Why Unify Your Communications - What's In The Box

With all the buzz around unified communications including new product releases, features, acquisitions and more, it’s easy to forget the why of UC and how it can benefit an organization. In this series of posts we will examine some of the key areas of UC and what the business benefit can be.

To understand what UC solutions can do for an organization it is important to understand what features and functions are included in the solutions available today. Some may think of UC as just video conferencing or web conferencing; however, it is a collection of many different technologies that are seamlessly integrated together.

Presence
Presence is a feature that is at the heart of a unified communications solution. It allows a user to communicate their availability (on the phone, away, in a meeting) while also allowing the system to provide location information (in the office, working from home, etc). How many times have you tried to reach a colleague only to learn that they are working remotely and only available on their mobile phone? Presence can provide the information need to connect to someone in the fastest manner possible.

Instant Messaging
Instant messaging makes communicating with a colleague as simple as a point and click. Clicking on a user can initiate a text conversation, similar to a text on your mobile phone that can allow for quick catch ups on key items and to also check availability for meetings down the road.

Audio Conferencing
With UC solutions it is incredibly easily to upgrade an instant messaging discussion to an audio conversation. Simply click on the users name, select the call feature and the application will dial the number stored. These calls can be a point-to-point audio discussion or include multiple audio participants in a session (similar to an audio bridge).  The connection can occur over standard phones or via the UC application directly on the user’s desktop.

Screen and Document Sharing
During an audio or IM conversation it might be necessary for parties involved to share a document or participate in a white boarding session. A UC application can upgrade the interaction by providing a visual content sharing session. Users can view each other’s screen and collaborate on a key document or deliverable together.

Video Conferencing
UC solutions offer the ability for users to meet face to face via video conferencing. All of the UC applications available offer some form of video conferencing. In some cases it may be calls limited to two participants, in other cases it can be large scale multi-party calls. In either case, the power of visual communication is enhanced as each participant can see each other while collaboration.

Mobility
The final major functionality of most UC applications is the ability to access some or all of the functions listed above via a mobile device. This could be a smartphone or a tablet such as the iPad. Either way the goal is to provide a seamless experience whether the user is on their computer or traveling with their mobile device.

It is clear that UC applications offer a robust feature set that can help organizations collaborate in new and exciting ways. Not all UC applications are created equal, so make sure to understand the entire breadth of feature set before moving forward with an implementation.

This post is part of a series on unified communications solutions.

Part Two: What’s Out There?

It seems like every day there are new headlines in the telecommunications industry about unified communications, the latest acquisition, release or new cloud service. The term “unified communications” has been around for a long time; but it means different things to different people – just take a look at some major software companies or hardware manufacturers.

Microsoft has taken its Office Communications Server, transformed it into Lync, and gained significant mind and market share with the product. In addition, they have worked closely with Polycom to integrate video conferencing into the Lync ecosystem. Cisco, on the other hand, has significantly invested in Jabber which has expanded the definition of UC, as well as, telepresence.

Unfortunately, there have been some roadblocks that prevent true ubiquity of UC solutions throughout enterprise organizations.

A recent study from CompTia (an IT industry association) took a look at many of these topics. From an adoption perspective, respondents to the survey reported:

  • - Challenges in integrating UC tools with existing technology
    - Lack of ability to incorporate mobility, social networking, collaboration and video conferencing
    - Difficulty calculating a return on investment

The interesting thing about all of these challenges is that they can be easily solved through integrated cloud services. How so? Let’s take a look at each one individually.

Challenges in integrating UC tools with existing technology:
When organizations look to implement a UC solution; integrating the server architecture, managing operating systems, and maintaining new equipment can be extremely challenging. These problems; however, can be virtually eliminated by hosting a UC solution in the cloud.  With the cloud, comes an experienced team of professionals who manage the technology; alleviating many of the technical pressures. Organizations can then focus on integrating the technology into their existing environment; whether it is defining set processes to use the tools or driving a cultural change within the company to encourage adoption. The cloud also allows companies achieve the benefits of UC almost immediately with practically none of the frustration.

Lack of ability to incorporate mobility, social networking, collaboration and video conferencing:
Incorporating these technologies comes down to one thing – interoperability. Microsoft and Polycom have addressed this by linking their technologies to allow UC clients to participate in video conferences with enterprise systems; and Cisco has integrated video into Jabber to communicate to the rest of its portfolio. Connecting to consumer solutions (Skype, Google Talk); however, require cloud services which create “meet me” conference rooms in the cloud and can connect any video platform, application or appliance effortlessly.

Difficult calculating a return on investment:
As with any collaboration tool out there, it can be difficult to truly understand the cost savings/ROI/etc. In order to do so, organizations must assess the specific goals of a UC deployment. For example, is it about travel cost reduction or improved productivity? Many these benefits are hard savings that can be easily tracked and reported with a cloud service. By connecting travel to a video management system, organizations can easily see the trips that were replaced by video which translates into cost savings and increased productivity.

The bottom line is that cloud service providers can help an organization review their UC needs and challenges then deploy scalable services to make adoption seamless and ROI attainment clear.