By Tim Duffy, Chairman, MeetingZone

I am a little wary when anyone professes to understand exactly what Unified Communications (UC) actually means and where it fits in today's business environment.

The main issue which complicates the definition of UC is that it means different things to different people.

The same could have been said not so long ago about conferencing and collaboration. Did this term refer to audio or video or data conferencing? Today, I think it is universally accepted that conferencing and collaboration means a combination of all three.

Perhaps, it would make UC easier for us all to understand if we looked at it in the same way. UC is a combination of business communication tools which allow us to communicate and collaborate with who we want, how we want, when we want.

UC is not just one product it is a combination of real-time communication tools including instant messaging (IM), presence information, telephony – including Voice over IP (VoIP), audio, video and data conferencing which allows integration with non real-time communication tools including voicemail, e-mail and SMS.

When all of the elements of UC are listed, it is easy to see why so many different technology vendors can claim to offer UC solutions. It may be more accurate if they said that they offered solutions which when integrated with other essential components, deliver a UC solution.

If fear, uncertainty and doubt is preventing you from looking more closely as to how UC could improve your business operations I think the first step, to help you through the fear, uncertainty and doubt fog, is to understand the business benefits which UC can deliver.

In today's continuing harsh economic climate organisations of all sizes, across all sectors are looking to control costs at the same time as increasing productivity and efficiency. A successful UC deployment can play a key role in achieving this.

UC can help to reduce hard costs by eliminating the need for non-essential business travel. I seem to have been trotting out reduced travel as a business benefit for what seems to be all of my working life but, it is as important today as it ever was. Maybe more so if we take into account environmental issues and the increasing need to reduce our carbon footprint.

The important thing to remember is, the less time your employees spend travelling to and from business meetings and even to and from the office, the more time they are sitting their desks working!

UC will allow you to reduce telephony costs by centralising your PBX resources and cutting the cost of your telephone calls by using your existing IP network for VoIP calls rather than the PSTN network. You can also greatly reduce the cost of long distance calls by using least cost routing and intelligent mobile phone clients. When the above benefits are combined you are also able to reduce the necessary resource and associated costs of managing your telephony system.

Perhaps most importantly of all by integrating real-time communication tools with non real-time communications tools, a UC solution allows your employees to communicate and collaborate with who they want, when they want, how they want, regardless of location.

The enhanced collaboration capability UC delivers for your employees will, undoubtedly, speed up the decision making process. Bringing together the right people at the right time without anyone having to leave their desk, leads to quicker and better decisions.

Improved decision making can help to speed up the time it takes to complete projects, shorten your sales cycle and quickly resolve customer service issues.

The ability to quickly and easily bring together your remote workforce may mean that you no longer need large, expensive office space. Your employees can operate as efficiently and productively from anywhere, just as if they were in the office.

Being able to work from anywhere could be absolutely key in ensuring the smooth running of your business if it is located near any of the 2012 Olympic venues!

UC enables you to implement a truly flexible working environment i.e. your employees can work from any location and still be 'in touch' with who they need to be. The ability to work flexibly has become a key component in an organisations' tool kit when retaining valuable employees and recruiting the best new talent.

But for me, the key components of a UC solution are presence awareness and IM. We all wrestle with today's information overload as we are bombarded by e-mail, tweets and voicemail messages from work colleagues.

Well, presence awareness can help remove one element of information overload, voicemails. Your colleagues can, at a glance, see if you are available. If you are they can send you an IM and together you can set up the preferred form of communication. If you are not, they can monitor your presence status to see when you are available. There is no need to leave you several voice messages.

Presence also enables you to see if the person you need to speak to is available. How much time do you waste every day trying to reach people who are simply not available?

For those of us who have to manage remote teams, presence provides us with unprecedented visibility of where our team members are and, to some extent, what they are doing.

Clearly UC can deliver crucial business benefits which will help organisations to improve the all important bottom line.

But, before even talking to UC vendors about potential deployment, it is vital that you understand what you want to achieve from a UC solution.

According to business management strategist Jim Collins* (the author of the landmark book 'Good to Great' which explains why some companies become great and some do not) great companies adopt new technology if it will have a positive impact on business drivers or when they need to in order to maintain technological parity with competitors.

If you are looking to deploy UC to achieve one or both of the above benefits, then you should seriously consider adopting it.

Once you have a clear view through the UC fear, uncertainty and doubt and you decide that you cannot afford to miss out on the business benefits of UC, then I would recommend that you set up a project team and provide them with access to the necessary UC communication tools which fit your business processes and train them on how to leverage the capabilities of UC during their normal working day.

This will give you visibility of which UC components work for your business.

I understand that in many instances the members of UC project teams do not want to return to working without their UC tools as the way in which they are able to work has greatly improved.

However, the key to a UC solution is how all the different communication tools are brought together. To help drive adoption of UC the Unified Communications Interoperability Forum (UCIF) was formed in May 2010. Its vision is to maximise the interoperability of the components of UC based on existing standards

Despite the efforts of bodies such as the UCIF the underlying UC infrastructure remains largely proprietary creating 'islands' of UC capability. This is nothing new but does mean that when considering deploying UC the choice of vendor is important. History has taught us that relying on just one vendor for all IT requirements can be risky. It may not be wise to have all of your UC eggs in one basket.

I believe the trick to completely removing the fear, uncertainty and doubt around UC is twofold. Firstly, you must decide which of its components you really need to improve how you operate your business. Deployment of all of the components may well be overkill. Secondly, you must decide which UC vendor is best suited to providing you with your essential components. Choose wisely.

*Jim Collins, “Good to Great”, HarperCollins Publishers, 2001, p. 152 – referenced in Impacting Your Business Drivers - A framework for CIOs and Decision Makers considering Unified Communications, written by Wainhouse Research June 2011 – sponsored by Polycom

Join us on
Follow @freshbusiness