Unified Communications (UC) can deliver cost savings, user productivity and business process improvements across many industry sectors. And there are many ways to get started with UC.
Some UC investments build out from the desktop—email, instant messaging (IM)/presence or collaborative workspaces. Others build from the PBX system via single-number links to mobile devices, presence or conferencing. Some build from application software packages or portals. Another group is based on mobile devices. When the goal is to optimize business processes involving information workers (IWs), then the desktop environment is the most logical platform to deliver UC.
For the past decade, email has been the predominant and growing business communications platform. Even after eliminating an estimated 70% of messages as spam, The Radicati Group Inc., a technology market research firm headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif., estimates that about 63 billion email messages are sent each day. This compares to about 13 billion phone calls per day. Radicati also forecasts that about 46 billion IMs will be sent per day in 2009.
Email became the driver of business communications primarily because it provided an easily retained record, could readily support attachments, had an addressing model that allowed messages to be sent without copies between any set of business users. All three are clear advantages over phone calls or IMs.
For those reasons, the email client became the preferred desktop interface in almost all IW jobs. As smart phones proliferated, email became as accessible as a call. With that role well established, email functionality expanded and the email client became central to many other business functions. The address book first appeared as the Global Address List (GAL) and then evolved to the primary corporate directory as Active Directory. Tasks, folders, forms, templates, applications and many productivity tools have all become part of the email environment.
The evolution to unified communications
How does traditional communication evolve to UC? There are four major elements involved.
1. Real-time communications. Since email is a store-and-forward tool, it’s natural that the first enhancement toward UC is adding real-time communications. Microsoft added real time to Exchange Server through links to Office Communications Server (OCS). OCS 2007 R2 gives every Outlook user these functionalities:
- Presence: This shows the immediate status of other users in AD and the status of business associates in other firms that have “federated” their IM systems. Presence can be integrated with other apps to show if the other party is in a meeting, on the phone or at another location, for example. This can help accelerate work since the email recipient can see if the sender is available for a consultation on the topic, if a team is available for a conference or if a quick IM or call can enhance a forwarded message.
- IM: Combined with presence, a user can quickly send an IM to collect contextual information before taking action on a message, perhaps even clarifying the sender’s original intentions.
- Click to communicate: Outlook users can right-click any email address to initiate communications, beginning with the best initial modality (IM, message, voice, video, Web or conference) and moving between modes as required. For example, users can IM to agree to share desktop applications then click-to-call before dragging other names into the call to form a conference. Because all of the information is in the directory, no other action is needed.
2. Improved collaboration. Collaboration is a key element for most IWs. Email was a breakthrough for collaboration in that it allowed the sharing of files and contextual interactions. But more is possible with the incorporation of UC. In addition to realtime communications, OCS 2007 R2 provides group chat—enabling essentially unlimited chat rooms to supplement email and improve on simple IM sessions. In addition, integration with Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) 2007 allows easy filing of messages and related documents in SharePoint Workspaces. By also integrating OCS 2007 R2, workspaces become collaboration focal points.
3. Enhanced customer options and services. While email offers global addressing for text and attachments, it lacks methods for real-time contact with customers, clients or partners. Exchange Server 2007 and OCS 2007 R2 create an opportunity to enhance those external-facing business processes.
OCS 2007 R2 enables a rich set of rules-based contact management tools to maximize the probability of any caller reaching the intended party on the first attempt, especially when a live conversation would avoid or supplement an email.
When the intended party is not reachable, Unified Messaging in Exchange 2007 can be used to improve customer responsiveness by delivering voice messages directly to the email inbox for immediate notification and access.
OCS 2007 R2 Enterprise Client Access License also features the Microsoft Speech Server, which enables a rich set of telephony-based customer interactions such as a speech-recognition dialog with callers, offering them options if the intended party isn’t available.
4. Integration with business processes and applications. You can link all of these unified communications building blocks to business processes through a rich set of APIs and toolkits that are included as part of Exchange, OCS and MOSS 2007. With these interfaces, essentially any UC function can be embedded into business process applications/ portals. They can also be linked to process steps to ensure speed and accuracy and can be packaged with business logic and algorithms to enrich a process and create competitive advantages for the enterprise. Known in the UC industry as communications-enabled business processes (CEBP), the power of these enhancements is just now emerging in the market.
Measurable changes and benefits
Unified Communications produces significant and measurable business changes. Microsoft’s product suite offers a number of tools for logging, journaling and recording events. This enables the creation of feedback mechanisms—from simple reports to comprehensive dashboards—to determine the benefits.
In one important UC category, UCC, it’s impossible to track such things as a reduction of short email messages based on IM usage or response speed. You can also monitor the downward trend in the number of voicemail messages based on presence to determine a person’s availability before placing the call.
The UC-B category involves metrics that might gauge improvements in first-call contact for external parties based on OCS capabilities. Other possibilities include a reduction in project completion time based on improved communications via OCS and improved document sharing via SharePoint. You can also measure improved transaction times and reduced problem resolution times when using presence to find the best available resource.
Email remains the most popular global communications platform for both business and personal use. However, great opportunities exist to enhance communications and related business processes using UC tools. For most enterprises, expanding into unified communications via Microsoft OCS and MOSS 2007 is a natural progression—with the potential for high-return results.
About the Author
Marty Parker has been a major contributor to the voice messaging industry since 1983. His experience includes leadership with the industry’s first major VAR; CEO positions at venture-funded voicemail and UM; and director roles at AT&T, Lucent Technologies and Avaya Inc. Marty is now a principal of UniComm Consulting and a co-founder of UCStrategies.com, supporting enterprise customers in UC and voicemail/UM strategic planning, solution designs, RFPs and vendor selections. He is author of The Practical Guide to Voice Mail, from McGraw-Hill/Osborne.