South African companies are increasingly looking towards unified communications (UC) to help them boost productivity and efficiency across an increasingly mobile workforce.

That's according to Hannes van der Merwe, product manager for Mitel solutions at Itec. He says that companies can vastly improve efficiencies by deploying solutions that integrate voice, e-mail, unified messaging, mobility, presence, conferencing, collaboration and applications.
These solutions give end-users access to a rich, real-time communications environment wherever they are, allowing them to be accessible to their colleagues and customers at all times. In addition, users are able to communicate with their contacts using the medium that is best suited to their needs at any time.
Van der Merwe says that unified communications solutions are becoming increasingly important in a market where many companies have workforces made up of a combination of full-time employees, remote and mobile workers and on-site contractors.
These solutions ensure that business processes keep flowing and that employees can be reached wherever they are. This translates into better responsiveness, higher productivity, improved collaboration and increased customer satisfaction.
"Mobility is a major driver for unified communications. With many end-users spending less time at their desks and more time working remotely or at customer sites, it has become important for organisations to give them tools that allow them to collaborate easily with their co-workers," says Van der Merwe.
Unified communications offers a number of features and benefits, not all of which are widely understood by South African companies, Van der Merwe says. Unified messaging, which enables users to access all voice, text and e-mail messages through a single interface, is just a starting point for unified communications.
"One-number" functionality – which allows a user to be reached with a single number whether at their desk or travelling with a cellphone – is also starting to become popular. But many companies are not aware of more advanced applications, such as conferencing and presence management solutions.
Real-time conferencing solutions in unified communications solutions can allow users to collaborate with each other using video, audio and Web conferencing wherever they are. They can easily share documents, presentations and chat to enhance the conference call.
“This allows for true tele-collaboration where a virtual meeting can be as effective as a face to face one,” Van der Merwe says. “You can see the other people’s faces and body language in high-quality video and work together on documents as effectively as you could if you were sitting around the boardroom table.”
Presence management is another important tool – it allows employees to route incoming communications according to their presence status. For example, all calls could automatically go to the mailbox, with exceptions such as key customer calls that would go through to the cellphone.
“The end destination for unified communications is where communications applications are integrated with business software such as ERP systems to increase efficiency and improve business processes."
Integration of complex business processes and systems can be one of the biggest challenges of unified communications. For that reason, Van der Merwe advises companies looking for a unified communications solution to look for an offering that is flexible, modular and based on industry standards.
It should allow them to build on the communications applications they already have in place. It must also be open enough to easily integrate with their PBXs, data networks, business applications and consumer communications tools.
Van der Merwe says that companies should also ensure that they put training and change management programmes in place as they transition towards unified communications. The concept depends on end-users buying into and understanding the functionality at their fingertips to succeed.