Extending unified communications

In the last couple of decades the number of digital communications options for most workers has soared, bringing with them information overload and post holiday inbox anxiety now only offset by taking mobile devices everywhere. Where once simply not answering the phone or opening the mail would cut off interruptions, most now have multiple forms of telephony – online, mobile, desktop – instant messaging, email and a plethora of social networks clamouring for their attention.

It might seem easier if one preferred mechanism for communication was to become the default for each individual, however, things are not so simple. Individual communications preferences vary depending on the task being performed, and while this can clearly be seen with personal communications, very similar behaviours are just as prevalent in the workplace.

This means that employers need to provide a broad kit-bag of communications tools which will undoubtedly be added to by the ones employees bring themselves.

However, having to switch from one task to another can be very disruptive, hence the emergence of the idea of pulling together the multiple strands of communication, known as unified communications (UC) or to some vendors as unified communications and collaboration (UC&C).

Unfortunately, unifying the communications networks and ‘plumbing’ was initially seen as the most important aspect of this, especially to most vendors and those in IT managing the infrastructure. However, the critical element for the individual (and the business) is dealing with the flow of work and interruptions, as these affect personal productivity.  It also impacts working together with colleagues and 3rd parties, and so introduces a pressing need to sort out the collaboration element as this affects overall business process productivity.

So what’s the best strategy for addressing unified communications? The most important thing is to recognise that ultimately, it is about connecting people not just networks. UC is therefore as fundamental as the heart of the traditional business communications through telephone system, the private branch exchange or PBX.

When many organisations were initially sold on the idea of UC, it was a PBX element that got their attention as UC was often pitched as a cheaper way to make phone calls and simplify network management though IP telephony. These are not a true reflection of the benefit of UC, nor do they generally justify the total cost of investment, especially when new network equipment is needed.

The real benefits come from how UC simplifies tasks for individuals, not just simplifies the network. UC has to provide flexible mechanisms and choices, enabling the right tools to be selected for productive and efficient communication and collaboration.

It is clear that business use of UC encompasses a huge set of capabilities from message immediacy to media rich content sharing. Its effective use, however, requires agile user behaviour to be able to seamlessly glide between and among these different strands of media. This requires consistency in approach and deployment otherwise employees will spend more time focussing on the tool rather than the job.

Why is it now important to push UC into all corners of the business?

First, because working patterns are changing; more people are working from home, on the move or flexibly in multiple locations across their workplaces. Many are working on remote sites and even those sat in the traditional desks, offices and areas of their ‘static’ workplaces often have many more connections to remote co-workers than in the past.

Second, there is a need for ‘friction free’ collaboration. The internet and globalisation are great levellers and so gaining any edge or just staying ahead of the competition is getting harder. Economic pressures mean that big budgets are no longer easy to come by, and organisations need to sweat more of their assets and this includes getting the best out of their workforce – not just individually, but as a collective team.

The challenge with UC is it needs to be applied everywhere and consistently which leads to a need for significant investment in a broad range of elements – software for UC clients, diverse hardware from new IP phones to servers and services to ensure deployment success. All elements are important to avoid the pitfalls encountered when moving to an enterprise wide full-scale production roll out.

Getting all elements in sync will require the certainty of funding to completion. It might be fine to trial different elements to see where preferences lay with different features or tools, but once the decision is made, UC needs to be a giant leap, not a timorous small step. The ‘U’ might stand for unified, but it might just as easily stand for ‘universal’, given that it is by achieving this that its real benefits will be realised.

For some thoughts on how to finance the changes required to address a unified communications strategy as a whole, download this free report.