To boost competitiveness and improve business performance in today’s global environment, more and more enterprises are turning to Unified Communications (UC), which helps companies increase revenues, reduce costs, and enhance customer relationships.A lot has been written and discussed about UC in the past few years, and there is still much confusion about what UC is – but there is no question that UC technologies and solutions are helping workers be more productive, responsive, effective, and efficient. There’s been considerable hype as of late about what UC is and isn’t, but what’s most important and should take centre stage is what UC can do for companies – its impact on the business processes and the business itself.Is unified communications about providing the ability to access a variety of communication modes from a single interface, or is it about reducing human latency via business process integration? The answer, of course, is both. UC goes beyond the simple unification of communication modes to the integration with presence capabilities, providing context about the users, as well as integration with business processes and applications.

What makes UC attractive is that it enhances communications both inside and outside of the enterprise. Whether through the basic “click to call” application, or more advanced business process integration, workers can better communicate and collaborate with colleagues, customers, partners, and suppliers, regardless of location or media channel.

A Cornucopia of Components

What’s especially important to realize is that UC isn’t a single product or technology – it’s a solution based on a variety of previously siloed elements or components that change how work is completed for individuals, workgroups, and the organization as a whole. A UC solution may include:

  • Call control, and/or switch integration;
  • Presence (both online and telephony presence) and a rules engine;
  • Messaging: instant messaging, email, voice mail, unified messaging, short message service (SMS);
  • Conferencing: audio, web, video;
  • Collaboration: shared workspaces, white boarding, document sharing;
  • Mobility; and
  • Unified client: whether on the desktop, mobile device, soft phone, or Web portal.

There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to UC – every company has unique requirements and business goals, and will use the components that are needed for their specific UC solution.

One definition describes unified communications as communications integrated to optimize business processes. Using rules and policies, UC integrates real-time and non-real- time communications with business processes, based on presence capabilities, presenting a consistent unified user interface and user experience across multiple devices and media types. Just as there is no single UC product, there won’t be a single UC vendor. Multi-vendor integration and interoperability is key – the different UC elements or components will come from a variety of vendors, including switch vendors, desktop vendors like Microsoft, customer relationship management (CRM) and application vendors, mobility vendors, and so on, with integration services provided by professional services organizations, systems integrators, and other UC services organizations. Making all of the components seamlessly and harmoniously work together is paramount – and without the right resources, can be challenging.

Impacting the End User and the Business

UC is much more than a buzzword – early adopters and users of UC have experienced new, improved processes for doing business, and have realized a variety of business benefits from UC like increased mobility, enhanced collaboration, reduced travel time and costs, or improved customer service. By integrating UC with business processes and applications, communications are streamlined, human latency is reduced or eliminated, and workers can be more productive, efficient, and responsive. Through the use of UC tools, such as presence, mobility, and collaboration technologies that let workgroups exchange knowledge and documents, enterprises are experiencing shorter project times, quicker time-to-market, and improved organisational efficiency – which impacts their bottom line and competitiveness.

For example, if Jack needs information for an important customer deal, instead of blindly calling Jill, reaching her voice mailbox and having to wait several hours or even days for a response, Jack can view Jill’s presence status from within his desktop sales application and determine the best way to contact her. If Jane is not available by phone, maybe Jack can reach her by instant messaging. Or if Jack sees from Jill’s presence status and calendar information that she is out of the office for the day, he can look on his buddy list and see who else is available for him to contact. Using UC, Jack is able to get the information he needs, when he needs it, making him more responsive to his customer and more likely to close the sale, which impacts his company’s bottom line.

From SMBs to large enterprises, companies in varied vertical industries across the globe have been benefiting from UC. More than ever, companies today need to enhance customer relationships and intimacy, enable anytime/anywhere communications, increase worker productivity – whether in the office or on the road – and streamline and simplify business processes. We live in a mobile society, with new devices and technologies, making work from anywhere more than an option – it’s an expectation. Customers, partners, and employees expect to have the same communication capabilities available regardless of location or device – and with more personalized services.

Under the UC Umbrella

There are actually two types of UC solutions and benefits under the “UC Umbrella”– UC-User (UC-U), focusing on end-user productivity, and UC-Business Process (UC-B), focusing on the business process integration. While it’s more difficult to measure the return on investment (ROI) of UC-U, it’s clear that workers and enterprises have been able to reap significant benefits, mostly in terms of enhanced communications and increased productivity in their specific jobs. Many enterprises have begun UC implementations by starting with user productivity elements, and then moving to UC-B, which provides greater ROI to the company as a whole. It’s clear to anyone who’s used UC that it provides benefits to both the individual worker and the company as a whole, but the ROI is measurably greater when integrating UC with business processes and applications, resulting in communications-enabled business processes (CEBP).

When most people think of UC, they think of click-to-call, which is the most common form of UC-U. Communications becomes significantly faster and easier when you can simply click on someone’s name on your PC screen and be connected via instant messaging (IM) or a voice call without having to leave the application you were working in.

