I'm not trying to sound like a fanboy here, but I don't know what I would do without Google. Sure, I use it whenever I have a question or need to look something up. But I also use Gmail, Docs for collaborating on projects, Calendar to remain organized, and Hangouts to participate or host Webinars. I even use my account for instant messaging and phone calls. In other words, I would be completely lost without Google because it places all of my communication needs in one convenient location.

Google, of course, isn't the only company that offers Unified Communications. In fact, UC has been around much longer than most of us may realize.

Marty Parker recalls that "In the 1980s, the idea of UC was emerging from the worlds of voice messaging, IVR, and e-mail," because this technology was "recognized as an access mechanism to corporate information for mobile employees." VMX, an early voice mail leader, even began to offer an "e-mail reader" feature on their voicemail system in 1985.

By the late 80s and early 90s, however, this whole 'unified messaging' (UM) "idea had caught on and many investments were made to bring voice mail and e-mail together on the cellular or remote office phone and on the office desktop screen or PC." During this period, it was common to see tech companies pair with communication companies, like Lotus (pre-IBM)--AT&T and Microsoft--VMX/Octel/vMail. Once the 21st Century arrived, "companies had figured out that there were new ways of providing user communications."

Today, according to a survey conducted by Jabra, "52.5% of employees in companies surveyed use Unified Communication applications." Furthermore, the survey also discovered that "61% of users work on site with access to corporate UC applications," as well as 70% of companies planning to remove deskphones as a result of the Unified Communications roll-out.

According to Rob Arnold (Program Manager, Frost & Sullivan) "We were surprised at how many companies have already replaced their deskphones, or are planning to replace them, as part of their UC implementation." Arnold also added, "This action demonstrates that companies truly see the value in Unified Communications and are serious about using these new technologies to improve the way they do business."

Clearly businesses, and individuals in general, are aware of the numerous benefits of UC. But, with any sort of technological advancement, there are some concerns that need to be addressed.

What Are Unified Communications?

Before I discuss the pros and con of Unified Communications, I think we need to have a clean definition of UC.

Gartner defines unified communications (UC) products (equipment, software and services) "as those that facilitate the interactive use of multiple enterprise communications methods. This can include control, management and integration of these methods. UC products integrate communications channels (media), networks and systems, as well as IT business applications and, in some cases, consumer applications and devices.

In addition to that definition, PC Mag adds that UC is, "The real-time redirection of a voice, text or e-mail message to the device closest to the intended recipient at any given time. For example, voice calls to desk phones could be routed to the user's cellphone when required. E-mail intended for a desktop mailbox could be sent to the user's PDA or turned into speech for a phone message."

With UC, you'll be able to integrate and consolidate everything from voice mail, secure email, instant messaging, Calendaring, SMS messages, screen sharing and audio/video/web conferencing.

Benefits of Unified Communications

The idea of combining multiple communications into a single solution sounds promising in theory, but what are the real reasons why businesses should implement Unified Communications.

Cisco plainly states that with UC, you'll be able to "connect teams and information, and help enable comprehensive and effective collaborative experiences. Your organization can:

  • Connect co-workers, partners, vendors, and customers with the information and expertise they need
  • Access and share video on the desktop, on mobile devices, and on demand, as easily as making a phone call
  • Facilitate better team interactions, dynamically bringing together individuals, virtual workgroups, and teams
  • Make mobile devices extensions of the corporate network so workers can be productive anywhere
  • Integrate collaboration and communications into applications and business processes"

More importantly, however, UC has a number of cost and time-sharing benefits. According to research conducted by Chadwick Martin Bailey on behalf of Cisco found that:

  • 49% of user organizations save up to 20 minutes per employee daily by reaching workers on the first try.
  • 46% of user organizations realize travel savings of more than five days per employee annually
  • 68% of user organizations report productivity improvements between geographically-dispersed functional groups
  • 50% of user organizations save up to 20 minutes per employee daily from more efficient message management
  • Over 75% of user organizations experience improved productivity of employees across geographically-dispersed locations due to voice and video conferencing
  • 67% of user organizations report increased mobile worker productivity and faster problem resolution

Yes, Unified communications can improve productivity and save you valuable time and money.

Concerns Over Unified Communications

If Unified Communications can help boost productivity, cut costs and save time, then what could be the downside?

According to previously mentioned survey by Jabra, the biggest challenges for implementing Unified Communications were:

  • Overall Cost.
  • Limited value for the majority of the workforce.
  • Limited in-house staff expertise to deploy and manage the roll-out.
  • Limited interoperability with existing assets.
  • Waiting for Unified Communications technology to mature.
  • Employee resistance to change existing ways of working.

While all of these are valid considerations, it's most surprising that companies top concern over UC are the initial cost. In fact, "73% of companies with more than 5,000 employees cited cost as an obstacle to implementing UC."

The biggest cost concern would be replacing a legacy system with UC. Why? Because outdated computer systems, software and hardware don't exactly integrate well with shiny, new UC technology. The Aberdeen Group also lists the cost of training, system maintenance and add-ons as other expenses to take into consideration.

However, the most logical concern for businesses considering to make the switch to UC would be connectivity issues. According to Ann Finnie on the Logitech Blog, which recalled InformationWeek's 2014 State of Unified Communications Report, "network services aren't keeping the pace to meet the needs that increased connectivity demands. 17% of the participants worry over their network capacity and list a lack of WAN bandwidth--and the cost to upgrade it--as their most pressing concern."

Can Cloud Save The Day?

As I mentioned when I started out this piece, I'm a huge fan of the power of UC, but for me a solution like Google fits the bill.

Google's communication platform has everything I need, but for enterprises looking for a more robust, secure and perhaps less intrusive UC solution, I'm not sure that what works for me will work for them.

What I do see, however, is the movement to Cloud Unified Communication platforms becoming a growing trend in the enterprise. With the right solution, cloud can allow for secure connectivity, greater levels of data privacy and a more exclusive company interface that can be run in the cloud whether public, private or hybrid.

One great example of where cloud is launching UC forward is with Video Communication. Many of us know video because we use Skype or Google Hangouts, but there are emerging players like Starleaf that have built robust ad-hoc video calling tools that offer high quality video on demand with easy integration at what can be a very affordable price point.

The cloud is and will continue to be the next frontier of how we do Unified Communications because it does lower those large up front costs and makes it possible for UC deployments to go faster and smoother than they have historically gone.

While advancements in technology have made UC an accessible and extremely beneficial tool for the workplace, analysts believe that the "biggest problem plaguing UC is an inability to create clear expectations in both technology and business buyers' minds of exactly what it delivers."

Published on: Feb 21, 2015