Unified Communications: what have you done for me lately?

So Unified Communications - two small words that often mean different things to different people and never seem to be out of the IT press at the moment. In these times of economic 'right sizing' the big question that's being asked of Unified Communications is "What have you done for me lately?"

Now that's a pretty broad question that could have a wide ranging answer but let's focus on one particular aspect of Unified Communications - mobility - and how a small jumble of plastic and metal pieces (commonly referred to as the mobile phone) has the potential to do more for us than we may realise. However before we kick off, a quick bit of history is called for.

Unifed Comms over the years

In the dark ages of VoIP and IP Telephony the meaning of 'Unified Communications' was somewhat different than it is today. Back then it meant the ability to have voice mails in your Inbox as a .wav attachment to an e-mail, to have your MWI (message waiting indicator) light synched to the read/un-read status for that e-mail and to call into your voice mail box from your mobile phone and have your e-mails read back to you by Metal Mickey.

The arrival of smart phone devices whether they be Blackberry or Windows Mobile has somewhat diminished the need for this particular piece of the Unified Communications pie. However the vast increase in performance of both the mobile phones and the networks they run over (specifically data services such as GPRS) has opened up a whole new world of applications that have resulted in the mobile phone becoming an increasing valuable business tool.

Keeping phone bills down

Spiralling monthly mobile phone bills are typically top of the agenda for any organisation with a high proportion of mobile users. Single Number Reach or the ability to twin (simultaneously ring) your IP desk phone with your mobile phone allows a user to pick up a call to their DDI (direct dial in) number on either device. In fact it doesn't have to just be a mobile phone; it can be any directly dialable number such as your home phone or hotel room phone.

Question: "Unified Communications - what have you done for me lately?"

Answer: "I've allowed your customers to reach you where ever you are and on whatever device you're using"

More importantly however this Single Number Reach/Twinning allows calls to be handed off between your desk phone and mobile phone. A mobile employee who takes a call to his DDI number on his mobile just as he's returning to the office no longer has to continue the call and incur mobile call charges or tell the customer he'll call them back; instead he can seamlessly hand the call back to his desk phone.

Taking this one step further, these mobility applications allow travelling employees to make local, national and even international business call from their mobile phones at regular PSTN rates rather than the significantly more expensive mobile call charges. So how is this done you may ask? By the use of a client application on the smart phone that uses the data service to tell your office Unified Communications system to call your mobile phone, the number you want to reach and then conference the call together. You've now made a call from your mobile without incurring mobile call charges.

Question: "Unified Communications - what have you done for me lately?"

Answer: "I've significantly reduced your monthly mobile phone costs"

Increasing productivity

So far we've seen some of the cost benefits that Unified Communications brings to the party but what about the other important aspect of being a mobile employee - productivity whilst out of the office. It's all well and good being able to make and receive business calls but that's not much use without some of the functionality we take for granted sitting at our desk. For example being able to look up a colleague in the corporate directory and determine if they're on the phone, in a meeting or away from their desk and then be able to reach them via the most appropriate means - chat (IMS), phone call or e-mail - all from your smart phone. We've come to know this is as 'Presence' or if put another way it's like having an MSN or Office Communicator on your mobile phone.

Extend the theme of productivity a bit further and we come to collaboration, a term and technology for integrating voice, video conferencing (or indeed high definition TelePresence) and document sharing into one application. Many organisations are already realising the benefits of removing geographical constraints from employee project team working in terms of reduced travel time, costs plus shortening lead times and being able to respond to customer needs in a more timely fashion.

The latest generation of smart phone Unified Communications clients about to hit the market enables a travelling employee to initiate a web collaboration session such as WebEx with document sharing and video from their mobile phone via drag and drop. In fact a regular phone call on the smart phone can be escalated to a web collaboration session in a similar fashion.

Question: "Unified Communications - what have you done for me lately?"

Answer: "I've made your employees more productive when out of the office and improved your organisation's ability to respond to customer's needs in a more timely fashion"

So while on the face of it, Unified Communications may seem to be an expense in these times of economic belt tightening, when you dig a bit deeper below the surface there are clear benefits to be had in terms of cost control, increased productivity and employee efficiency for any organisation be it commercial, healthcare or government. In fact wasn't it a certain Mr. Cameron who had cost savings through improved efficiency as one of his key messages just recently?

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