Cheat Sheet: Unified communications

They've felt your presence

Unified comms - I've heard of it but frankly I don't know what it actually means.
You're not alone. Apart from the fact it sounds unapologetically dull, unified communications (or UC for short) is an amorphous and rather abstract concept. This is not a neat, one-size-fits-all technology - UC deployments vary from company to company, depending on each particular business' needs.

That's reassuringly vague. So where do you begin with UC?
Let's start by taking a look at the cocktail of comms that can be found in a modern business.

There's email of course - vital to pretty much every organisation these days, and then there's also landlines and mobiles to consider too. Plus there's the likes of instant messaging and videoconferencing to add into the mix, and possibly even a fax machine languishing unloved in the corner.

There are an awful lot of layers to modern comms - meaning the average worker has to make on-the-fly decisions about which medium to use to contact someone at any given time. Communicating has never been so darn complicated.

So true! I never know whether it's rude to IM a colleague rather than send an email or give them a call.
Exactly. Reducing comms latency is one key aim of UC - but more of that anon. It's also important to remember complexity doesn't just afflict the office worker either - IT chiefs have to manage these multifarious comms so they'd probably give their right arm for a simplified infrastructure.

Cheat Tweet
Unified comms defined Twitter-style - in 140 characters or less
Different comms available in a single view on any device, irrespective of source or format, to save time and boost productivity

And that's where UC steps in. Essentially, it's software that sits on your comms infrastructure and unites different messaging mediums, allowing staff to access their communications irrespective of what medium they're in or what device the worker is using.

For example, a UC system might allow a worker to read a fax or retrieve a voicemail via their email system, rather than having to go and pick up the fax from the machine or dial into their voicemail from their phone.

Unified communications systems typically have more strings to their bow than such 'unified messaging' capabilities, however.

UC systems should be able to integrate communications across multiple locations regardless of the kit or networks involved, or the applications or wireless providers used.

On the IT side, UC should mean less to manage - fewer directories and databases, and no more third-party voice messaging systems, for instance.

OK, so UC means everyone gets voicemails as emails and faxes as PDFs and so on, and the IT chief gets a few less migraines, but what else can it offer?
Another common component of UC systems is 'presence' - which is a bit like an IM status update. This enables a worker to see where their colleagues are located and how they would prefer to be contacted at any given moment. With presence, you can easily see which of those colleagues are currently in the office and how they each prefer to be contacted - by phone, email, IM and so on.

Presence is another example of how UC can be used to boost productivity and drive faster working - no more telephone tag, for example, and less time spent waiting for a client or colleague to get back to you.

Sounds like nirvana. But my business hasn't got one of those fancy all-IP networks and it's just too expensive to rip and replace my existing kit at the moment, so I guess I'll have to give UC a miss for now.
Not necessarily - UC vendors would be limiting their business if they could only sell to companies prepared to cough up for all-IP as well. Think of UC as an overlaying technology, a software skin that sits on top of an existing network. That means it can be designed to sit on top of legacy TDM and/or mixed infrastructure networks - though of course it can work on all-IP too, and is likely to be easier to integrate with the latter. UC systems can also interoperate with different software environments - such as IBM and Microsoft.

Is there anything else UC can do?
Some vendors like to talk about using UC systems for 'user profiling', especially in the area of skills.

User profiling?
Basically, user profiling can help locate people with the most relevant skills in real-time. Such a feature has an obvious use case in a call centre: an agent dealing with a customer query can immediately find the right person in the business to help while the customer is still on the line, avoiding the need for a call back later.