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Unified communications defined

Is your organization looking into the benefits of unified communications, but you don't know where to start? This tip from industry analyst Marty Parker explains UC, how it's different from unified messaging and where it may fit in your Exchange Server organization.

Unified communications (UC) is defined by industry executives, leading analysts and consultants as communications integrated to optimize business processes . UC can be broken up into two broad UC categories:

  • UC user productivity (UC-U): This type of UC model provides new ways for individuals to do their jobs, ultimately facilitating business transactions.
  • UC business process (UC-B): This model includes tools that are linked to or embedded into business processes and software applications -- automating, accelerating and assisting in accurate communications functions.

Both UC-U and UC-B are valid and important approaches; many enterprises start with UC-U and grow into UC-B. However, UC-B will consistently produce the highest returns on your UC investment.

UC provides new ways to communicate that, in turn, allow enterprises to improve business processes and operations. UC provides the following tools:

  • Presence: Shows the availability and location of people and resources
  • Software: Allows communications to be assisted, managed or enhanced
  • Pervasive (IP) networks: Enable high-speed communication links almost anywhere
  • Instant messaging (IM)/chat: Provides easy, speedy textual communication
  • Enhanced conferencing: Facilitates all modes of conferencing—voice, Web, video, IM
  • Collaborative workspaces: Supply a contextual workspace for communications
  • Application portals: Deliver information and tools, including communication, to users
  • Natural speech recognition: Delivers a reliable, fast and easy communication input
  • Dashboards with metrics: Produce feedback on UC usage and improved outcomes

All of these tools are mixed and matched to create and implement specific UC applications -- no application requires all these new tools. Therefore, enterprises and IT/telecom teams can select only the technologies they need to meet specific UC business goals.

Separating unified messaging from unified communications

UC is often confused with other similar and established technologies, such as unified messaging (UM). This is, perhaps, its biggest challenge. Even seasoned professionals use the term "unified communication" in concert with "unified messaging" (UM) because the two technologies share certain characteristics. But it's important to realize that these are two very separate and distinct technologies that serve different aspects of the industry.

Although unified messaging optimizes business processes similarly to unified communications (UC), it's still different. UM, which has been around since the early 1990s, has features that are similar to UC, including:

  • Improved notification of new voice messages -- This can enhance responsiveness and service. With UM, voice messages and faxes are visible in an email inbox and headers appear on mobile devices such as BlackBerrys and other smartphones.
  • Easier filing and management of voice messages and faxes -- Since voice messages and faxes can be stored in the same folders as email messages, they can be automatically archived with email.
  • Improved workflow related to voice messages and faxes -- Email rules and workflow tools can be used to route the messages, incorporate them into customer records or hold them for follow-up action.

UM does not, however, share other UC characteristics, such as availability presence or real-time communications that include chat, voice calls, Web application sharing or video conferencing. In addition, UM lacks API sets and toolkits that allow the integration of UC functions into Web portals, mobile devices and business application software.

In fact, using UC tools often minimizes the use of both voice messaging and UM. With the presence capability to show if a call recipient is available, fewer calls go unanswered. Since software modules assist users, callers can be re-routed to connect with another member of the team, rather than having to leave a message.

Unified messaging can be a part of unified communications, since it can be used to optimize a business process. However, UM alone does not define UC. It's good practice to consider both sets of tools when looking to enhance your business.

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