Do you remember when 99 percent of business communications consisted of phone calls and the U.S. mail? It wasnt that long ago. Do you ever wish communication could be that simple again? There's no returning to that simpler time, but unified communications can instill much-needed order.
For example, does this scenario sound familiar?
You use a computer -- perhaps even a laptop that you take everywhere. On that computer, you use e-mail, maybe an instant messaging system, and lately even some social media and networking sites (e.g., Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook). Perhaps you view webinars or conduct them and even do some video conferencing on that computer.
You almost certainly have a mobile phone, and its probably a smart phone, so you can handle e-mail and Web browsing when your primary computer isnt handy. That means you have an office phone number (and voice mailbox), a mobile phone number (and voice mailbox), and no doubt a home or personal phone number (and voice mailbox).
Now add a work e-mail address and probably a personal e-mail address. We wont even get into what kind of MP3 player you use for entertainment, or whether youve tried out a new e-reader. But how many communication channels are you juggling on your person, on your desk, at home or in your computer bag at any given moment, and how do you keep tabs on them all?
There must be a better way, I hear you cry. And there is.
Imagine being able to connect and synchronize that random mix of devices -- and the communication channels they provide -- in a way that simplifies your life and streamlines your communication with your customers, clients, colleagues and even with your family and friends. That's the idea behind unified communications (UC), which is a rapidly growing and evolving family of technologies that can support fundamental improvements in the way a company conducts business.
Why is this important? Unified communications increases an organizations productivity and reduces operating costs -- significantly and quickly. CDWs 2010 Unified Communications Tracking Poll, released in March, found that small to mid-size business respondents were more likely than in other sectors to point to improved business outcomes (e.g., customer service, business process flow) as the primary motivator for adoption, compared to cost reduction. However, with the economys influence in 2009, operating cost reduction did become more of a motivator across the board.
Whether a UC solution has a minimal or profound affect depends on whether the small business has (1) identified its unique business challenges and (2) has a strategy for driving employee adoption. Additionally, it is important to keep in mind that UC solutions consist of many different combinations of point products that will benefit different companies in either more or different ways than others. For example:
Scenario: A small law firm has attorneys who routinely travel to visit clients both in and out of town, and the firms current communications system only allows incoming calls to ring to the attorney's office phone, be picked up by a receptionist or be routed to voicemail. This process is cumbersome for the attorneys because they always have to dial into their voicemail to retrieve messages, never knowing for sure that they even have any.
UC Answer: If the firm implemented a solution that included mobility, presence and unified messaging applications, the attorneys would be able to have calls to their office lines ring on their mobile devices without complex forwarding rules. Also, if the receptionist picked up a call to a specific attorneys line, the UC solution would tell him/her whether that attorney is in a meeting, available, traveling, etc.
If the attorney was unavailable, the call could be routed to the corporate voicemail (not the cell phone voicemail), at which time the attorney would receive an e-mail on his/her mobile device with an attachment that included a recording of the message. This streamlines attorney/client communication and spares the attorney time otherwise spent dialing in repeatedly to check voice mail.
How Does Unified Communications Work?
There are many ways to unify communications, depending on your business need -- integrating disparate communication tools like e-mail, voice mail and instant messaging; removing physical barriers through video and Web conferencing; and connecting people quickly and easily through the latest telecommunications platforms.
But every company has different needs and challenges, and UC solutions are designed in all shapes and sizes, as one size definitely does not fit all. As a result, there is no one recommendation on an actual solution that would encompass the needs and solve the business challenges for every small enterprise. Instead, the general recommendation for businesses of any size is to take the following steps before moving forward with a UC implementation:
Clearly identify the business challenge: This will help you keep an eye on the big picture in working through the planning and implementation of the solution
Work to define the measure of success: This will help you set the bar to easily identify accomplishments and milestones
Work with a technology partner every step of the way: UC solutions can take time to evolve, and you want a partner who will be with you throughout the evolution to help make recommendations and refine the solution as necessary
Develop a plan for company-wide adoption: The best solution in the world will not produce the expected ROI if it is not fully adopted within your business, and it is important to have a plan in place that will drive adoption throughout the organization after you have the solution in place
Many businesses contain the cost associated with unifying communications by planning implementation in conjunction with other organizational changes involving facilities or the communications network. An earlier CDW Unified Communications Tracking Poll found that almost all of the organizations planning and executing unified communications solutions are also doing at least one of the following tasks:
- Replacing obsolete or inadequate existing networks
- Opening a new facility or building
- Establishing a new call center or expanding an old one
- Integrating two or more existing networks (e.g., a business merger/acquisition, or a reorganization)
- Integrating branches of distributed operations (e.g., retail store locations, bank branches or field offices)
- Expanding or deploying a telecommuting program for a significant percentage of the organizations workforce
- Implementing a business continuity/disaster recovery plan and supporting capabilities
While unifying communications is a complicated task with many potential challenges, it can undoubtedly help transform a company and produce attractive operating efficiencies. The tools have changed, but communicating can still be as efficient as walking to the mailbox.
Kevin DeMers is senior manager of the unified communications solutions practice at CDW.
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