Companies are using unified communications to enhance collaboration tools, social media, messaging capabilities and mobile interaction across their operations.
By Samuel Greengard
The complexity of today's business environment is nothing short of remarkable. Global workforces, deeply intertwined supply chains, e-commerce, pervasive mobility and social media have radically transformed the workplace and served up enormous and growing communication challenges. Today, many organizations—and their CIOs—are struggling to enable comprehensive and seamless collaboration across platforms, systems and devices. Although voice communication isn't going away, it's increasingly critical to build networks that also accommodate data and merge the two worlds in a transparent way.
Enter unified communications (UC). Although the technology has existed for years and a large number of enterprises have already put it into play, many CIOs are now exploring ways to ratchet up the capabilities to match today's digital workplace. Among other things, they're hoping to enhance collaboration tools, social media, messaging capabilities and mobile interaction across a wide range of applications and situations. "There is a need to create an overall communications experience," states Matthias Machowinski, directing analyst for enterprise networks and video at Infonetics Research.
Sliding the dial from tactical to strategic is more easily said than done, however. Although UC was originally viewed as a way to trim costs and simplify IT administration by converging data and voice networks, it has evolved into a mission-critical resource. "Rather than serving as a way to merely converge a network, it's a way to extend the network and facilitate greater connectedness," Machowinski explains. In fact, network integrator Nexus says that more than a 60 percent of firms using UC report savings of three hours per week for per mobile worker.
Increasingly, says Karen Kervin, an independent analyst who specializes in unified communications, the technology involves telephony, video and audio conferencing systems, collaboration tools, presence, messaging and social media. "Organizations are finding that it's necessary to incorporate and integrate a variety of tools and features in order to communicate and collaborate effectively," says Kervin.
Today's business environment is putting pressure on organizations like never before. The ability to access data, information and knowledge at digital speed can be the difference between an enterprise soaring or stumbling. UC aims to address many of these challenges by connecting people in more efficient and intuitive ways. It can reduce overlapping work and errors, spur innovation, speed development cycles and improve service levels. But a UC strategy is more than a system or collections of tools from a vendor or group of vendors. It's about building a strategy that spans locations, systems, devices and operating system platforms.
How to approach UC isn't getting any easier. In most cases, UC users—many of which also fall into the BYOD category—want to take UC applications with them and use them on laptops, tablets and smartphones. They desire presence capabilities and unified messaging across devices, including tie-ins to social media platforms. However, UC isn't so much a checklist of features as a way to approach communication and collaboration in a more holistic and dynamic way. It's about providing "the level of flexibility and functionality needed in today's business environment," Kervin explains.
But tapping UC effectively requires both a strategy and an ability to bridge existing systems, tools and devices. Session initiation protocol (SIP) and clouds have made it simpler to connect applications and controls at a reasonable cost, but there's also the task of tearing down organizational silos and thinking about how to navigate the shortest distance between connection points. This, in turn, requires more innovative thinking and, in some cases, internal mash-ups and more advanced development skills in order to build tools and features that transform processes and workflows.