Unified communications (UC) is really the holy grail of communication and collaboration in the enterprise. While it’s entirely possible to run a business with every user choosing their own email, phone, messaging, productivity, conferencing, and calendar tools, a unified approach that brings all of these services under a single, manageable, highly interoperable umbrella makes the prospect of “working together” (whatever that means for an organization or team) a lot easier.
In fact, there isn’t a single standard of unified communications; organizations are free to define what that means for them. The real definition of UC is an agreed upon set of communication tools that work well together, can be centrally managed, and ensure that users can communicate efficiently and easily. A key feature is the integration of both synchronous (e.g., instant messaging, voice and video conferencing, webcasting using interactive whiteboards and other presentation tools, etc.) and asynchronous forms of communication (email, voicemail, etc.).
One size doesn’t fit all, though. For example, an organization may embrace BYOD and allow users to choose the phone carriers of their choice, but standardize to Google Apps for messaging, email, video and voice conferencing, and collaboration utilities. Another may deploy standardized Windows Phone handsets from a single carrier to ease procurement and then use Microsoft’s ecosystem to create a highly collaborative environment via SharePoint, Lync, Exchange, etc.
Although Microsoft and Google are two well-known examples of companies that can supply UC services and architecture, there are many companies that have grown less around their email and document collaboration tools and much more around voice and video. In these cases, UC may not actually even involve wireless carriers or might layer mobile on top of web and video conferencing and asynchronous tools from another provider entirely. It’s up to the organization to determine the exact components and makeup of their UC strategy. One based around IBM’s presence management (the ability to know whether or not a colleague is online and potentially where they are), VoIP, web conferencing, screen sharing, and messaging capabilities may also use Exchange to handle email, calendaring, and other asynchronous communications.
Although the number of turnkey solutions, as well as homegrown combinations of services, for UC is nearly overwhelming, the benefits of selecting and implementing a UC strategy can be quite significant. Standardizing the communication and collaboration platform in an organization and bringing provisioning and management under IT control ensures a consistent, high quality experience on which new users can easily be trained and around which extensive workflows can be easily designed. The latter consideration is also an integral part of unified communications. Workflows and business process integration can introduce major efficiencies organization-wide, enhancing productivity in ways that just email or shared calendars alone cannot.
Chris Dawson is a writer, speaker, and analyst with particular interests in educational technology, healthcare IT, and the intersection of the two with the cloud and BI. He is a contributing editor at ZDNet, Ziff Davis, and UBM Channel, and a senior editor at Edukwest. You can follow him on Twitter (@mrdatahs) and Google+ (+Christopher Dawson).