usage to realise an ROI. This is where today’s successful network managers spend their time.”

Such assurances will receive a mixed reception from network managers concerned that migration of core communications functionality to cloud means they might eventually have no networks left to manage. But Zweig insist they have “nothing to fear” from UCaaS. “Most IT departments are understaffed and struggle to provide the most important part of their mission – user support. They struggle also to manage security issues and a host of other critical matters. Network managers have plenty of tasks to consume their time, many of which drive greater business value than maintaining a legacy voicemail server.”

Another answer to the question of whether enterprises make best use of their investment in UC solutions lies in the way their directorates work together, and how senior departmental managers liaise.

For instance, Russell says opportunities to derive value from UC that vector on the ‘uptake + usage = productivity’ equation depend on close proactive cooperation between the IT function and frontline business owners. At the outset of a UC implementation, he says network managers can identify pain points that individual departments are having, and suggest how UC can remedially address these. There also needs to be follow-up after the system has been operational for 12 months or so that all parties can measure the results. “For instance, if a sales manager has offered UC-enabled flexible working to a sales exec, what impact has this had? Has their productivity gone up? Have expense claims reduced because they are doing less travelling into the office?”

IT directors should also be in close consultation with finance directors so that they can calculate the long-term costs and returns of the cloud-based UC, or garner feedback from the customer service director to see if the new system has favourably affected service levels, Russell further suggests: “A holistic approach that involves gathering feedback from all the impacted parties [and stakeholders] will provide the ‘big picture’ of whether a project has been a success and if there is additional value that is still to be exploited”.

More adopters, more value

For Logitech’s Ginn, UC value assessment is all about usage uptake. She says most platforms feature dashboards and analytics capabilities that enable you to track usage by individual. Project teams can then utilise the data to figure-out the dynamics of the business, and look at rollout and adoption plans accordingly. 

Ginn also advises enterprises to regularly check user adoption so they can, for example, cater for training requirements. “Continuous adoption checking will ensure that organisations gain fullest value from their investment, and that it is being usedin the correct way. Are there individuals orteams that aren’t using unified collaboration platforms? Why not? What can network managers and line managers working together do to guide unengaged personnel into the best behaviours? That’s an important thought process to carry through.”

In organisations where workforce take-up of provided UC tools remains inconsistent, Zweig also says that the way forward lies in using the tools themselves to analyse the extent of the challenges and provide the base data necessary to inform remedial actions.

“The ultimate purpose of a UC investment by an organisation is to make its workforce more collaborative, more productive, and give them ‘anywhere access’ to communications tools. Perception is reality. If employees don’t use or can’t use those services in that manner, employees don’t feel they benefit. It has to be worthwhile to find out why.”

The future 

Over the last 12 months, the UC solutions sector has seen its perennial share of come-and-go buzzword innovations, disruptive challengers, and market share jockeying.

According to 3CX’s Clarke ‘contextual communication’ – delivering user-friendly services in a way that suits the individual’s specific needs – is more important than ever, as it is essential for faster, ideally frictionless, sales and customer service.

But he goes on to say there are a host of other innovations that have driven UC further towards meeting its full potential. Zweig adds to this by saying 2018 will be further shaped by competitive forces as UC vendors compete to win a share of that $100bn market. He says: “UC continues to evolve as increased competition forces providers to differentiate themselves. Whether you call it ‘contextual communications’, ‘embedded communications’ or CPaaS, the interest is there, absolutely. As the expectations of end-customers (i.e., our customers’ customers) and younger employees evolve, enterprise communications provision must keep pace.”

Zweig expects UC to “aggressively” embrace AI in 2018 and 2019: “This includes chat bots for contact centre and helpdesk applications, as well as personal assistants – a sort of Amazon Alexa for the office.”

Swyx’s Russell agrees that the biggest talking points in UC have been around AI, and how it can be effectively integrated within blended UC. But like all true UC solutions though, he warns that AI will only be as good as the data that it has access to. As a result, there is a need for solutions to be able to interface and aggregate information from multiple sources inside and outside of the enterprise network.