The challenge with unified comms and finding a way through the conferencing chaos

‘Unified communications’. A simple phrase to describe an aspirational outcome. But for most businesses today, the idea of a single solution for communications throughout the organisation is exactly that: an aspiration.

That’s not to criticise, of course, but it’s an understandable result of the way that different communications technologies have evolved and been introduced to organisations: from strategically planned solutions aligned to a company’s overall IT infrastructure, to the personal preference of an individual end user (and everything in between).

The use of video in communications is a case in point. High-end video conferencing suites have been around for many years, while video calling applications have familiarised consumers with the benefits of visual contact during remote conversations. As the intuitive user interfaces of consumer mobile and desktop applications is added to the quality of higher-end systems – and as the benefits of the cloud are brought to both – video communication in business has truly come of age. But, right now, most organisations are having to deal with multiple solutions, and the inefficiencies and management headaches it brings.

A state of ‘conferencing chaos’

A recent survey from Lifesize of companies across North America and Europe highlighted the issue of how most businesses have arrived at a state of ‘conferencing chaos’. Two-thirds of those companies surveyed have multiple conferencing and collaboration solutions within their walls. The primary reasons cited were the need to have solutions compatible with external suppliers, and the inevitable preferences of individual end users.

As you would imagine, most of the respondents were unsatisfied with the situation – from a management, quality and cost perspective – and would prefer to move towards fewer providers, if not a single one. And perhaps contrary to expectations, it was only respondents in North America who were most concerned about cost; European respondents identified ease of use and reliability as their primary drivers towards a simplified conferencing infrastructure.

The main frustration with using multiple solutions, however, was simply one of time. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that while employing many solutions may offer more options, it also takes more time for the IT team to train end users on all of those options. It also increases the amount of time needed to troubleshoot problems and manage multiple solutions. IT pros also mentioned compatibility issues, pointing to the time required to make sure that each of those solutions not only works individually, but also in various combinations and on all the conference room and mobile devices that employees – and their suppliers and clients – use to connect.

However, as we all know, achieving simplicity is far from simple. And, of course, in aiming for a simpler solution, it’s critical to avoid the pitfall of reducing functionality and not meeting users’ requirements. After all, user adoption is central to the success of any investment in technology.

Employees increasingly expect to be able to make connections within and outside the organisation quickly and easily on their own devices and without having to juggle multiple dial-in numbers or sit in a conference room waiting for IT to make it all happen. Hence the gravitation towards familiar, consumer applications, which aren’t always ‘enterprise class’, raising issues with security and compliance.

The IT dilemma

Meeting user expectations leaves IT professionals with a dilemma: Should they cobble together a custom solution from multiple vendors or take yet another chance on the promise of an all-in-one solution? Pulling together different solutions from multiple vendors can be flexible and less expensive (even free) but the complexity can leave both IT pros and employees confused and frustrated. On the other hand, an all-in-one solution may not always meet everyone’s needs and can lock businesses into expensive or ill-fitting bundle packages. And both approaches leave IT pros facing perhaps the most critical question of all – how do they choose a solution that employees will actually use?

In an ideal world, our survey respondents gravitated towards the benefit of using a comprehensive solution from a single supplier: 44% of IT pros reported being interested, very interested, or extremely interested in an all-in-one collaboration solution with audio, web, and video conferencing, and group chat from a single, trusted provider, with an additional 38% being ‘somewhat interested’.

The principal benefit of a solution from a single supplier was in simplified management for the IT pro, but the ease for end users was a close second, along with a raft of other associated advantages.

Bottom line, as organisations and the teams within them become increasingly dispersed, with productivity benefits of more flexible workstyles realised, and as collaboration within and between companies expands and improves, having intuitive, reliable, secure, and interoperable communications is clearly critical.