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FAQ: What is unified communications, and why would I want it?

Unified communications (UC) combines multiple forms of communications: voice, video and text-based media. But is a UC strategy something midmarket firms should consider?

Unified communications (UC) fuses multiple forms of communications: voice, video and text-based media. But is a UC strategy something midmarket firms should consider? This primer answers some basic UC questions to help you make a well-informed decision for your organization.

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  What is unified communications?
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Unified communications can be defined in many ways; at the highest level, it encompasses virtually any form of communication, including voice, video and text-based media. It may be best known for unified messaging capabilities, which allow users to access voice, email and other media from a single device or mailbox.

"At its most basic level, unified communications is about people being able to leave a variety of messages [types] and being able to respond to those message [types] in a variety of ways in near real time," said Neal Shact, CEO of CommuniTech Services Inc., an Arlington Heights, Ill.-based consultancy and systems integrator focused on unified communications deployments.

  Why would I want it?
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Analysts and research data cite speed of decision making and efficient employee communications as the biggest advantages of unified communications. Elizabeth Herrell, a vice president at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc., characterizes the business value of UC as "rapid problem resolution and the ability to move farther, faster than the other guy." Irwin Lazar, principal UC analyst at The Nemertes Research Group Inc. in Mokena, Ill., advises companies to "tie new unified communications applications to a specific business process so that it lowers latency and speeds up decision making."

And a Gartner Inc. survey of 300 midmarket companies with more than 400 employees, conducted last April, showed efficient communications, particularly across dispersed employees, to be the most-cited advantage of UC. Specifically:

  • 44% of companies cited improved speed of communications across the business;
  • 39% listed better communications for distributed sites or remote workers and mobile workforce members;
  • 29% mentioned collaboration improvements;
  • 26% chose the competitive advantage.
  Who's using it?
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According to a Forrester report issued in June, 11% of the 184 respondents had deployed a UC strategy, 16% were rolling one out and 57% were either in the pilot or evaluation stage of a unified communications strategy.

The Gartner study reported that 28% of 300 midsized businesses were using email, voicemail, instant messaging and calendaring/scheduling in a unified manner.

  What does the vendor landscape look like?
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Vendors in the UC space typically fall into one of three categories -- networking, telephony or applications (such as customer relationship management software). These include Avaya Inc., Nortel Networks Corp., Cisco Systems Inc. and Microsoft, which offer integrated unified messaging, conferencing, IP telephony and IM products.

  Where do I start?
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Unified messaging is a common place to start with UC, but the IM or "presence category" will become increasingly important, according to both Herrell and Bern Elliot, a vice president and distinguished analyst in Gartner's Philadelphia office. Instant messaging is the most rudimentary of UC tools that enable presence. "IM has elements of real time, and it's persistent," Elliot said. Building intelligence into instant messaging and integrating it with desktop call control will make it much easier to find and communicate with employees.

  How should I launch my project?
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First, set up and lead a project team with members from various disciplines, such as telecommunications, operations, IT and the business side. Then agree on a common definition of UC. "The group has to get together and talk about the UC mission using a common picture and a common language," Elliot said.

"The CIO's direction here is very important," he added. "He has to make sure that the team is truly working together and that certain members aren't tuned in to one set of vendors and one set of messages."

Once your goals are set and your UC plan is drawn up, it's time to compare your roadmap with those of the vendors you're choosing among. "There's a lot of nonsense out there," Shact said.

See where multiple vendor roadmaps match up with each other -- because there will be multiple vendors, Elliot advised. Don't get hung up on best-of-breed claims, either. "You don't have to have best of breed anymore, because the functionality is pretty much there in all the vendor offerings," Elliot said. "Making sure the vendors you've chosen can play nicely together is almost equally important."

Even so, integration problems aren't rare. In the Gartner study, 38% of the 300 companies surveyed reported problems integrating unified communications applications with existing equipment. And 43% reported nonspecific "technical problems" with their UC deployments.

  
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Desktop call control -- the integration of telephony and computer technology -- is a more advanced way to locate and communicate with employees. Currently used mostly by call centers, this capability will be extended much further in the future, Elliot said. Advanced versions will be able to track IP addresses and ring your home phone if you're using a home computer, for example. These types of products will be available in about three years, he added.

This presence capability will be imbued with contextual features as well, Elliot said. "Contextual presence," or the capability to have communications features integrated with business applications, is another emerging area. Intuitive access to subject matter experts could help lower human resources costs or increase sales by increasing the knowledge of potential customers. For example, a contextual presence capability set up for a benefits department at a large university could quickly direct a caller to the proper benefits level. Registering the incoming phone number and linking it automatically to a caller's employee record and even to details within that record will be possible, Elliot said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email editor@searchcio-midmarket.com.

This was last published in December 2008

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