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For more than 10 years, unified communications has been touted as the next big technology, a way for corporations to improve customer relations and employee productivity.

And for more than 10 years, unified communications has slowly, but surely integrated itself in various forms into the mainstream, to the point where many corporations might not even realize they are using the technology some thought would never happen.

“Customers are still adopting components of unified communications—they’re dipping their toe into two different pieces, which kind of defeats the purpose,” says David Lover, CTO of Cross, a solution provider in Bloomington, Minn. “I summarize the idea of unified communications to the idea of, how do you prefer to communicate? I prefer to instant message rather than use my phone and voice mail. But that may not be the way someone else chooses to communicate. So how do we all stay connected?”

At its inception, unified communications was focused on improving customer service by linking account information with a customer phone number, enabling Customer Service Representative (CSRs) to address customer issues immediately. However, as technology has evolved, the components of unified communications—interactive voice response (IVR), voice recognition units (VRUs), find-me technology, to name a few—have been adopted by companies to help increase company productivity.

“We’re finding that the things that have been learned by the IVRs and VRUs, those technologies are now being implemented into voice mail servers,” says Rick Rumbarger, vice president of product at Apptix, a solution provider in Herndon, Va. “So [Microsoft] Exchange can become the [unified communications] technology through a simple server roll, which adds to the productivity. And with the technology finally catching up, you don’t have to link together disparate systems, which makes adoption easier.”

Even the reason for adopting unified communications is changing, as companies continue to trim budgets and payrolls.

“What I’m seeing is you start to get these communication cliques—it’s like junior high school all over again,” Lover says. “All it takes is to get a kid in the 13- to 25-year-old range and find out how they like to communicate. They like to text. We say, ‘They’re kids, they’ll conform.’ But that’s bunk—there are enough in the work force that they will find each other, and then we have the clique. And that can create a communications problem within the company.”

Unified communications, therefore, is now becoming an employee-driven purchase, Lover says, which means sometimes companies aren’t prepared for the technology. Solution providers can help make such a transition easier by helping companies map out their unified communications strategy, right down to the issue of ownership of the technology.

“To me unified communications is a problem that I’m not sure who owns. Is it an HR thing? Does the IT department own unified communications? Does the telecom department?” Lover asks. “From that standpoint a company must figure out how everyone can use their most preferred method of communication into the business, which can present its own set of problems that a company needs to work through.”

Indeed, although unified communications does have obvious benefits, there are still certain barriers to adoption, Rumbarger says.

“It is a product that requires education,” he says. “Also, many organizations already have an existing capital expenditure in place—they have already purchased a PBX or a mail server or a fax server, so they don’t look at replacing the technology until it breaks, depreciates or a real need facilitates it.”

Lover agrees. “It is being more employee-driven, and because of that it’s harder to find the ROI. A natural question most companies have is, ‘Why am I going to invest in this?’ A contact center is a perfect example—it is the easiest way to show an ROI. But to someone not familiar, it seems more like a luxury than a necessity.”

However, Lover believes adoption will continue to rise as more companies understand the real benefits of unified communications.

“You have to make the argument that if you want to serve a portion of the population, you need to implement the technology,” he says. “As more people get comfortable with security and the reliability of the system—and part of that is education—there will be more adoption.

“Work is what you do, not where you go,” he adds. “What can your company do for you to allow you to work most efficiently? That’s the idea of unified communications.”