Josie Sephton, originally published on Computing

Since its beginnings, unified communications (UC) has faced an uncertain response in the enterprise, with businesses recognising it as a “nice to have” rather than a “need to have”. However, we are fast approaching the point where this may change. The picture of workplace communications is becoming ever more complex, with newer mechanisms such as audio and videoconferencing and SMS increasingly being found alongside the more broadly used, traditional tools of phone and email.

The resulting mix is characterised by varying degrees of implementation that has not been approached in a structured or integrated way. This has created a complex and fragmented work environment for many. And while this piecemeal communications landscape works, it is inherently inefficient because of the difficulty in moving information seamlessly between the different mechanisms, which is seen to be increasingly requisite.

In this diverse and fragmented environment, UC is slowly starting to be taken seriously as a viable and necessary solution for bringing these technologies together in a coherent and structured way. In spite of this tentative acceptance of UC as a genuine business solution, companies tend to think of it as an overarching and very complicated solution set, which acts as a barrier to actually moving forward with it.

But in fact, rather than being a broad solution set, UC comprises a number of distinct components:

Unified communications capabilities

Unified directory Integration of contact and access information across all common communication mechanisms – email, IM, fixed telephone, mobile telephony and conferencing.

Unified messaging Integration of messaging streams, such as mobile voicemail, fixed-line voicemail, email and SMS, so all incoming messages may be accessed from one inbox.

Single number, follow me Rules-based routing of calls to allow a single number to be used to reach an individual across any combination of mobile phones, fixed phones and soft phones they choose.
Presence awareness Publication to colleagues of real-time information on the location of individuals, their availability, currently suitable modes of contact, and so on.

Enhanced visibility and reporting Ability to track statistics across all forms of communication through a single reporting and analysis mechanism to optimise costs, productivity, process efficiency and so on.

Thinking of UC in terms of these individual components makes it much easier for businesses to grasp its relevance, making it clearer and more meaningful. And enterprises are now starting to evaluate UC in a much more serious way, or at least have it on their agenda.

As more companies move forward with UC, however, what strategy should they adopt? Is a partial approach best, at least initially, focusing on one or two components of UC, and rolling these out to a small proportion of the business? Or should businesses go broad and deep?

Given the economic climate, and insufficient proof of the benefits of UC, the tendency might be to go for a more limited implementation and build this up over time, perhaps beginning with unifying the various directories that exist across the business to minimise risk and capital outlay, and bringing in unified messaging or single-number capability later.

However, research into UC conducted by Freeform Dynamics at the end of last year showed that more “aggressive” installations, that include a wide range of functionality and are rolled out broadly across the business to more users, deliver the greatest value.

Essentially, there is a multiplier effect with UC implementation, with the overall value of a comprehensive UC solution being greater than the sum of its parts. This does not mean that a more cautious approach is wrong per se, as even implementing UC on a smaller scale will realise some benefits for the organisation. However, where a slower approach is necessary, it is much better to consider comprehensive UC in, say, one department, rather than partial UC (such as a unified directory) across the whole of the business.

Another important finding from our research was that communications options that many would not see as attractive enough to implement in isolation – videocommunications, for example – are much more readily embraced when they are seen as a component or option within a broader communications offering.

This suggests that UC can have a significant impact on individual communications solutions. For example, users may not be inclined to log into a separate videocommunications system, based on an unfamiliar call-initiation approach. However, when making a video call is a couple of clicks away in a UC context, they are much more likely to use the feature.

The upshot of this is that implementation of UC potentially allows a business to take greater advantage of emerging mechanisms such as videocommunications, web conferencing and instant messaging that would otherwise be passed over, to boost workforce and process efficiency and effectiveness.

As the way we communicate becomes more elaborate, the need for UC is becoming more pressing, and for many companies, it is no longer a question of if, but rather one of when and how best to jump on board.



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