Imagine a customer calling for detailed, technical information about your products and services. These calls can be cumbersome for customer service employees who don’t possess the technical knowledge about a specific product or service. Now imagine those same customer service employees having a comprehensive menu on their computer screens describing the exact technical knowledge about that specific product or service, as well as other detailed information the inquiring customer can use to make an informed decision right away.In the world of UC (Unified Communications), technical customer service calls are handled and processed much differently than they were just a decade ago.Transitioning to a UC platform improves communications both internally and externally by arming employees with better technology tools that add value to the overall communication process. This article contains helpful knowledge and insights to assist you in the transition to a unified communications platform. UC is essentially a unified platform for communications in all its forms. Potentially, this can include land-lines and cellular phones, e-mail, instant messaging (IM), VoIP, IP-PBX, fax, voice mail, conference calls, video conferencing, whiteboard and unified messaging. Your employees will have presence within your business communications – whether they are physically in the office or not. The concept of presence is easy to understand within instant messaging where a “buddy status” is available at a glance. UC takes this a step further by grouping these “buddies” together by specialized skills and attaching them to specific knowledge areas. All of this would be available at a glance. UC allows for real-time delivery of all these forms of communication within a single environment that users can access within a simple interface. For example, customer service staff could have a list of employees knowledgeable about a product, along with the best method for immediately contacting that person who has the correct answers about the details of the product. By clicking on a contact icon, a call can be made, or even a page or a whiteboard session accessed to bridge key information on the product, customer and employee contacts simultaneously. If your business doesn’t already have it, Unified Messaging (UM) can offer communications integration, albeit on a smaller scale than UC.Unified Messaging is capable of grouping together communications from different sources, such as e-mail, faxes and voice mail, but does not allow (in all instances) real-time delivery. Unified Messaging systems store these multi-platform communications for the user to access information at his or her discretion.Still, nowadays, UM does provide improved communication synchronization to an extent that was not available just a decade ago. It is important to understand that while UM does offer efficiencies by grouping communications together; it is not the same thing as UC. Oftentimes, these terms are interchanged and interpreted to have the same meaning.Again, they are not the same. Tying communications together in a UC platform can have a tremendous positive impact on productivity at your business. Businesses with offices across the globe have an excellent opportunity to synchronize communications as they occur around the clock in real time. Additional functionality allows calls to be routed according to preset rules. For example, if an employee is working at a remote location outside the office, the UC system can route a call to their cell phone and then a voice message into their voice mail. At the heart of UC is the Voice-over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology that allows analog phone conversations to be transmitted over the Internet. UC basically expands that functionality by allowing other communications through the same protocol. Transitioning to UC does not have to be an overwhelming process.First, consider what usable technology your business already has and how those assets could be integrated into the new platform. Consider what communications are already transmitted utilizing the Internet Protocol (IP). It could be that your business is only a few steps away from integrating these into a truly unified format that dramatically increases productivity. Another benefit of introducing UC to your business is enhanced security within your company’s communications that was never present before. Without UC, communications occur over multiple data formats using multiple protocols, and you may not have control over certain information. Integrating these data formats using UC gives your company the ability to better manage the overall communications process. The necessary equipment for creating a UC infrastructure includes various software applications and hardware equipment. The Microsoft version of the UC solution is built around the Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 and the Microsoft Office Communicator 2007 for the interface. Microsoft, of course, is geared toward the software UC solution. Its server software is designed to be deployed on a dedicated communications server. Cisco, the IT hardware equipment manufacturer most widely known for its routers and switches and its reputation as the “backbone of the Internet,” also offers software UC solutions, along with the necessary hardware equipment. Cisco is more widely known as a hardware company; so naturally, the company’s UC solution is more hardware-based. The two big players in the world of IT have developed UC solutions. Which one is best for you is really a function of your specific requirements and your company’s monetary resources to support and maintain the technology. Keep in mind that there are tailored solutions available from both Microsoft and Cisco customized for the size of your business. Microsoft’s Office Communications Server 2007 comes in two editions: Standard and Enterprise. The Standard Edition is intended for SMBs that have one server platform on one machine. Along with the accompanying Standard Client Access License (CAL) it allows for messaging, peer-to-peer video and voice, and file transfers all to occur within an integrated and familiar Microsoft Office environment. An advantage Microsoft has in the small-business world is the familiarity of its products. As with any Microsoft application, upon installing Office Communications Server 2007 and starting up the application, you become instantly familiar with the interface and notice that it is very intuitive based on your familiarity with Microsoft products.The Standard Edition is intended for organizations that do not require server clustering and does not utilize the virtual server environment. The Enterprise Edition is intended for larger businesses running more than one server. With this edition, your organization gains the features offered by the Standard Edition, with the purchase of a Standard license, along with additional enterprise features. These include the sharing of applications, VoIP backed by a software solution, Web conferencing and comprehensive telephony management. The Enterprise Edition requires that Standard Edition licensing be purchased. Once the correct licenses are purchased, full access to the entire range of features offered by the Enterprise version and the Standard version of the Microsoft Unified Communications platform becomes available. Communicator is the client application for the Microsoft UC platform. Accessing the application allows the user an integrated communications environment, including instant messaging, voice and video communications. Of course, all communications are easily integrated into Microsoft software such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint and the newer ones such as SharePoint, Groove, and OneNote. Deploying the solution within a pre-existing Microsoft environment allows for easy integration of address books and other directories established at the corporate level. Calendars are also integrated within the UC platform, even out-of-office messages previously established within Outlook. With UC in place, users find they can easily change modes of communication. A conversation could begin with a simple IM, for example, and then with a quick click on a button, users can switch to a video conference should the need arise. Or, users could transfer files back and forth from the Communicator interface. However communications occurred previously, by