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The Long and the Short of Unified Communications

Strategically Speaking
Jun 6, 2012

James Key50x50 Author: James Key,

For the past several years, one popular "buzz phrase" that is consistently mentioned when discussing technology is that of "Unified Communications (UC)."  UC can mean many different things to different people and if you were to ask 25 different people "What is your definition of Unified Communications?” you would undoubtedly get 25 different and diverging replies.  This is particularly true with the various UC vendors who feel that their products offer the most definitive solution.  Although Unified Communications is sometimes described as an "umbrella" term and can be difficult to define, the generally accepted industry definition is as follows:

Unified Communications (UC) is the integration of non-real-time communication services such as unified messaging (integrated voicemail, e-mail, short message service [SMS], and fax) with real-time communication services such as IP Telephony (VoIP), instant messaging (chat), presence information, and video conferencing.

It's important to note, that UC is not merely defined as any single technology but as a set of technologies that provides a consistent unified interface and user experience across multiple devices and media types. This can include (but not limited to) unified messaging, presence, instant messaging, video, and what may arguably be the foundation of UC, IP telephony (VoIP).

Let's take a brief look at these 5 areas which generally play an important role in any UC deployment.

1.  IP Telephony (VoIP)
IP telephony is typically the building block in any UC deployment and integrates voice capabilities with other modes of communications such as integrating voicemail with email inboxes and extending telephony from standard desk phones to end user PCs in the form of various software applications (softphones for example). It can also provide end users with several telephony features such as individualized call control settings, unified corporate directories, conference calling, and mobility to name a few.  One great example of a mobility feature often utilized is that of "Single Number Reach" (SNR). SNR allows a user to receive business calls to their designated direct inward dial (DID) number wherever they may want to be reached at any given moment, whether that be at their desk, at home, or on their mobile phone. In addition, this feature also allows the transfer of a call from a desk phone to a mobile phone, and back again, without anyone on the other end ever knowing this change occurred.  With the growing adoption of IP telephony, UC is finally becoming a practical proposition for most businesses. For those businesses that have already implemented IP telephony, they are well on the way towards creating a UC environment since their phone system can easily join other forms of IP-based communications on an enterprise data network.

2. Unified Messaging
UC also incorporates unified messaging, which integrates email, voicemail, and faxes into one single inbox that can then be accessed from a client such as Microsoft Outlook. This can also include advanced voicemail functionality such as text to speech, speech to text, and visual voicemail.

3. Presence
Presence is one of the more significant features within any UC environment and can particularly be important to companies that have a widely dispersed and mobile work force.  Moment by moment, presence will share an end user's availability, location, and possibly the preferred method of contact.  Other end users can immediately see if the person with whom they need to connect is available and the best way to reach that person. Presence indicators can be delivered by different means whether that is software running on a desktop PC or on an end user's mobile phone.

4. Instant Messaging (IM)
Once the province of anonymous people "conversing" in chat rooms on the internet, IM has made its way to the enterprise and is now becoming a corporate mainstay.  IM is usually integrated tightly with presence and is rapidly becoming a viable replacement for overflowing voicemail and email inboxes.  If you need to get through to a busy co-worker, IM is becoming the fastest and most effective method of communication.   

5. Video
In a quest to try and slash travel costs, businesses have increasingly been turning to video for meetings with remote workers, training sessions, and more.  UC solutions should therefore integrate with the various modes of video such as desktop webcams, video enabled IP phones, and video Multipoint Control Units (MCU) which are utilized in larger environments such as conference, training, and board rooms and where multi-site conferencing may be a requirement.

In Summary:
There are many advantages of adopting Unified Communications and one will certainly include cost savings, but a big part of your Return on Investment (ROI)  will be realized through improved business processes, such as helping your employees work more productively and efficiently and will definitely  give the potential to transform the way your company does business.

What advantages has your institution seen from adopting Unified Communications?

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