8 Essential Questions on Unified Communications

For many small and midsize companies, UC is still a lot of hot air. The experts offer a unified communications reality check

By bMighty.com

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Vendors love to tout the concept of unified communications-- the real-time integration and redirection of voice, text, e-mail, and other communication methods and business processes -- but for many small and midsize companies, it's all hot air -- lots of talk, without a lot of products.

Actually implementing a full UC solution is still difficult and rather rare, especially for smaller companies. Nevertheless, unified communications continues to be heavily promoted by vendors, who are trying to convince smaller businesses that it's something they need, want, and can actually have. At the recent Interop New York 2007, a conference on business and technology, Blair Pleasant, president and principal analyst at COMMfusion, a market research firm, led a panel as part of VoiceCon Tours @ Interop. Titled "Unified Communications Reality Check," it attempted to clarify what's going on in the world of unified communications by answering some basic questions, explaining what it can mean to the smaller company, and forecasting what businesses can expect from UC in the future. bMighty's editor in chief Fredric Paul was there.

  1. What exactlyis"unified communications" anyway?

There is still some disagreement on that score, but basically, UC is a concept, a way of working together, not a product. UC combines presence, messaging, communications, conferencing, and information sharing across multiple devices and communications modes -- with a rules engine that manages how it all works together. The idea is to be able to seamlessly connect with a consistent user interface, whenever and wherever you want, with the appropriate resources, such as back-office applications, systems and business processes.


  1. And what do you get for all that?

Ideally, you get better collaboration, simplified communication (click to call or conference, for example), improved productivity, and smoother customer service. But the real payoff comes when companies use UC to streamline their workflows and business processes. Sam Koury, regional director of ShoreTel, explains that it's not a general "everybody in my company is more productive, but that it can change work processes in specific groups." Click-to-dial capability, for example, might save seconds here and there. Not a big deal for a typical knowledge worker, but potentially critical for a call center.

  1. Who sells unified communications?

You can't go out and buy a box of unified communications. Instead, all kinds of communications vendors offer various parts of UC solutions. Switch vendors like Ciscosell UC suites that add software for conferencing and collaboration to their voice products. Microsoft, meanwhile, is making a big push to add communications capabilities to its software [Pleasant believes that Microsoft is likely to "shake up" the UC market.]. IBM has its SameTime and WebSphereproducts, although it's partnering with others for the telephony portion of its UC offerings. And application providers such as Oracle, Siebel, and SAPare working to integrate communications into their products, but the results won't likely achieve critical mass until 2008. Even Google is trying to get in on the act with its acquisition of GrandCentraland it's mail and chat programs. Yahoo, AOL, and others also are interested.

  1. How can a smaller company start to take advantage of unified communications?

Just as there's no one vision of unified communications, there's no one right way of getting into it. In fact, your company can move into UC down any of several avenues. One way is start by enhancing your telephony services with IP-powered unified communications capabilities. Another approach would be to start with a real-time communications model, such as enhanced IM applications. Or via messaging: voice mail, fax, and e-mail enhanced with UC capabilities. Midsize firms may want to ease into UC via their enterprise software applications.

  1. Who should get unified communications first?

It makes sense, initially, to bring UC to collaborative teams and workgroups, especially ones that are dispersed geographically, and, of course, corridor cruisers and road warriors. But in the long run, UC delivers the most benefits when it's fully integrated throughout the company, and business processes are developed and adapted to take advantage of its capabilities. The point of UC is to make it easier for people to communicate and collaborate, and that's more valuable the more people are connected to it. Ideally, customers and suppliers also should be integrated as much as possible.

  1. What's next in unified communications?

Voice is still the key component. The ability to make calls right from your documents (click-to-dial) is about to become "very real." Next will be the beginning of optimizing business processes, to actually change the way you work, to take advantage of UC.

  1. What's the forecast for growth in unified communications

For the rest of 2007, UC will remain the province of innovators and early adopters. Companies will be rolling out pilot programs for small groups. The "early majority" will show up somewhere between 2008 and 2010, as more vendors pile on and users begin to see the benefits. And then, from 2010 to 2012, UC will start to become a competitive weapon and attain that elusive "hockey stick" growth curve.

  1. Finally, what is "presence," anyway?

Basically, presence is the system knowing whether or not you're available. But that's only the beginning. The next step is for the system to integrate with calendaring programs and know what you're doing and when you'll be available, and be able to dynamically manage and prioritize communications -- to know when it's OK to interrupt you, for example, and what kinds of communications (a call from a major customer?) are worth interrupting you for. Your company's CRM system might know that, for example, but your communications system most likely treats everyone exactly the same.

Fredric Paulis publisher and editor in chief of bMighty.

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