Unified Communication: Connected Anywhere, Anytime
In an increasingly global economy, unified communications (UC) should be on the top of the to-do list for small and midsize businesses (SMBs), according to a new study by AMI-Partners. The report details the market changes driving the need for UC and the benefits of having an integrated platform, and offers actionable advice for both solution providers and businesses.
The benefits of UC are clear, according to the report, "Driving Unified Communications & Collaboration in the SMB Market -- the Business-Focused Web 2.0": "Employees can increase mobility, improve communication capabilities, and, ultimately, enhance productivity" with UC. In the report, AMI-Partners defines unified communications broadly: unified messaging; speech technologies; presence; audio, video, and Web conferencing; instant messaging (IM); and collaboration solutions. While most SMBs are using many of these technologies, they are all adopted and utilized in a piecemeal manner.
But there are larger issues at work, according to Sanjeev Aggarwal, vice president, of SMB IT infrastructure solutions at AMI-Partners, and a coauthor on the report. "Looking at it in a more holistic sense, the convergence between unified collaboration and communication is really the natural evolution of a Web 2.0 strategy for the SMB market," he says.
The report describes two emerging factors that are pushing businesses to look closely at implementing an integrated platform for UC. First, employees are often mobile and need to be able to access information wherever they go -- be it the office, at home, at the airport, or anywhere else. Second, with many positions there has been a reduction in the number of qualified on-site employees, forcing businesses to seek alternative offsite workers, such as retirees, homemakers, or staff hired by outsourcers in another country.
To balance the internal and external communications needs of an expansive business, often the services of a single vendor are insufficient. In fact, many vendors have only offered piecemeal solutions, Aggarwal says. "No major vendor has really offered an integrated platform that provides unified messaging and real-time communications and some of the new collaboration-type solutions," he says. But now, he adds, "we're seeing that platform come together," from specifically Cisco Systems -- with its Smart Business Communications Architecture (SBCA) -- and Microsoft's Office Communication Server (OCS2007). After seeing components they felt they were lacking, Cisco and Microsoft bought niche players and integrated those acquired technologies and functionalities; as a result, Aggarwal says, both companies now offer a more holistic platform.
An often-misunderstood aspect of integrated platforms is that an SMB, which has limited resources, does not have to invest in a single, giant service. A platform comprises "loosely coupled pieces," Aggarwal says, and both Cisco and Microsoft have programs where other vendors can integrate with their platform. Aggarwal suggests that business executives would benefit from the flexibility of investing in something similar: "If you buy that platform, it's not an all-or-nothing type of buy." In other words, he says, an SMB can start with unified messaging and just leave it at that for the time being. "The more important point is the longer-term vision, the two-to-three-year type of vision [about the benefits of a platform]," he says. SMBs, he notes, "need to keep [that] in mind as they're buying different pieces."
Aggarwal says that, although many SMBs are unconsciously leaning toward UC, smaller businesses that can't justify the return on investment of an integrated platform will continue to seek piecemeal solutions. Vendors, therefore, need to take responsibility and explain the long-term benefits in a less tech-heavy manner, he says. In addition, he adds, "vendors offering piecemeal solutions should look to integrate with some [Cisco and Microsoft] platforms, because it'll be tough for smaller companies to come up with an integrated, complete platform [on their own]."
As UC continues to set the stage for smoother internal communication, modern society has pushed businesses to respond in real time. Scenarios include more than simply connecting a customer with the right service representative; a truly unified communications platform can determine which doctors are available and where to send an ailing patient. Until recently, Aggrawal says, UC messaging has been asynchronous with real time -- a major stumbling block. "Once you combine unified messaging with real time, I think the collaboration and communication becomes a lot more productive and efficient," he says.
But as much as Aggarwal advocates the benefits of an integrated platform, he says that the solution is not so black-or-white. "It's not that point solutions are better or a platform is better," he says. "It's how do vendors that have point solutions play with vendors that have integrated platforms, and how do they provide their key value propositions to the businesses." Businesses run differently and vendors need to accommodate those idiosyncrasies. In the end, he says, it's the size of each SMB and the operations it's running that will determine what type of solution or platform is appropriate.
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