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Unified communications promises much, but does it deliver?

Unified communications promises much, but does it deliver?

Unified communications can save time, cut costs and improve collaboration, but the tricky part is choosing the right combination of tools.

How UC Helps IT

The mere thought of coordinating a global supply chain project will send many IT managers quivering under their project management software and spreadsheets. Volvo Group wanted a better way to work across time zones with colleagues who don't necessarily respond to e-mail--however red-hot urgent it's marked, says Magnus Holmqvist, director for the IT innovation center at the company. Volvo Group makes Mac trucks and Volvo busses and construction equipment; Ford now makes the famously rectangular cars.

An IT team of 70 people around the world are working on a project to streamline Volvo's spare-parts supply chain, which reaches 60,000 mechanics in 180 countries. Previously, various team members would meet every 12 weeks to test versions of the new SAP and Red Prairie applications they are building.

Early this spring, Volvo started virtual test rooms online, using Microsoft Office Communicator and Hewlett-Packard's TestDirector quality-check tool running over VoIP.

So far, half of the in-person meetings have been eliminated, but plane trips have been reduced by more than half because the technology is so good, Holmqvist says. Even people in the same city sometimes opt to attend meetings virtually rather than trek across town. He declines to say how much money Volvo has saved in travel costs but says the system has cut carbon dioxide emissions by 630 tons--about the equivalent of taking 250 cars off the road for a year.

Don't underestimate the mileage, so to speak, that you may get from promoting the green ROIof cutting travel, Homqvist says. "People don't feel too good about flying across the Atlantic when we know we have climate change going on. But people feel much better about eliminating those kinds of meetings," he says. Linking that idea to cost-cutting has helped IT get the new technology more eagerly accepted across the company, he adds. "That is real."

Homqvist predicts work quality and productivity will rise because employees will spend less time planning meeting logistics and traveling. "Our perception is that we're already earlier on these test-suite sessions. Instead of a 12-week cycle, we may reduce the cycle."

Defining the ROI

Some organizations, however, aren't seeing the returns they expected on UC projects. Or rather, they don't know how to tie a dollar figure to them, says Henry Dewing, a principal analyst at Forrester Research.

The softer benefits of smoother collaboration are hard to quantify and therefore, Dewing says, hard to justify. Especially now. Twenty-four percent of the telecommunications and networking managers surveyed by Forrester say they aren't getting all the benefits they expected from UC. Another 11 percent said they didn't know whether they were or not. It's hard to pin down the dollars generated or saved by faster project completion or product launches, Dewing says.

John, the H.B. Fuller CIO, isn't sure yet what mix of tools will produce the best return. As a $1.5 billion company, Fuller's revenues aren't huge but its global footprint is. The adhesives company does business in 100 countries, with offices in 36. The pressure is on John to find technological ways to overcome such geographic diversity, he says. But he doesn't want to jump too quickly. For example, it's easier to unify communications when PCs and laptops are standardized, in part because tweaking the configurations takes less time. But standardizing hardware is something Fuller has only recently started to do.

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