Imagine merging separate communications modes — including landline and mobile voice, email, and IM (instant messaging) — into a single, universally accessible service. That's the promise of unified communications . Best of all, this sophisticated technology is now within the reach of just about any business.
Unified communications, a concept that has been discussed for more than a decade, is finally becoming a practical proposition thanks to the growing adoption of IP telephony. In fact, companies that have already adopted an IP PBX are well on the way toward creating a unified-communications environment, since their phone system can easily join messaging, email and other forms of IP-based communications on the enterprise data network. All that remains to be done is to create a software environment that can route and organize calls and messages.
By providing integrated voice mail, email, conference calling and IM services, unified communications can give business employees the ability to reach colleagues wherever they may be with whatever communications mode is most appropriate. For businesses that operate around the clock, unified communications can keep key employees in the loop 24/7.
Unified communications can also help employees work smarter and better. Key support information, for instance, can be made available as soon as an incoming call or message arrives. When using a computer or a smartphone, for example, a screen pop can tell the employee exactly who is calling and to what situation the call relates. Additionally, with unified communications, information is exchanged interactively in real time, without wasted time on procedural matters such as setting up scheduled dates and times. Presence technology can be used to show whether a person is currently available to receive a call.
During conference calls, desktop-sharing technology lets employees and business partners jointly view, edit and annotate documents in real time. During live meetings or conference calls, employees can get fast answers to crucial questions from colleagues in the same building — or in an office on the other side of the world — by contacting them via IM or voice. Employees can also tap into their computers to share spreadsheets, charts or other relevant data with conference participants.
Since unified communications incorporates a wide array of communication modes, not to mention multiple hardware and software platforms and applications, the technology can rapidly grow into the most complex communications project a business will ever tackle.
Due to its complexity, deploying a unified-communications environment demands patience, diligence and persistence. Businesses that lack a staff of knowledgeable IT workers will probably need outside help to roll out a unified-communications environment.
Major unified-communications-systems vendors include Cisco Systems Inc ., Microsoft, Avaya Inc . and Nortel Networks , as well as a variety of firms that offer add-on tools. Careful product selection is vital to project success. Planners must ensure that platforms, devices, applications and all other components interoperate seamlessly. To keep their project manageable, many businesses opt to roll out their unified-communications environment over time, using staged deployments that gradually bring the technology to a steadily growing number of employees.
Unified communications can help employees work more productively and efficiently, regardless of the time of day or their location. But planning and deploying a unified-communications system requires a substantial investment of time, effort and money.
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