For many people unified communications (UC) remains a divisive term. UC continues to have a variety of meanings attributed to it across the information technology (IT) and business communications industries, and, as a result, a consensus is difficult to reach, writes Andy Bull, MD, Mitel South Africa. 
However, there are some points of clarity emerging. In particular, users are starting to see UC have a real impact where the deployment makes all UC tools accessible through one standard platform.
Whether they are presence and availability tools, conferencing or collaboration applications, click to call functionality, or delivering UC solutions on to mobile devices – having a consistent user interface with the same look and feel across all business communications and IT platforms is where users have seen UC go beyond being merely a question of infrastructure, delivering the full scope of business benefits.
It is important to use UC as a bridge between IP-based systems and other computer related communication technologies – bringing all communication needs and requirements together in a single software stream.
For end-users, this means a consistent experience with a familiar interface no matter which device they are using, but for this to work effectively companies must also deploy a vendor agnostic platform, giving organisations the freedom to implement tailored communications solutions on any network and any infrastructure.
But how do organisations establish the most effective UC solution for their own needs? In the context of a continuously evolving business communications industry, increasingly influenced by trends in consumer communications technology, how do companies get it right in order to focus on delivering business benefits?
In an increasingly competitive world, businesses have to work hard to stand out from the competition and it is critical to “work smarter” to reap the rewards.
Infrastructure – getting the priorities right

Up until quite recently, communications used to be fairly simple as it was primarily concerned with voice calling. However, in the past decade there has been an explosion in what users can do through their phones and other devices.
Whereas business technology was at the cutting edge of technology a decade ago, today consumers have ready access to highly advanced devices outside of the work environment, marking a complete turnaround.
For IT departments these changes have created many infrastructure headaches in order to keep pace with the rate of change. However, in a UC orientated communications environment the core infrastructure should really be the “easy” bit.
The main priority should simply be to create a technology agnostic platform at the core, enabling a flexible infrastructure that can incorporate new devices and technologies seamlessly, simply and securely.
This is a significant change for the IT sector, as implicitly this means that investment in the core infrastructure is lower both up front and over time – whether the deployment model is cloud-based (public and private), virtualised, or a hybrid solution.
At the same time though, this means that time, effort and investment can be freed-up for use elsewhere in IT departments. Ultimately, businesses need to focus less on infrastructure and more on business processes and communications capabilities to unlock the real business benefits – and this means focusing more on users.

The user experience

Following the recent years of rapid technological innovation it is likely that users will now see the pendulum swing slow down and begin to centre for a period, enabling organisations to really focus on which tools, devices and functions will have the maximum positive impact on their business.
This is why users are seeing the shift in focus on to the user experience, and to developing effective portals and plug ins that operate across platforms and devices.

UC can provide a rich user experience along with the flexibility and simplicity organisations need to adapt to today’s dynamic work environments, enabling an efficient approach to communicating that changes how individuals, groups and organisations work.
As well as reducing up front infrastructure costs it can also improve employee efficiency and productivity, enhance responsiveness to customers, suppliers and partners, and streamline IT management.

The key is to make the user’s experience as easy and intuitive as possible and to remain consistent whether the user is accessing their portal from a PC at work, at home, on their mobile or their laptop.
The single software stream approach also means that IT departments can tailor business tools and functionality to suit specific departments, and even users, while maintaining a consistent look and feel in a secure environment. The fact is that the accounts team and the sales team, for instance, have very different technological requirements, but that should not mean two wholly different approaches.
Rather, a simple yet powerful single portal that delivers the right tools to the right people at the right time.

Nor should this policy only apply to “work” devices. With more and more users finding that they have more cutting edge personal devices in their pockets than those that their employer can provide, it would be madness for businesses not to make the most of this enthusiasm for investing in technology amongst their employees – whether that is in “home” computers, mobile phones or home broadband.
As long as the portal or the plug in remains consistent and secure, the end terminals or devices can continuously change around them.

Rather than trying to change users’ technology use, communications systems should seamlessly and simply incorporate the devices people already use and have in their pockets so they can have an in-office experience anywhere.
Again, this leaves IT departments and CIOs to focus on maintaining an intuitive user experience, the “smarts” at the edge of the network and security to ensure that devices can drop in and out, easily and securely.

The consumerisation of IT

Of course, taking this approach also means that businesses are better equipped to handle the consumerisation of IT that users are witnessing today. Are there any CIOs or IT directors out there that have not yet been asked, “Can I have an iPhone?”. Rather than fighting this trend, the UC approach enables IT directors to incorporate these demands into overall IT strategy.

The “bring your own device” trend is quickly becoming a reality, and consumerisation will inevitably mean a constantly moving target in terms of devices.  Vendors and IT departments must continue to provide flexibility in the infrastructure, and businesses more generally need to continue to focus on what works for them.

Asking the right questions

So by liberating businesses from “hard” technology concerns and instead focusing on users, business processes and functionality UC can truly enable companies to “work smarter”.

As this trend continues to develop, and business communications adopt some of the functionality of social networking, it means that companies are looking again at all sorts of services, such as LinkedIn and Facebook, and asking “are these actually useful business tools?” and “should we take the blocks off?”.
In future these, rather than questions of infrastructure, will be the key IT questions, and the promise of UC will have been delivered.