Workers using UC can better manage their communications for improved user productivity, both inside and out of the office, with capabilities that include:

  • Personal Call or Contact Management provides desktop call screening of inbound calls, on-screen directory dialling  and PC or graphic user interface (GUI) control of phone features. Screen pops on calls let users see who’s calling before answering the phone, making it easy to prioritise and screen incoming calls, while single Number Reach lets workers give out a single contact number, and be reached on their device of choice even when out of the office.
  • Mobile Access extends UC capabilities to mobile devices, allowing workers out of the office to have the same communication tools, regardless of location.
  • Workgroup or Team Collaboration lets workgroups, whether at the same location or geographically dispersed, work together and share and exchange information. Team members can work interactively in real time, resulting in shorter project times, quicker time-to-market, and greater organisational efficiency.
  • Access to Mobile Personnel enables callers or other contact initiators to locate and connect to individuals within an organisation. Important customers can reach you by dialling your office number, regardless of where you are, ensuring that they get the attention and service they demand and deserve.
  • Expert Assistant lets contact center agents see the presence and availability of knowledge workers and subject matter experts across the organisation, and contact the expert in real time to get the information they need via IM or the phone in order to best solve the customer’s question or issue.

All of these capabilities make it simple to identify and reach the right people and resources rapidly, leading to more efficient communications, and faster responsiveness and problem resolution.

Personal productivity benefits are important and make life easier for users, but it’s challenging to measure and quantify the benefits. Even though workers can save from 20 minutes to more than an hour a day and can be more efficient at doing their jobs by using UC, the way in which this impacts the bottom line is not always clear.

Enter UC-Business Productivity. When UC is tied to the business processes and applications companies use in their day-to-day business operations – whether CRM, Microsoft® Office applications, or custom programs – the benefits are even more significant. UC helps to reduce “human latency” in business processes by integrating communication functions directly into the systems and applications that people use to do their jobs. For example, by integrating UC with an inventory control system, the appropriate and available people can get notified when inventory gets too low, and can interact via audio and video conferencing to decide what steps to take and how to resolve the issue.

And, by enhancing productivity through removing human delay in communications, companies can experience increases to the bottom line and improved competitive performance. UC can impact enterprises in the greatest way by helping to provide improved customer service. UC can also proactively deliver information to the right people at the right time. Decisions can be made faster, products can be brought to market sooner, customer inquiries and problems can be resolved more quickly – all of which impact the bottom line in terms of improved competitive business position, reduced cost of doing business, increased or faster revenue generation, and increased profitability.

It’s All About the Business Process

Where organizations will see the greatest bang for their buck in UC is communications-enabled business processes (CEBP) – when communication capabilities are embedded in or integrated with enterprise business processes and vertical applications. During the course of everyone’s workday, there are times when they need to communicate with or receive information from co-workers, suppliers, partners, customers, and others, and the business process essentially comes to a halt until they get a response. By embedding communications capabilities directly into the business applications or business process workflow, these business processes can move forward without delays, reducing or eliminating human latency and making business flow smoothly.

Almost every business, in every vertical, has experienced productivity bottlenecks that delay or even stop the workflow process. Whether it’s a loan officer that needs to get information from the underwriter before moving to the next step of the loan process, a hospital administrator ready to release a patient but needs the doctor’s approval, or a manufacturing quality control manager who found a defect that needs to be fixed, delays in business processes have consequences that negatively impact any worker’s ability to get their jobs done as efficiently as possible. The impact on the organization could be comprised of unhappy customers, additional costs and expenses, or decreased competitive positioning.

The benefits of CEBP are significant – but getting through the planning and implementation stage to determine the best opportunities for CEBP throughout the enterprise is also a key part of the process. Professional services are one of the most important aspects of a successful UC-B or CEBP implementation. UC today (and in the near future) is far from plug-and-play, and integrating all of the UC components together – and with the enterprise’s specific business processes and applications – requires system integration and professional services. Professional services engagements are needed to provide a thorough analysis of the company’s business processes and how the various UC components can help the company meet its goals.

ROI Impact

It’s now clear that the benefits of UC and its ROI can affect users differently. Basic UC, or UC-U, impacts personal productivity and the individual worker, but as collaborative capabilities are added, the benefits extend to the team or workgroup, impacting workgroup productivity and increasing the ROI. As organizations incorporate CEBP, the benefits extend beyond individuals to the enterprise as a whole, and the ROI is even greater. Companies that transform their business or business processes, or truly change how work is completed, can find the highest return on investment.

Paths to Unified Communications

There is no one right way to successfully implement and operate UC – there are a variety of approaches. Each end-user company will go about selecting and implementing UC products and solutions according to their needs, goals, existing infrastructure, business processes, and more. The majority of companies start off on the road to UC with UC-User Productivity, by integrating the various communication modes with each other, while adding presence to enable click-to-call or click-to-communicate capabilities. After having the opportunity to try this out for a while, many companies then move on to find other ways in which UC can be utilized within their organizations. This generally involves communications-enabling business processes. However, some companies understand the value of UC in optimizing their business processes and go straight to business process integration from day one. What works for one company may not work for another – it’s best to look at what your goals are, and then determine how best to approach your journey to UC.

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