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Defining unified communications is growing more complicated by the day. There are a number of voice, video and message-based communication methods that fall under the UC umbrella. So a thorough understanding of UC technology is necessary before companies can make informed buying decisions. Not only is the UC value proposition often difficult to articulate, it also involves multiple decisions that affect both the IT group and end users.
In brief, UC is a platform that seamlessly integrates communications applications across multiple modes -- such as voice, chat, file sharing and video -- and delivers a consistent end-user experience across various networks and endpoints. While this describes UC's technical capabilities, its business value and ROI come from enabling team collaboration, improving personal productivity and streamlining business processes.
At face value, unified communications can be a compelling value proposition, but UC technology trends are constantly evolving. Vendor offerings are also not standardized. While every vendor's UC platform has similar core features, their overall benefits and usability vary widely with new capabilities added regularly.
No true precedent exists to mirror UC technology; however, the phone system may be the closest comparison -- a point reinforced by the fact that the leading UC vendors are telecom vendors.
But while telephony has been a relatively static technology, with the exception of migrating from analog to digital to voice over IP (VoIP), UC tools are far more fluid. As such, businesses must abandon telecom-centric thinking and view UC as a new model for supporting all modes of communication.
UC technology blends telephony, collaboration and cloud
Unified communications emerged from the features and limitations of legacy business telephony systems. Prior to VoIP, phone systems operated independently, running over a dedicated voice network. Migrating to a packet-switched technology, VoIP allowed voice to run on the LAN, sharing a common connection with other data communications applications.
Merging both voice and data onto the same network led to the birth of UC technology. The first UC tool to come about was a unified messaging platform. Companies considered unified messaging a major step forward since this platform created a common inbox where employees could monitor and interact with voice, fax and text-based messaging on a single unified platform.
UC further evolved by allowing employees to work with all available modes of communication in real time, regardless of physical location. Rather than just retrieve messages in one place, employees can use UC technology to conference with others on the fly, share information and manage workflows -- all from one screen. Regardless of how many applications a UC service supports, these are key value drivers.
Today's UC offerings cover a wide spectrum, so businesses need a clear set of objectives. In most cases, companies are already using VoIP, so UC presents an opportunity to get more value out of an already-deployed platform.
To derive that value, companies need to understand the spectrum of UC in two ways. First, think of UC as a suite of communications services rather than simply a stand-alone telephony service. VoIP will have more value as part of UC by embedding voice into other business applications and processes and not just serving as a telephony system. In this context, UC's value is enabling new opportunities for richer communication rather than just being another platform for telephony.
Second, the UC spectrum enables both communication and collaboration. Most forms of everyday communication are one-on-one, and UC makes this easier by providing a common interface so users don't have to switch applications to use multiple modes of communication. Collaboration takes this communication to another level when teams are involved.
A major inhibitor of group productivity has long been the difficult process of organizing and managing a communications stream. UC removes these barriers and makes the collaboration process easier and more effective.
Finally, vendors define the spectrum of UC by the deployment model. Initially, UC technology was on-premises-based due to technical limitations. However, as the cloud has gained prominence, UC vendors have developed hosted UC services -- known as unified communications as a service (UCaaS) -- and this is quickly becoming their model of choice.
Some businesses, however, aren't ready for a full-scale public cloud deployment and are favoring a hybrid cloud model where some elements remain on premises while others are hosted. As such, UC vendors are trying to support the market with a range of deployment models -- on premises, UCaaS and hybrid cloud.
How vendors sell UC technology
Since UC is not standardized, vendors sell their platforms in different ways. Depending on the need, vendors can sell UC as a full-suite service that includes enterprise-grade telephony functionality. In other cases, the phone system is already in place, and UC deploys as the overriding service with telephony attached. Most UC vendors are also providers of VoIP phone systems and cloud services, so for them, integrating these elements is part of the value proposition.
Vendors sell most UC services through vendor partner channels rather than directly to the business. In this case, value-added resellers, systems integrators and telecom consultants play a key role, as they have expertise on both sides of the sale. They know the UC landscape, and this knowledge helps determine which vendor or service is right for the business and its IT environment. UC providers also tend to have more success when selling through these channels.
Why businesses deploy UC services
On a basic level, businesses deploy UC because their legacy phone systems aren't delivering the value they used to. Telephony alone can be inefficient, as many calls end up in voicemail, and users waste time managing messages. For this reason, text-based modes such as team chat and messaging are gaining favor, as is the general shift from fixed line to mobile and mobile OS app-based options for voice.
Today, telephony is just one of many communication modes, and businesses are starting to see the value of UC technology as a way to integrate these modes into a singular environment.
The current main modes of communication are web-based and mobile, and UC technology provides a platform to incorporate these with the more conventional modes of telephony. Intuitively, this is a better approach than leaving everyone to fend for themselves to make use of these tools. But the UC value proposition is still difficult to express.
UC enables productivity, and that's the easiest route for building business cases from an investment perspective. However, productivity is difficult to measure, and this is a major challenge facing UC vendors. When deployed effectively, UC technology makes for shorter meetings, more efficient decisions, fewer errors and lower communication costs, among other benefits. All businesses want these outcomes, but very few have metrics in place to gauge UC's return on investment.
Andrew Froehlich contributed to this report.
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