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What Is Unified Communications?

Since this is a new blog, I'll start with a very quick introduction: I'm the co-chairman of VoiceCon, the leading conference on enterprise real-time communications/UC. I'm also editor of a TechWeb site called No Jitter, which runs blog postings and in-depth features on IP telephony, UC, and converged networking. I used to be the editor of Business Communications Review, which many of you may remember, and which sadly was discontinued at the end of last year. I'll be blogging regularly here on Unified Communications topics.At the recent VoiceCon Orlando conference, I co-chaired a session with Rob Preston of InformationWeek in which we gathered four CIOs from a range of enterprises -- financial, construction, and municipal government -- to talk about how technology managers view Unified Communications. The first question we posed to them was: What's your definition of Unified Communications?

Richard Ledbetter, CIO at PSCU Financial Services, conceded, that "I've only heard about it [UC] recently," and he said that, "When I hear UC, it's just integrating."

Jeremy Turner, VP at the Shaw Group, a construction and environmental services company, said that when he thinks of UC, he concentrates on the fact that, "We want simple communications."

"For us," Jeremy said, "the challenge is, How do we make people efficient?"

Our other participants, Lawrence DiGioia, IS director for the city of Altamonte Springs, Fla., and Mike Connelly, VP of IT/CIO at Franklin Covey, a financial services firm, gave similar answers.

I think this panel represented a good snapshot of where business leaders find themselves today with regard to Unified Communications. They clearly understand the result it's supposed to produce -- simple communications that make workers more efficient. And they grasp the major aspect of the work that will have to be done if UC is to work as advertised: Integration. But they haven't necessarily drilled down to a fine-grained level of detail on the technologies, and they may not have begun to put together a long-term strategy for implementing UC and gaining its benefits.

If you ask the analysts and consultants who are working directly with vendors and enterprises on this technology, they'll give you a definition of UC that sounds something like this: "Communications integrated to optimize business processes." That definition comes from a group called UCStrategies, and it stresses that UC involves integratingtechnologies: It means integrating multiple communications technologies, as exemplified in the new UC clients from Microsoft (Communicator) and IBM (Sametime). These clients use a contact or buddy list from which you can initiate just about any type of communication: a phone call; e-mail; instant message; or video session.

This integration tends to yield "soft" productivity benefits -- real, but not quantifiable advances in how (and where) people get their work done. People are trying to "firm up" some of these benefits, trying to guesstimate how many more sales you can close if your sales force is more accessible to customers, that kind of thing. But there aren't a lot of very convincing numbers that I've seen.

Integrating also means incorporating communications capabilities into business apps, whether these are office applications like Microsoft's, or business process applications that might be built within the enterprise itself and customized for its unique processes. Here's where, in theory, you might find harder-dollar savings, or at least more direct benefits. If you're a manufacturing firm that experiences X hours a year of down time on production lines, how much of that could you avoid if business processes were able to invoke communications that bring the relevant managers into a conference call to solve the problem?

There are a lot of technical and organizational hurdles still to overcome in UC. Over at TechWeb's No Jitter site, I just posted a feature regarding one major challenge, interoperability. I want to give you some links to other features on our No Jitter site that offer some in-depth information on the players and issues:

--Here's a comparison of the UC systems from Microsoft (Office Communications Server) and IBM Lotus (Sametime)

--Here's a lab test that takes a detailed look at Microsoft OCS.

--Here's another lab test that looks at UC features of a few IP-PBXs.

--Here's an article from one of the last issues of BCR that still has a pretty solid overview of UC issues and attitudes.

--We also have a section dedicated to Unified Communications blogs from a variety of analysts and consultants over at No Jitter.

So what's your definition of Unified Communications, and what would you like to see covered in this blog? Please let me know. I appreciate getting this forum and I look forward to engaging here with all of you.

Eric Krapf is editor of No Jitter, a TechWeb site covering UC and IP telephony. He also is program co-chairman of VoiceCon events.