What Does Unified Communications Mean for Your SMB?

Updated: April 30, 2009

Employees often waste time and energy trying to reach a colleague through voice mail, email and IM (instant messaging). It is also common to find multiple messages concerning the same subject in different places. Unified communications seeks to simplify these problems by sending all communications to a single inbox .

How Unified Communications Can Help

Unified communications can offer significant time savings. Market-research company Sage Research Inc. found that, in companies that used unified communications, the average employee saved 32 minutes per day by being able to locate co-workers on the first attempt. In addition, employees saved an average of 43 minutes per day by managing all emails, voice mails and faxes from a single inbox.

In many business scenarios, employees need to reach someone with particular expertise , not a specific individual. A unified-communications system can offer a solution to that issue as well. It can give a customer-service rep access to a directory of available billing specialists, for example. This capability saves time dialing one unavailable person after another.

The ability to combine communications also enables employees to share information more completely. For instance, a text message about a customer problem could have the customer's account-history records attached. Voice mail can also have attachments, such as faxes or video presentations.

In addition, a unified-communications system can replace a number of machines around the office, including faxes, dedicated video conference devices and associated network interfaces. By streamlining infrastructure, an SMB (small- to medium-sized business) can yield additional cost savings.

Unified communications can also improve your SMB's mobility and continuity. Text messages can be translated to voice by unified-communications systems, enabling mobile users to manage their email from any telephone handset. It no longer matters whether mobile users have access to a computer terminal, wired phone or cell phone. The system also enables workers to track down mobile employees quickly so business operations can continue smoothly.

Web 2.0 components such as wikis, mashups and internal social networks are included in unified-communications systems as well. The emergence of presence applications such as Twitter are also part of the unified-communications paradigm. Essentially, these programs tell everyone on the network, "Here I am and here is what I am doing." This type of social-networking activity merges well with unified communications to give employees a sense of who is doing what.

More Options, but Still Pricey

Demand for unified communications is growing faster among SMBs than in companies with more than 1,000 employees, according to Cisco Systems, Inc.'s SMB unit. The company last year rolled out several new offerings aimed at this market, including unified-communications systems for firms with 20 or fewer employees.

But all is not perfect with unified communications. Price is still a barrier to implementing this technology. The cost of equipping a 22-person office with a Cisco Systems unified-communications system is estimated to run about $450 per month with financing. While some unified-communications features can be applied over conventional analog-phone lines, others require IP-telephony infrastructure and network modifications. Employees also need training to use the new system.

Most SMBs will implement unified communications piece by piece, starting with IP telephony. As workers become accustomed to this digital convenience, they will soon want voice mail in their inboxes, followed by other unified-communications components.

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