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Unified communications: A collaborative approach for an always-on world

As the economy rebounds, many companies are faced with pressure to capture new opportunities quickly, while simultaneously managing an increasingly mobile workforce and continually controlling costs.

It's these forces that are driving interest and investment in unified communications. With communications systems that work together, midsize companies can listen and respond to their customers, partners and employees more effectively. And they can do so with greater speed and accuracy.

That's important today, when near ubiquitous access to applications, information and resources is changing the way people shop, work and live. It's important, too, because access is raising expectations of the services people receive, placing greater pressures on companies to deliver optimum performance.

Integrated, interconnected enterprises keep pace with change

A recent IBM study, "Inside the Midmarket: A 2011 Perspective," found that unified communications and mobility are among the top IT implementations for 68 percent of midsize companies, and that improved collaboration is a top implementation for 70 percent. That's not surprising when you consider that working – and communicating – smarter can help companies evolve their business models to capture new or larger markets and increase profitability.

On today's smarter planet where systems are more instrumented, intelligent and interconnected, companies have to keep pace and move toward more collaborative approaches. By enabling greater business agility and flexible processes modeled for the way people live and work, unified communications helps companies become more collaborative so they can realize opportunities for growth, innovation and productivity.

"What's happening in the world of communications literally changes the face of the way business is done. All of these technologies are presenting themselves as options that can really change the way business models work," says Barbara Leonard, Market Segment Manager for Integrated Communications Services at IBM.

"What's happening in the world of communications literally changes the face of the way business is done."

Unified communications change how business models work

The good news is that most midsize companies already have at least some elements of a unified communications solution in place. Notes Barbara Leonard, "There are going to be very few green field situations where companies don't have anything, or where they're ready to rip and replace. Most organizations are going to evolve toward this and they're going to source capabilities in line with what they're trying to do with their business."

Many midsize companies already have taken the first step toward converged communications: they have migrated from a traditional, PBX-based telephone system to voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). Now voice can be integrated with other digital systems, and a new world of capabilities opens.

Those capabilities range from instant messaging and email to audio conferencing, online meetings, document sharing, and more. But the real value lies in the way these individual capabilities can work within an integrated, cross-functional communication system that allows people find, reach and collaborate smarter with others.

For companies with a mobile workforce, for example, unified communications provides remote access to email and other office systems, boosting their responsiveness and productivity. When combined with presence awareness, it allows colleagues – and customers – to reach mobile workers and connects them seamlessly.

Unified communications, in other words, can span the enterprise not only to serve but also to drive business operations. It can provide connectivity and support collaboration in ways not possible when each communications system operates independently.

Driving continuous, sustainable operational improvements

On a smarter planet, to be successful firms must drive continuous and sustainable operational improvements to lower costs and reduce complexity. Unified communications helps midsized companies achieve both via a single, integrated digital network which is less complex and requires less administrative oversight. Unified communications also satisfies the need for immediacy with capabilities that allow employees, partners and customers to connect; and it can further reduce costs by replacing expensive travel and face-to-face meetings with online collaboration.

To get started realizing these benefits, Leonard explains, "Companies need a systematic approach that takes into account the business process and the business model that they're trying to drive. They need to marry that with an understanding of the technologies, capabilities and services that are out there. And they need to lay out a roadmap based on that strategy that will bring whatever capabilities they need to support the business."

One option to consider is a cloud-based model which can help midsized businesses reap the benefits of more connectivity without worrying about setup, management and security. Cloud services have the added advantages of getting companies up and running swiftly while allowing in-house IT departments to stay focused on projects that support sales and drive business growth.

Change is the only constant. And on a smarter planet the companies that will succeed are those with responsive and agile business models and processes. Unified communications can be a direct line to future success because when distance and access are no longer impediments, companies can work smarter than ever before.

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