It has been very interesting watching Vodafone go through its journey over the past five or six years. From the delivery of relatively unsophisticated utility type services around telephony and SMS, it's moved into the online media space on the consumer side of the equation, and has been edging more into the IT solutions space on the business side.

With regard to the latter, conversations with Vodafone have on occasions been relatively hard work. As with any organisation on a steep learning curve, one of Vodafone's biggest challenges has been knowing what it doesn't know when operating 'off patch'. Initial discussions about plans to work with IT resellers alongside the traditional comms channel, for example, raised as many questions as they did answers. I have also never been particularly convinced about some of the company's forays into the hosted business applications arena beyond email, though to be fair, I could say the same about most of the mobile players.

A year or two ago, however, things started to come together in terms of plans and aspirations. Over a relatively short space of time, Vodafone seemed to wise up and articulate where it was headed in a much more realistic and coherent manner, at least at a high level. I suspect the recruitment of talent from the IT sector had something to do with this, but the impact of some pretty interesting acquisitions undoubtedly played a part too.

In the UK, for example, we saw Aspective brought into the fold with around 120 employees and a well established IT solutions capability around core business applications such as CRM, field service automation, and business intelligence. With a strong professional services team experienced in the whole application lifecycle, from initial requirements assessment, through configuration and deployment, to mobile and remote access, Vodafone had acquired both skills and street credibility in the enterprise applications space. The injection of of a bit of enterprise IT culture into the overall mix undoubtedly had a positive impact too.

Meanwhile, Vodafone also had ambitions to cross the boundary between mobile and fixed communications and move up the value chain to deliver more services on top of the core voice and data proposition. A key acquisition here within the UK market was Central Telecom. This brought with it another set of important skills, this time in the Unified Communications (UC) arena. With around 200 people in the service delivery domain (300 total), 6,000 existing customers, and established partnerships with the likes of Avaya and Nortel, Vodafone had again accelerated its journey to credibility and capability in a new domain.

Of course to really capitalise on all this, it was going to be necessary to pull the threads together with existing capability into some kind of coherent strategy. For a while, however, it wasn't particularly obvious how this would be done. Indeed, there was a period over which I stopped asking how Apective was being integrated into the mother ship as I wasn't getting any particularly useful responses. As it turns out, this is because Vodafone UK had been spending a serious amount of time analysing the way the market is going and figuring out its position within it.

Having been through that exercise, what's come out the other end is actually a pretty good analysis and a very convincing strategy, at least in relation to the large enterprise space. Beyond traditional voice services, for example, there is now pretty well-established demand for mobile messaging around the BlackBerry, Windows Mobile and other advanced devices, and Vodafone's existing home-grown professional services group continues to be aligned with this.

We then have an extremely lively secure remote access arena, and one of the most common activities going on here is enterprises extending the reach of their core business systems out into the field via mobile middleware and devices. Not surprisingly, the resources picked up as part of the Aspective acquisition, with their knowledge and understanding of enterprise application world as well as mobile technology, have been refocused in this area. This represents a bit of a shift in emphasis from the original Aspective proposition of delivering core application solutions and services per se, but makes a lot of sense in the context of Vodafone's overall business.

A less well established market, but one that is receiving a lot of attention at the moment, is unified communications (UC), and this is clearly where the acquired Central Telecom expertise and credibility is being targeted. The obvious question here, though, is how Vodafone differentiates itself, given that it is turning into such crowded space. As mentioned above, it has inherited some very relevant partnerships with established IP Telephony players, but there is nothing unique about this when you look at the competition. However, by combining Microsoft's UC offering with predictable commercial terms around mobile services, and delivering seamless integration between the fixed and mobile worlds, it has come up with a comprehensive total solution that deals with many of the commonly encountered disjoints and integration issues.

Overlaid on these individual streams of activity is a management and delivery framework which is designed to keep things coordinated at both the market and individual customer level, and maximise the synergies between the various competencies that exist across the three service groups. This is important as overtime, as the buying community matures and starts to pull together their own activities across the various areas, which is still not happening as much as it ideally should, Vodafone needs to mirror that behaviour. For the time being, however, having the three areas of focus with separate but coordinated resources probably makes the most sense.

So does this mean Vodafone is now walking the walk as well is talking the talk when it comes to total enterprise communications? Well, we need to bear in mind that some of the developments we have been discussing are still not fully bedded in and proven as cogs that will turn together smoothly as part of the overall Vodafone machine. It is also important to understand that what we have described relates to Vodafone UK only, and while similar initiatives are being executed in some other countries, the group as a whole still suffers from a degree of geographic inconsistency. This is clearly something that multinational customers will have to work through when evaluating Vodafone has a potential strategic supplier as they move forward with their advanced communications agendas.

Credit where credit is due, however, and while it has been a long time coming, it is nice to see at least the UK operation starting to get its act together.

By Dale Vile, research director at Freeform Dynamics.