Unified Communications, as a concept, is broadly supported by enterprises at nearly all levels. The idea of somehow integrating aspects of e-mail, voice mail, instant messaging and other communication methods sounds like a good idea to nearly everyone. But putting UC (Unified Communications) into practice varies widely in its level of integration and its level of penetration into the depths of the enterprise.
In fact, the level of integration for UC varies so much that Infonetics analyst Matthias Machowinski said the term can mean whatever you want it to mean. "At a high level, it is an integration between disparate modes of communications," Machowinski said. "To make it more tangible, ask yourself what are some of the most common types of communications? E-mail, phone calls, you can expand it to faxing and instant messaging."
Companies don't necessarily integrate even e-mail and voice mail. Some have integration of conference calling and desktop sharing as their approach to UC, he said.
"One challenge with this area is that different companies have different requirements. We have this different modality of communications. Is it a cohesive unit?" he said.
Depending on how those companies are set up, they have varying levels of the need for integration and communications.
"This doesn't even consider presence," he said, "which many consider necessary. Some analysts will require that. Some analysts will also say you have to have video capabilities." Of course, few companies have all of these features in their form of UC. Instead, companies tend to build out those features they most need for their day-to-day operations, and may let other functions remain unused, even if they're present in the UC packages they're already using.
There's not agreement in the vendor community whether a UC solution requires a PBX. Some users of Microsoft Office Communicator, for example, don't have any sort of dedicated phone switch and may not have telephone instruments, using soft phones that run on computers.
Still, in whatever form it's being used, the idea of UC has been around for nearly two decades. What has changed since then is the means of accomplishing a UC environment has expanded beyond any single company and any specific function. As a result, companies using UC are saving money, improving revenue and efficiency, and choosing those applications, functions and methods that best fit what they do. Effectively, the world of UC has become a cafeteria from which companies can select the components they need to make their business better while leaving behind the items that don't fit.
Colleen Jakes, director of Information Services for TopLine Federal Credit Union in Maple Grove, Minn., said her organization bases its UC solution on a Shoretel PBX. "We're using Shoretel Converged Conferencing," Jakes said. She said this includes instant messaging, multiple conference lines and an online meeting application that lets users share desktops and presentations. She said the Shoretel system is integrated with Microsoft Outlook so that voicemails appear in users' mailboxes and that the system is tied into the Outlook calendar, so their presence indicator automatically shows when they're in a meeting or on a call.
"The Web collaboration piece helps with branch locations," Jakes said. "We have presence, so we know whether someone is at their desk at a branch," she said. Jakes noted that the presence indicator and the Web collaboration capability have saved the credit union a significant amount of money in training. She said the branch trainer can conduct training over the conferencing system and doesn't have to travel between branches.
Jakes said the move to UC also improved member services significantly. "When a member calls in through the member service line, we can IM out to the group and see who has a file," Jakes explained. "Our members like to call in and talk to someone, but that person isn't necessarily an expert on what they want to know," she said, but Jakes said the person getting the call can IM an expert and then answer questions quickly.
Jakes said right now TopLine doesn't use video, although that can be integrated into the Shoretel system the credit union uses. "We're considering getting a couple of video capabilities for investment services," she said.