Paradoxically, one of the biggest communication challenges faced by organisations these days is the proliferation of ways in which employees can contact and stay in touch with each other. According to some reports the average employee will now have access to five or more different communications devices, plus an equal number of messaging technologies, collaboration tools and other applications.


This proliferation is easy to understand, with the office phone system a mainstay for most companies as is email, but the PBX can now just as easily be based on Voice over IP (VoIP) as traditional TDM technology, enabling users to be "in" and contactable even when they're out or working from home. At the same time, employees are becoming a lot more mobile, with many preferring to use a mobile handset even where a landline is available. Moreover, if it's a smartphone it's possible to read and send emails as well as communicate using text or via a social network like Facebook or Twitter.


And it doesn't stop there, a lot of businesses routinely use Skype to save on calling costs. Moreover telephone conferences are becoming a daily occurrence, often using hosted services, with video similarly adding to the mix.


Unfortunately this availability of opportunity also has its drawbacks, one of which can be illustrated using a scenario that all of us will have experienced at some time or other.


Let's say you get an important email that you need to respond to, but at the end of the message the sender tells you they'll be out of the office for a few days. Of course you immediately fire off a response in the hope that they'll have access to their inbox in some way, but there's no certainty they'll receive it.


Determined to speak to them you also try their office extension, only to get put through to voicemail. And much the same happens when you then ring their mobile number (if you have it), plus it's a different voicemail system, so you leave a second message here also.


Eventually they ring you back, but by then you're out so they leave a message. And so it goes on, with the two of you flipping back and forth from one miss-matched device and technology to another.


Trouble is this kind of communications uncertainty is rapidly becoming a way of life. So much so that it can often comes as a surprise when you actually make contact on the first attempt, and that can't be a good thing. Not only is it annoying, it can have real economic implications due to, for example, not being able to follow up on enquiries in time or missing project deadlines through delayed access to key decision makers within the organisation.


Which is where Unified Communications (UC) comes in, as it's exactly this kind of problem that such systems are designed to deal with.


An effective UC solution can take the uncertainty out of that first communication attempt in two ways, firstly through so-called "presence" whereby, when you want to make contact with someone, you can find out in advance which of the available methods is the most likely to succeed. For example, you'll be able to see when someone is logged into their desk phone or connected to their email inbox, available on their mobile, working from home or, perhaps, not wanting to be disturbed at all.


Secondly, by integrating together real-time and store and forward messaging systems, a good UC system can be programmed to make sure that, whatever route you choose, the person you need to contact will be made aware that you're calling.  For example, by transferring your call to their mobile when they're out, transcribing your voice mail to text, sending an email alert and so on, regardless of how that first contact is made.


Equally the person you want to communicate with will be able to respond in a variety of ways, perhaps dictating an email response over the phone or sending you a calendar invitation to a teleconference. Plus, as a result, be much more likely (it would be nice to think guaranteed) to get through, again, first time, every time.


All of the big networking and telecoms vendors have Unified Communication solutions, although, traditionally, most have been sold on the basis of direct cost savings. Such as being able to route calls over the Internet rather than the PSTN, consolidate voice and data networks and so on. Increasingly, however, companies are switching on to the benefits of being able to facilitate effective, first time, every time, communication, and its these that many of the vendors are now stressing.


Quantifying those benefits is a lot harder which is, possibly, why they've not been at the top of the list before. But there are real gains to be had in terms of both time and cost savings and improved worker productivity. Moreover, the more technologies and applications that can be included under the Unified Communications umbrella the better and the greater those benefits will be.


This article is written by Alan Stevens and sponsored by Avaya. The opinions reflected in this piece are solely those of Alan Stevens and may not reflect those of Avaya management