Unified communications systems: how and why they fail to deliver

By John Leonard
20 Aug 2014 View Comments
Unified communications with laptop and phone from Vodafone

Most IT professionals will be familiar with the Pareto principle, in practice if not in name. For example, 80 per cent of support requests tend to come from the same 20 per cent of end users, and the most trivial tasks from an IT perspective always seem to take up the most time.

A version of the Pareto principle (or 80-20 rule as it is better known) also applies to large technology rollouts. Once equipment has been procured, integrated, installed and tested, the IT team could be forgiven for assuming the task to be at least 80 per cent completed. However, if the intervention is to be truly effective, you are probably only 20 per cent along the way in terms of the total time and effort required.

Further reading

It’s a sad truth that users of that shiny new system are more likely to view it as an imposition than a benefit, especially if it means they have to do things differently. This is why it is so important to dedicate sufficient resources to the “soft” part of any intervention, something that is frequently skipped over. The history of enterprise IT is littered with the ruins of expensive follies that failed to live up to expectations or to achieve anticipated return on investment because the task of explaining the advantages and how to achieve them was underestimated.

And it is not only the post-installation training that tends to be neglected. Failure to consult widely enough at the specification stage, instead basing decisions on the opinions of a handful of experts and treating the bulk of end users as a faceless, homogeneous mass is another recipe for disappointment, if not disaster.

The many not the few

A good case in point is unified communications (UC). Hardly a new technology, UC has recently come into its own as networks become more complex due to an increasingly mobile workforce and the advent of self-service cloud computing. In addition, private branch exchange (PBX) contracts are coming to an end in many firms.

However, UC is far more than a simple replacement for the call-routing functionality of a PBX. Digitising the voice stream and transmitting it as data enables many new services to be built on top of the network, such as video, web and audio conferencing, collaboration and data sharing, as well as extending these services to mobile platforms.

So UC has the potential to reach almost every department and role, changing the way people make phone calls, collaborate and use mobile devices for work. Done right, therefore, UC can support big changes in working practice, but it will live up to its full potential only if people are brought on board at an early stage.

A quick web search will reveal that many UC projects end in failure. Indeed, HP announced that 80 per cent (that figure again) of UC projects ultimately fail.

“Eight out of every 10 UC projects don’t reach their potential, or they fail. Only one out of 10 is truly transformational,” said Arthur Filip, vice president of HP’s technology consulting business.

Computing questioned 100 senior IT managers working across a range of industries in medium-sized to large organisations. While about three quarters of the survey sample were using UC (some in tandem with an existing PBX), they were not making use of all the services UC can offer (figure 1).


[Click on image to enlarge]

The most popular service was IP telephony. Web and audio conferencing and instant messaging and presence were other widely used features. At the bottom of the list came mobile UC clients extended to smartphones and tablets. Tellingly, however, this feature was expected to see a rapid rise in adoption.

In terms of respondents’ experience of UC, this was far from being the disaster implied by HP above. However, it would seem that they were less than completely delighted by the extent of the benefits.

Sixty-four per cent of respondents with UC said they were satisfied (a score of one or two on a five-point scale) with the quality of their IP telephony services, 62 per cent were satisfied with the quality of their instant messaging and presence services, and only 55 per cent were happy on the same scale with their collaboration services.

These figures suggest room for improvement.

As discussed, a lack of suitable training is likely to carry a large part of the blame for any dissatisfaction. About half of the companies in the survey only provide initial training and only a quarter provide training on request for all staff. Just four per cent have an ongoing training programme (figure 2).


Ongoing training can be an extremely effective way of ensuring the new solutions are not rejected out of hand. Appointment of a UC champion on every floor is another valuable intervention.

Beside rejection, other issues can put a dent in the productivity gains of UC (see below). For example, bills may be higher than anticipated as staff opt to use their mobiles after a bad initial experience with a softphone. Equally, video conferencing may disappoint because the underlying infrastructure in terms of bandwidth and software was not properly thought out.

Common pitfalls of UC

● One size fits all
Businesses frequently begin the implementation with deployment in the back office and the contact centre and end with other roles. However, what works in the back office will not necessarily work elsewhere, leading to rejection of the new system by users. It is also far from unusual for individualised training efforts to run out of steam during the latter weeks or months of an implementation, or for trainers to get side-tracked by other projects.

● Poor call and video quality
This is often caused by bandwidth or routing problems, especially where people are working from home on low-bandwidth connections. Companies often forget that in many regions outside metropolitan areas, connectivity can be unreliable and slow. Sometimes, too, they implement UC on top of an ageing network infrastructure that is not up to the job.

● Training
The lack of a training programme or any follow-up to initial training, especially with respect to collaboration tools, may mean that these tools fail to deliver the expected productivity benefits.

● Costs
It may be that phone bills are higher post-implementation than was anticipated as staff may opt to use their mobiles because they had a bad initial experience using a softphone or because billing issues have not been planned properly. Companies making overseas calls may be hit by data roaming charges which can be very high.


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