using various Microsoft applications, these are all integrated into one interface within Communicator. Cisco’s approach to a UC solution is quite different from Microsoft’s. Cisco offers a set of managed services at the SMB and mid-market level, and a different set of managed services customized for the enterprise-sized business.Cisco approaches the UC platform with both hardware and software solutions. At the SMB level, Cisco’s UC platform solution is the Cisco Unified Communications 500 Series for Small Business. This system supports varied common communications needs within a small business including voice, video, secure wireless access and productivity enhancements for external users.Deploying the solution enhances network security at your small business with tried-and-true Cisco technology. This edition is designed for businesses with 50 or fewer users of the system. Depending on the size of your SMB, the Cisco UC solution is available at increased levels of accessibility.The Cisco Unified Communications Manager Express is designed for up to 240 users, the Business Edition for up to 500 users and the full version of Cisco Unified Communications Manager is extensible from 150 to an unlimited number of users. Advanced features are available with the Cisco system even at the SMB level. Features such as music on hold and basic call-center capability are built into the UC platform. At the enterprise level, Cisco’s UC solution includes routing, switching and security hardware along with the software applications used to manage the entire network. Security on the enterprise is enhanced with the Cisco hardware and software approach, including wireless communications, which are notoriously susceptible to a security breach.The enterprise solution is tailor-made for your business, taking into consideration the lifecycle of your network, and includes the option to outsource management of network resources to Cisco and the installation of third-party communications software. The hardware bundled with the Cisco UC platform includes the VoIP-enabled phones and various other hardware options, depending on the size of your business. SMBs get software that monitors and manages the VoIP phones on a single server, while enterprise-level organizations also get routers and switches, as needed. Enterprises that already have Cisco routers and switches find the UC platform an added feature that only needs to be enabled to use. Cisco’s most advanced phones, the Unified IP Phones 7900 Series, are capable of integrating voice data and video straight through the phone. Voice mail can be accessed using a computer, and applications can be run on the phone itself, including clock-in functions for payroll services, on-screen display of information customized for your business needs and support for wireless communications standards. Cisco hardware provides an extra level of security for your network. For example, the Catalyst 6500 Series switch, Cisco’s flagship model, virtually guarantees confidential communications between client and customer with the ability to instantly detect threats and contain them. Network administrators have control over whom and what can attach to the network and can define specific security policies. Cisco routers are where communications integration occurs. Security is also standard here through firewalls, data encryption and built-in protection from would-be hackers. These routers are modular in nature, so as your business expands, more devices can be easily added, as needed. Basically, switches are used to connect various IP-enabled devices within your network, and routers are used to tie the networks together. Switches can be managed or unmanaged in that a managed switch is programmable, while an unmanaged switch comes fully ready upon shipment. Routers become the first line of defense to your network against outside Internet threats. Whichever solution is best for your business, it’s important to keep in mind that a UC solution will provide enhanced security within your network. Inherent within Unified Communications is the ability to integrate the various forms of communications that occur at your business.The transparency involved also provides an enhanced level of management including the ability to back up all the communications including voice mail. At first, it may seem unnecessary to back up all the communications at your company, but if your organization needs to comply to Sarbanes-Oxley requirements, as all U.S. publicly traded companies are, then you have a need to create these backups.Additionally, if you work in a health-care-related environment, your company may have to be compliant to certain HIPPA mandates. Consider a situation where you have a need for disaster recovery. Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, forced many executives in the New Orleans area to act on the urgent need for disaster recovery. Remember, UC allows for real-time delivery of communications in its varied forms within a single environment that a user can access using a simple client interface. This interface is standardized across the business environment. UC also enhances employee collaboration regardless of where employees are physically located. For example, employees brainstorming about a new project could establish a live whiteboard session and work interactively in real time even if the office sites are thousands of miles apart. It is important to consider what communications platforms you already possess at your business and how integrating these would enhance productivity in your operations.Do you utilize instant messaging? How about voice mail or whiteboard sessions? Are any of these communications transmitted over IP already? By further tying your communications together on a true Unified Communications platform, your customers and employees are able to communicate in multiple data formats. In retrospect, the concept of UC began with the development of VoIP (Voice-over Internet Protocol), which allowed analog phone conversations to be transmitted in a digital format over the Internet. With core-business processes becoming more and more digitized, UC basically expands that concept by allowing other forms of communication to be transmitted digitally. Another important consideration when you decide to transition to a UC platform is the enhanced level of security that will be introduced to your business communications. Without UC, the varied forms of communication are transmitted over a diversity of media minimally controlled by your company. Bringing these together under a UC platform gives your company the ability to manage and monitor these transmissions just as it would with basic e-mail. ransitioning to a UC platform can help your business accelerate past the competition and streamlines your business operations. Below are some important considerations when making the transition to a unified platform. Answering these questions will help you understand how transitioning to a Unified Communications platform can significantly improve both internal employees and external communications with customers: 1. Does your business really need to transition to a UM platform at this time or can it wait until later? 2. What current technologies and assets do you currently own that can be integrated into a UC platform? 3. What resources (including all equipment, software, technical skills, training and maintenance) will it take to make this transition over to a Unified Communications platform? 4. How will the transition to a UC platform affect communication internally within your business and externally to your customers? 5. By what means and methods will your company communicate the rollout of a Unified Communications system? For many companies, introducing Unified Communications to your business will enhance productivity and give your employees access to more useful information in real time. It’s critical that management objectively calculate the total cost of owning and managing its own internal UC platform versus having certain of the components outsourced through a hosted solution.Many companies find it more cost effective to own some components and outsource others. Companies that at least consider the options available to them by adopting a fully integrated UC platform position themselves to differentiate their company from the competition with high-impact, time-sensitive communications across the enterprise.