A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. In business, that link can be the length of time it takes to return a customer's call or send a response, internally or externally, to an e-mail.
The problem is exacerbated by the number of ways in which staff can communicate. Fixed and mobile phones, e-mail and instant messaging can all increase delays if people cannot be reached at the right time on the right device.
Unified communications technology can help to solve this problem by making it possible to contact a member of staff through a single number or e-mail address, regardless of the device or program being used.
Unified comms combines routing software and IP hardware to redirect calls, texts and e-mails to the device closest to the user, providing "one-number" communication. It also provides information on a user's location and presence information, which tells others if the user is contactable or available to speak.
As the use of voice over IP drives communications over a common IP network, analyst firm Gartner predicts that unified comms will be the next technology that companies seek to invest in.
"The value for organisations is to reduce human latency within a process that improves a business's ability to respond to the customer," said Steve Blood, research vice-president at Gartner.
The Alzheimer's Society is trialling a unified comms system to increase productivity. The charity plans to roll out the technology across its 250 branches and up to 1,400 staff nationwide. It is trialling Microsoft's Office Communications Server and Live Meeting, as well as NEC Philips' IP telephony and contact centre technology.
"Given that we have more than 200 staff in our head office and numerous regional sites, the ability to find out at a glance which member of staff is available to take a call is invaluable in speeding up the decision making process and handling calls," said Phil Shoesmith, head of IT at the charity.
International legal practice Norton Rose moved to a collaborative communications environment with a £1.9m IP-based system that enables its 2,000 employees to access and share information globally.
The system is based on an MPLS VoIP network, built on Cisco technology, which extends to Norton Rose's Uxbridge production datacentre to support operations management.
"Having these collaboration and communication tools at our fingertips is really helping to speed up our work," said Anthony Salter, programme manager at Norton Rose. "The unified comms system integrates a host of features and capabilities that can help our staff work more effectively, without increasing costs."
Miguel Ferrer, global infrastructure director at Volvo Construction, has rolled out PC-to-PC telephony for 9,000 users in several countries. By 2009, he plans to issue mobile devices offering voice and e-mail to 3,000 employees.
He said IT managers embarking on unified comms projects should begin by profiling the mobility of employees in their daily activities.
"Profiling helps to identify the savings that can be made from removing redundant fixed equipment, such as a desk phone, and it can be used as part of a business case," said Ferrer.
However, Blood said implementing unified comms requires technological and organisational change. He warned that more than 80% of organisational change, such as procedures, policies and compensation, will lag behind technological change.
For example, many IT departments will continue to be organised separately around voice, networking and mobility, and some may not even have control of the mobile budget.
"Nowhere is the effect of this organisational lag more apparent than in how the convergence of voice, data and applications is affecting organisations," said Blood.
In addition, running all communications over an IP network makes it more vulnerable to a distributed denial-of-service attack. Earlier this year, Cisco's unified comms management platforms were affected by security vulnerabilities that could have allowed buffer overflow attacks and unauthorised access. The vulnerabilities, which have now been patched, showed how a unified comms system could be compromised.
Cisco Unified Communications Manager contained two overflow vulnerabilities that could have allowed a remote unauthenticated user to cause a denial-of-service condition or execute arbitrary code.
Cisco's Unified Communications Manager and Unified Presence Server also contained vulnerabilities that could have allowed an unauthorised administrator to activate and terminate system services.
When moving to unified comms, Gartner advises companies to begin with important but not mission-critical tasks and to assess needs based on the individual, not solely on job title.
A next-generation voice and communications architecture should include collaboration and social networking and, in the longer term, integrate communications with business applications.