With the evolution of information and communications technologies, traditional forms of communication have converged into what is now known as Unified Communications. The core concept of Unified Communications (UC) is that various enterprise communication services are seamlessly integrated. In this introduction to Unified Communications, we will review what it is, how it works, and how it can make businesses and non-profit organizations more efficient.
What is Unified Communications
UC includes services such as instant messaging (chat), user presence (availability status), video conferencing, telephony, and collaboration features (desktop sharing, presentation etc.). UC is not a single product, but a suite of technologies that provide a unified user experience. Communication via the various services is routed through the UC platform seamlessly. For example, a user can place a phone call from their laptop, mobile application, or traditional desk phone, while at the same time receive voicemails via email, and chat with others in the organization, all through the same system.
History of Unified Communications
To understand the true meaning of UC, we’ll take a look at its history and how it has evolved over the years. In the 1980s, most organizations used a Private Branch Exchange (PBX) telephone system. These systems were offered and managed by local phone companies and typically required analog lines which routed calls from a central office to the customer.
By the 1990s, as email became more widespread and businesses deployed Internet Protocol (IP) based networks, voice technology also evolved. Advances in communications technology led to the development of Voice over IP (VoIP) phone systems which could transmit voice traffic across data networks. As VoIP deployments became more popular throughout the 1990s, this led to the decline of traditional PBX systems, given the cost effectiveness of using data networks for voice, and the availability of the Internet as a global delivery system. The advancement of IP telephony, which allowed for phones to live on the same network as computers, opened possibilities for advanced integration between computer applications and phones. This led to the idea of “Unified Messaging,” which streamlined voicemail, e-mail, faxes and other text-based messaging systems.
In the 2000s, realizing the demand for IP telephony, manufacturers such as Avaya and Nortel began to modify traditional PBX phone systems by creating circuit packs that could connect the system to an IP network. Other vendors such as Cisco developed equipment that allowed voice calls to be placed across company networks in order to connect multiple physical locations. Throughout the 2000s, UC solutions evolved with the integration of real-time communication services such as instant messaging, presence, telephony, video conferencing, desktop sharing, integrated voicemail etc.
By the 2010s, Microsoft released Lync, the successor to Office Communicator. Lync was a major player in the business communications space. While there were other options such as Cisco, Lync integrated well with Outlook and the Microsoft Active Directory environment, which most organizations use for their computer network. In 2015, Microsoft acquired Skype and combined its features with Lync to launch Skype for Business.
As cloud technologies evolved by the mid 2010s, a new service model, Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS), emerged in parallel. With UCaaS becoming more mainstream, the provision of unified communications services shifted to the Cloud. Cloud based UCaaS eliminates capital expenditures associated with deploying traditional on-premise VoIP systems, saving the customer considerable deployment costs.
Implementing Unified Communications
Most organizations approach the implementation of UC from an information technology (IT) aspect, and therefore fail to consider the human collaboration elements of unified communications. In order to successfully implement a UC solution, organizations must focus on specific components, including:
- User Environment
- User Interface
- Software Integration
- Hardware Integration
- Network, Security, and Policies
A UC implementation which is missing any of these components will not have the desired successful outcome. For example, if the infrastructure is unstable, or users experience poor call quality or video latency, the entire user experience will fail. Therefore, it is important to approach UC implementation from the human collaboration aspect in order to ensure technical consistency.
Just as with any other technology implementation project, there are many factors to consider when preparing for a UC implementation, including a clear understanding of business requirements, changes to organizational culture, and most importantly, user training.
UC provides staff with an entirely new way to connect, and it changes how people communicate and collaborate within any organization. While UC offers a wide array of integrated features, it is important to understand how these features will impact business operations and processes. Evaluating business requirements is an essential component of a successful UC implementation.
Developing Implementation Strategy
An implementation strategy should address the many implications that a UC deployment has for all aspects of an organization’s operations. Some factors that must be considered include technology adoption, training, business processes, technical requirements, financials, as well as involvement from stakeholders, and development of governance and policy frameworks.
Changes to Business Culture
Moving to UC has significant implications for an organization’s culture and its day-to-day operations. As a consequence, it is vital to understand how implementing UC can impact an organization’s culture. Understanding these impacts facilitates preparation for the transformation toward a more collaborative and communicative enterprise culture. Understanding impacts also helps identify the level of staff training and education that will be necessary for successful technology adoption by users.
Training & Employee Engagement
Significant employee engagement and training are vital factors in a successful UC implementation. By including employees in the implementation process through continuous communication, you will ensure they are on-board with the new solution. In order to have user buy-in, it is important for staff to understand how UC will improve their day-to-day workflow and enhance the way they function. In addition to employee education, there must be ample user training both before and after implementation.
Planning & Testing
Finally, a successful UC implementation depends on a smooth deployment. Therefore, it’s important to thoroughly plan the actual implementation as well as testing prior to going live. If employees come in to work on a Monday morning and their phones are not working, or they can’t join their conference call, or they are not be able to use all of the features of the new UC solution, then the solution’s reputation is thrown in doubt from the onset and it will be very difficult to convince skeptical minds to adopt the new technology.
Benefits of Unified Communications
There is no downside to implementing UC as the features and functionality can dramatically enhance communication, regardless of the size of an organization. UC offers the following key benefits.
UC provides real-time communication access across services such as telephony, messaging, and meetings from various devices. This in turn allows employees to become more efficient in daily operations and produce opportunities of scale which can optimize productivity across the entire organization.
Barriers to internal communication between departments is a challenge for many organizations. UC is able to bridge that gap by making employee communication easier. This in turn offers the potential of more teamwork and improved collaboration across departments. This allows organizations to respond more quickly to situations and assists departments that try to work together cohesively. When all departments function holistically as a team, the organization gains competitive advantage.
One of the key advantages of UC is that it allows employees to work from anywhere, whether it is at the office, on the road, or from home. This feature not only provides flexibility to employees, but also allows the organization to rapidly respond to customer needs. In a 24×7 on-demand world, organizations cannot afford to respond slowly to business needs.
By consolidating multiple systems and applications such as phones, messaging, conferencing, and meetings into a single platform, organizations will realize cost savings. These direct savings combined with increased productivity and agility provide a long-term return on Investment to the organization.
In summary, the benefits gained by implementing a UC solution outweigh the efforts involved in the deployment. UC enables an organization to become more efficient, increase productivity, gain competitive advantage, and in turn become more profitable. The organization can reinvest profits gained as a result of better communication.