Unified communications: the problem and the answer

A huge factor in the drive toward unified-communications architectures is the lack of integration -- and concomitant loss of effectiveness -- that characterizes real-time communications tools today.

Take knowledge workers in a typical enterprise environment. They have desktop and mobile phones, plus e-mail. They will likely also have an enterprise-provided IM service, or access to a public IM service such as AOL Instant Messenger, Microsoft MSN, Yahoo IM or GoogleTalk.

They also may have desktop videoconferencing capability through their phone system or other application environment. Although these systems should lead to greater ability to communicate, they often impede it, as users go through a complex series of steps to determine the optimal communications channel for a given scenario.

Attempts to reach colleagues often will result in numerous voice messages or chat requests across multiple services and devices, including desktop and mobile.

The answer:

Unified communications and a real-time communications dashboard

Unified communications offers individuals the ability to not only manage how they contact others but also how others can contact them. Furthermore, unified communications enables contextual communications, whereby individuals can collaborate in real time on specific projects, workspaces or documents.

Unified communications means an integrated set of user interfaces for all communications services. It further defines the integration of both real-time and nonreal-time communications services to bring context and presence to the communications environment.

Inherent in a unified-communications architecture is the real-time communications dashboard (RTCD). RTCDs may consist of both desktop and mobile software clients, though often with differing levels of functionality. Companies may further interweave RTCD functionality into office and business applications, enabling such features as click-to-call and presence status displays from within a variety of applications.

Enterprises appear to understand the value of unified communications, not only for solving the challenges of complexity of communications, but also to enable them to take advantage of improved responsiveness offered by presence awareness, with more than 17% deploying some form of unified communications services in their organization.

In a truly unified-communications system, applications should be able to share presence information, or report presence information to a central presence repository. Examples of presence combined with unified communications include the ability for status on a buddy list to change when someone is on the phone, in a meeting, away from his desk or in a Web conference. Mash-ups enable integration of such information as geo-location to create a presence model showing availability and location.

Nemertes has defined an architectural model for unified communications, showing the key components in a unified-communications solution, as well as the interrelation of various nonreal-time and supporting applications. This model defines a unified communications architecture providing a common user interface via a real-time communications dashboard.

The dashboard could be a stand-alone application, such as Lotus Sametime or Microsoft Office Communicator, or embedded as a plug-in into other applications such as Microsoft Outlook, Salesforce.com or via a Web-based user interface. This dashboard may be further integrated with call center or room-based videoconferencing applications or customized to meet specific industry vertical requirements.

Business benefits

* The use of IP softphones means that mobile professionals can stay connected while outside the office, and enterprises can reduce costs for fixed locations, such as call centers, by enabling individuals to work from home.

* Web conferencing and meet-me conferencing services enable more effective meetings and eliminate the common refrains heard in traditional audio conferences of "who's on the call." For example, 86% of companies using Web conferencing tools report reductions in travel costs, with 43% citing a reduction in telecom costs; 29% reporting faster times to market and reduced overhead, and 14% noticing an increase in sales.

* Real-time collaboration technologies, including unified communications, enable companies to better support their virtual workers, leading to greater opportunities to reduce costs and improve retention as more people work from home. But often these cost savings are perceived rather than quantified: Only 32% of enterprises have quantified cost benefits as a result of unified communications.

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