With IBM’s acquisition of Cognos and SAP’s merger with Business Objects, there’s been huge movement in the business intelligence (BI) market. With this comes the standard amount of concern for smaller BI vendors as the market consolidates. Approximately a decade ago, larger software firms entered the space (notably, Microsoft and IBM) and their entrance produced a similar effect with analyst speculation, but it didn’t have the operatic impact that many thought it might.

 

For almost a decade, BI as a market was relatively elastic, accommodating smaller niche players and the giants. Further, BI, once the domain of primarily enterprise and large midmarket firms, is now also gradually moving down-market into the SMB space. Vendors such as Business Objects recently announced a suite of new tools for small to midsized businesses (SMBs). The unified communications (UC) industry is undergoing a similar growth process, resulting in some very interesting overlaps between BI and UC, both in terms of market dynamics and technology. This is good news for SMBs and for their solution providers.

 

As with BI, older established incumbents have entered the UC space as challengers (notably, IBM and Microsoft). Every incumbent has recently moved to announce an SMB solution - whether these solutions will be successful or not is a good question. Prices are also dropping dramatically, as new software vendors enter the market with software solutions. BI never had this problem because it was always software, but price fluctuation is seriously reshaping unified communications by speeding UC adoption, even down into the SMB. More important, businesses of all sizes are looking to apply unified communications in a meaningful way. In the same way that corporate performance management came to be a synonym for applying BI, the application of UC is typically referred to as “communication-enabling business process.”

 

However, in spite of the buzz, not everyone in IT is familiar with UC and what the phrase includes. Historically, it has meant different things to different customers, analysts and vendors. Vendors have done a good job of repackaging their old telephony and collaboration offerings as their new “UC” offerings. For IT administrators, this means private branch exchange (PBX) systems in the closet somewhere in the basement are now probably a UC solution. Also, those unified messaging clients, are now a critical part of a UC solution; they facilitate collaboration and reduce human latency so that employees can respond more quickly and efficiently to the needs of their customers. Who knew?!

 

Needless to say, this repackaging and repositioning has certainly added to customer and industry confusion. But in a sentence, UC is a set of communication technologies and processes that make it easier for employees to respond to one another, to their partners and to their customers (which often includes unified messaging, being able to route their calls to where they’re working, making corporate data available over the phone, seeing who’s available to collaborate, video and voice conferencing, instant messaging and other tools). In short, if it makes an employee or an organization more effective at communicating, someone will package it and sell it as part of a UC offering. There’s nothing wrong with that. As a customer, I’m regularly surprised by how poorly companies communicate by phone when compared with how well they communicate via the Web. A renewed focus on voice and responsiveness over the phone is long overdue, and many tools are still missing with many niches to fill.

 

Considering Microsoft and IBM are now in both industries: BI and UC, and SAP and Oracle have also expressed serious interest in UC, they may also follow suit. There’s one thing that most software vendors understand that most telephony vendors don’t: it’s productivity. But the relatively new entrants like Microsoft and IBM tend to be more focused on enterprise-level UC than on the SMB. The enterprise market finds its best return in employee collaboration. In a company of 1,000 employees, the communication between them will naturally outpace the communication between most employees and their customers and employers. Tools like centralized instant messaging (IM) make sense in that kind of environment.

 

But UC (like BI) is all about organizational productivity and individual productivity in context. For the SMB, they may require that UC vendors put an emphasis on the communication between an employee and his or her customers and partners when proposing what will be a meaningful solution for an SMB buyer. In a smaller environment, reducing latency and driving productivity across the business involves a much greater understanding of who is calling, from where and why they might be calling. It also requires a lot of application development and service creation capabilities that allow businesses to provide self-service capabilities: information transfer, knowledge management, account management and so on tie together corporate data and communications (whether that reflects voice, email, fax or some combination). In contrast, centralized IM isn’t going to be that attractive when it comes to SMB buyers, for obvious reasons.

 

Interestingly enough, BI vendors have jumped to the forefront when it comes to integrating UC into their offerings. It’s an interesting twist, but it makes a lot of sense. As a business (especially an SMB), who calls you is pretty important information, both in terms of managing corporate performance and unifying your communications. Conceptually, when it comes to understanding the meaning of customer calls, BI and UC ask similar questions. Who did a caller talk to? How long did they talk? What did they talk about? How can I streamline my business’ calls to better respond to customers? What other communication tools can I use to effectively respond to customers? How can I integrate what I know about a customer based on their calling line ID with my back-end database to ensure that their calls are effectively routed? All of the questions are best answered with a combination of BI and UC.

 

From a practical perspective, both technologies also tend to solve similar problems. Both UC and BI help businesses respond to and serve customers better. Both can help customers speed their buying decisions. Both can help businesses leverage what they know and apply it in order to beat their competitors. The crossover potential is enormous, and it’s only a matter of time until businesses start to insist on it. For example, being able to allow customers to do banking transactions over the phone after they’ve entered a secure PIN or being able to see which calls are the most profitable is useful information. Once transactions occur through the phone system, it is being informed by business processes and corporate data - it’s a cube. And once the cube is formed, a BI tool will be needed to make sense of the data and reporting capabilities to let everyone else in the organization know what’s going on as well.

 

The most immediate crossover between BI and UC is in knowing who called. Most UC solutions provide a basic record of who called, when, what extension and for how long. In the UC industry, these records are straightforwardly called call detail records. In combination with basic customer relationship management (CRM), it’s not only easy, but also very productive to tie UC and BI together to produce competitive advantages for businesses that are smart with their data and diligent in their business processes. When a customer calls, a UC solution should be able to reach across the organization and an individual’s fax, voice and email messages to put all of the available data about that caller at a knowledge worker’s fingertips, or direct the call to a sales queue, or allow that caller to retrieve self-service information or allow that caller to conduct a transaction. That is, the system should be able to take intelligent action and drive a successful business relationship based on what’s known about the caller.

 

Of course, not many UC solutions provide this kind of intelligence, and if they do, it’s usually provided as a set of expensive professional services. Few have productized it in a way that makes it easy for IT administrators and their solution providers to build and deploy phone-based applications and services as easily as Web-based applications. Phones are ubiquitous and are only becoming more so with the explosion of smart phones and voice over wireless LAN technologies. In fact, a great part of the economy spends most of the day conducting its business by phone and fax – not in front of the computer. Although e-commerce applications are great, they don’t serve all customers. This is especially true of the SMB market. Why aren’t more UC solutions focused on this? In part, it’s because UC vendors and until recently customers didn’t really know all the advantages that BI can offer them.

 

As with BI, the promise of UC is tremendous. Reducing latency, driving productivity and improving customer responsiveness are fantastic promises, but incumbent vendors have done a poor job of educating SMB buyers as to how to go about gaining competitive advantage through UC. Let’s face it: complex infrastructure products that require good planning skills, good business analysis skills and an IT team don’t always sell themselves. Vendors that reduce that complexity are going to be the darlings of customers and solution providers. Further, many product offerings themselves are not really ready to be applied. Most incumbents still provide offerings that are hardware appliances, not applications or, even better, frameworks that allow businesses to build their own applications.

 

When they do provide applications, they tend to be overly complicated for the value they deliver. BI vendors and their solution partners have a long history of understanding customers and what they value, while promising, measuring and delivering real productivity gains and ROI. If the incumbents and the new entrants in the UC industry don’t move quickly, the more seasoned players in the BI market may very well pull the rug out from underneath them. 

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