I think reality lies somewhere within the two views. A company’s implementation of a Unified Communications infrastructure may lead to an increased focus on Collaboration and how to fully leverage the foundation put in place with Unified Communications. On the other hand, a company’s need for better Collaboration tools may lead to the implementation of a Unified Communications infrastructure that allows the company to integrate and fully utilize the various applications they need to maintain business. So, let’s examine the two terms and see how they relate to one another.
I find that Unified Communications, or the need for it, generally begins with an internal focus. The questions most companies ask are how can “we” benefit as an organization from Unified Communications? Or, how can “we” save money by implementing Voice over IP (VoIP)? If Unified Communications were a house, VoIP (in my view) would have to be the foundation. It is usually the tip of the iceberg for companies with plans to enhance their internal communications. In laying that foundation, most companies are still internally focused. The first priority is convergence of voice and data (video often comes later) on their own network. The second priority is usually integration with their internal systems. These two things are especially true for companies that choose to simply implement dial tone and voicemail as initial steps to building a Unified Communications infrastructure. However; as we move past VoIP and start adding applications into the mix, the “seed” for Collaboration is often planted. For instance, let’s take a company that says, “The ability to have internal web and audio conferences would enhance our business operations”. Maybe the driver is a simple focus on promoting better teamwork between internal parties; however, this type of application takes what was a basic Unified Communications infrastructure and now adds a hint of Collaboration to it.
So what does Collaboration mean today? In today’s ever-changing business market, Collaboration has moved beyond enhancing intra-company teamwork to promoting robust communications between different companies. That same company that had a need for “internal web and audio conferences” now realizes that they can better Collaborate with business partners and even customers using the same technology. I mean, if you think about it, when is the last time you had a meeting that didn’t leverage WebEx? We use it internally. We use it for sales. We use it for marketing. We use it for technical discussions with partners. In some cases, we even use it to provide direct support to customers. Let’s take the very same company and add an internal requirement for instant messaging. With federation capabilities, this company can now easily open up communication channels with trusted partners and service providers. Sure, Collaboration can take on a completely internal focus but the competitive landscape is changing such that companies have begun to look beyond simply enhancing internal business operations. They are now interested in how their business can benefit from working more closely with business partners that exist outside of their own company walls. In other words, I think the focus with Collaboration is shifting from a purely internal nature to an external one. The questions are morphing into how can we more easily communicate with “them”? Or, how can we benefit by working more closely with “them”? Even better, what tools can we use to streamline our business workflow with “theirs”? Technologies and capabilities such as Intercompany Media Engine (IME) and the previously mentioned WebEx and federated IM are perfect examples of where things may be headed as we talk about externally focused Collaboration needs
I don’t think the term Unified Communications is going anywhere. Likewise, I don’t think Collaboration is simply a marketing term. I think the two go hand-in-hand. If this were an old world text, the phrase “one begets the other” most certainly would apply. The need for Unified Communications can lead to an increased focus on Collaboration. Vice versa, the need for better Collaboration can lead to the decision to implement Unified Communications. Now since my opinion is that VoIP is the foundation of Unified Communications, I agree with my colleague and mentor that Unified Communications is the vertical market and Collaboration is enabled within it. However, it may still be best to use the two terms concurrently. In doing so, maybe we can better highlight the potential value that our services and product offerings provide to our customers. I didn’t coin the term but many vendors now refer to their solutions under the blanket term of “Unified Communications and Collaboration”. In 2011, I think we can prosper by first implementing top-notch Unified Communications solutions for our customers. If we can do that, the need for better Collaboration tools will surely follow.
Here’s to a new year…