Tech 101: Understanding Unified Communications

By Laurie McCabe

July 31, 2009

Business consultant Laurie McCabe explains in clear and simple terms what we mean when we say, "unified communications."

Technology insiders tend to throw around technical terms and business jargon, assuming people outside the industry understand what it all means. By its nature, technology vocabulary is often confusing and complicated, and insiders often add to the confusion by over-complicating things. To help add a sense of clarity to the confusion, Laurie McCabe, a partner at Hurwitz & Associates (a business consulting firm), explains what one of those terms--unified communications--means in plain English, and then discuss why it may be important to you.

What is 'Unified Communications'?

Most of us use several different tools and devices to communicate. At a minimum, you probably use a cell phone, a landline phone, fax, and e-mail. Many of us also use other tools as well, such as instant messaging, texting, and Web conferencing.  Unified communications (UC) solutions incorporate these different modes of communications into one system.

UC solutions take advantage of new technologies to integrate and streamline messages from many sources. For instance, a unified messaging system lets you access multiple phone lines, e-mail, fax, and instant messaging from one place. These solutions break down communications barriers so that it’s easier and faster for you to find, reach, and communicate with other people, and vice versa.

It’s important to remember that UC isn’t one tool, but a solution that pulls together all of the communication and collaboration tools that you’re already using (plus some new ones you may want to add) so you can communicate through a consistent interface and experience. For instance, with a UC solution, you give your customers just your office phone number, and calls to that number will also ring simultaneously on your cell phone.

UC solutions can integrate both non-real-time communications tools, such as traditional phone lines, e-mail, fax, and voice-mail, with real-time communications tools, such as instant messaging (IM) and Web conferencing. They can also incorporate many other communication tools, too, such as voice over IP (VoIP) (or VoFi) telephony solutions, text messaging, screen sharing, and video conferencing—just to name a few. Many use presence awareness technology that locates where people to see if they’re available, (think IM buddy list).

Why should you care?

Whether you’re a sales person, a construction worker, or an attorney, you’re likely to be on the go, or working from different locations throughout the week. UC solutions can help you get more done more quickly. They help you stay connected to your co-workers and customers, whether you’re on the road, in the office, or working from home.

Depending on where you are and what the situation requires, your preference for the device you use (cell phone, PDA, notebook or desktop computer, fax machine) is likely to change, as is the mode of communicating (traditional phone service, IP telephony, cell phone, text message, IM, etc.). Everyone else is in the same boat. So, while it’s nice to have all these handy tools, it’s a chore to remember different numbers, and to constantly check different services for messages.

UC can help you be more productive and save you time by letting you move seamlessly from one device and mode of communication to another. For example, using a UC solution, you could:

  • Have your calls follow you. For instance, say you dial into a conference call from your home phone at 6:00 a.m. When you walk out the door, the call transfers automatically to your cell phone—without interruption. When you get to the office, the call transfers to your office phone, which has the capability to also initiate a Web conference. 

  • Find people you need more quickly. Let’s say you and your sales manager both have busy schedules. You will both be in and out of the office in between sales calls. You’re in the last throes of negotiating a deal, and you need to get his buy-in on a discount—but you have no idea where he is. A UC solutions tracks down your boss for you. It knows the phone number where your boss is located, and automatically forward the call to the phone line he can access.

UC can also help you operate more flexibly and save money. Say, for instance, you hire five more employees; the solution will easily accommodate remote workers. With a UC solution that includes IP telephony, it’s easy and fast to add new phone lines for new workers, wherever they’re located. Instead of having to move to a bigger office and pay higher rent, the new employees can work from home with just an Internet connection.

What to consider

UC can be a confusing area to evaluate because different vendors design and build their solutions with different assortments of communications and collaboration tools. If you’re considering UC, start by putting together a list of communication pain points and problems that your company faces. Depending on the nature of your business, its size, and how people work, you may want very different capabilities than the business next door. You’ll also want to look for a solution that is flexible enough to let you add new capabilities as you need them.

The other area you’ll want to consider is how you want to deploy the solution. Companies such as Avaya, Cisco, and many others sell UC solutions that package up systems, software, and phones. IBM just announced that it will add a real-time communication version to its Lotus Foundations line, which is designed for small businesses that want one appliance to support communications and collaboration. Finally, vendors such as PanTerra provide software-as-a-service (SaaS) UC solutions through partner channels.

Did this help you understand Unified Communications more clearly? Let me know, and send me any additional questions you have on this topic. Also, please send your suggestions for other technology terms and areas that you'd like explained in upcoming columns. Email me at, or tweet me at lauriemccabe on Twitter. Article courtesy of For definitions of more networking terms, visit our searchable Webopedia glossary.

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