A Google search will return more than 3 million hits for the term “unified communications.” At first glance, you’ll see firms such as Avaya, Aspect, Nortel and Cisco, and probably conclude that the term has something to do with telephony. But on closer inspection, you also see IBM, Microsoft and a host of other players. So what exactly is unified communications?

Unified communications (UC) is the integration of various communication media with business process management (BPM) and workflow. It provides users with a continuous “connected experience” to move voice, data, and other knowledge content across a variety of communication verticals. Services such as instant messaging, video conferencing, e-mail, Web chat, voicemail, fax and text messaging can be seamlessly integrated into workflow, and made available in real time when the user needs them. Workflow efficiencies traditionally isolated to contact centers, such as call distribution and intelligent routing, can now be deployed across the enterprise.

With the advent of the IP telephone, voice has converged with data to become one more packet of information moving along your network. When voice became digital content, opportunities to deliver voice at different points within a work stream to different applications, and in conjunction with other information, were now available in ways not possible with traditional PBX phone systems.

UC solutions don’t just focus on delivering voice; they also focus on providing “presence” information to identify a person’s status as away, available, in a meeting, etc. This feature is similar to the agent status in a traditional contact center where software indicators define the call state of the agents. Presence can significantly reduce time spent on inefficient communication activities, such as leaving voicemails and sending messages. If a presence indicator shows the intended person is away, you don’t waste time dialing the number. Reducing the latency between communications and getting a real-time response is made possible when both parties are connected through instant messaging with presence.

Collaboration opportunities are boundless when team members have access to collaborative workspaces, desktop sharing and conferencing tools. Virtual work teams and mobile employees can easily locate other team members, and participate in meetings via audio and Web conferencing. Customer service teams can reach out to experts through IM text sessions, escalate the contact to a phone call or video session, and gather the necessary information to respond to customer inquiries quickly, without the need to call the customer back.

But the power of UC to improve product and reduce communication latency is not limited to person-to-person interactions. The next step for UC is integration of these services into business process workflows in a way that the rules engines, workflow applications and systems can initiate and respond to various types of communications across the process continuum. Businesses have only begun to exploit the UC possibilities.

Terri Butler is a senior consultant with

The Robert E. Nolan Co., a management consulting firm specializing in the insurance industry.

The opinions of bloggers on www.insurancenetworking.com do not necessarily reflect those of Insurance Networking News.

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