While lots of people think Unified Communications (UC) is a nice idea, they don't necessarily see it as inevitable. The debate around fragmented communications, and moving to a more joined up, coherent way of working will help UC gather pace. As higher echelons in the enterprise ultimately decide that UC is for them, the IT manager will then be handed the challenge of deployment. What is less likely is that the task will be fully scoped, with full appreciation of what UC is, or should look like. Confusion about what UC really is about is still rife, thanks in no small part to the vast array of UC solutions in the market, and as yet, limited availability of impartial guidance. In the main, companies still do not know what UC can really do for their business, and what an implementation should actually look like. And the market still suffers from a shortage of solid case studies to reference.

A UC deployment presents no easy task for the IT manager. At the outset, there are lots of 'parts' to UC - voice, video, audio conferencing, messaging, mobility, presence - to name a few. Contrary to popular belief, existence of these within a company does not mean that UC is in place. Rather, it is about how these parts hang together, or are unified.

Unless the IT manager has been given a very clear remit, a crucial start point is bringing in key players from across the organisation. This is not a go-it-alone exercise, and technical considerations need to be tied into company goals. This includes identifying the communications and collaboration needs of different user groups in the company. Not all people will need video conferencing, for example. UC will only have value if people actually use the stuff. This analysis will provide a basis for determining success criteria - essential if the company wants to know whether the UC implementation has been worthwhile (which, of course it will).

From a technical perspective, where to begin with UC will to some extent be determined by what is already in place, in terms of both network infrastructure and applications. E.g. at the underlying basic level, is an IPT installation needed. Some enterprises may choose to begin with existing applications such as messaging, and build down into the network (a somewhat more risky approach, as without proper assessment, unanticipated stress may be placed on the network).  Irrespective of this start point, a baby steps approach is much more likely to succeed than a big bang one. Common sense should prevail, and the deployment should be based around applications that are likely to bring quick and identifiable benefits into the organisation, and that are easy to implement/manage. It does not have to incorporate every single application usually quoted under the UC banner. So, if video doesn't tick all those boxes, for example, put it on hold until later. Similarly, don't give people functionality that they just won't use. Again, common sense suggests using a targeted group of people, and assessing how successful that has been before building up and out.

The enterprise will be working with a broader technology set, and this brings with it the need for greater support, whether internal or external. The IT manager may be working with a new toolset, and failure to provision for this can create a weak link in the chain.

The vendor issue is also on the potential headache list. While a single vendor environment is possible, a multi-vendor environment is extremely common, for a number of reasons, but raises the matter of integration. Key questions that fall out of this are: How will different solutions slot together? What are the potential areas of weakness? Do case studies exist for reference?

Once UC is in, then on-going management becomes priority. We've already mentioned the skill set issue, and this is important not just at the point of deployment, but continually. This may be served in part by vendors through a managed service approach, depending on the size and nature of the enterprise.

A final, albeit rather obvious point is, don't forget future proofing. UC is a broad and evolving proposition that encompasses a wide range of technologies. So while video isn't needed today, consider what will happen when it is needed.

There is no hard and fast rule for what UC should be within an organisation - it should be what works in a given situation, and really should be viewed in terms of horses for courses. The key is integration and unification of solutions to create a more powerful overall proposition that delivers tangible benefits to the business. More importantly, UC should be a naturally evolving proposition built on a solid foundation.

Let us know what your experiences with UC have been, both around implementation and how it has evolved within your business.

By Josie Sephton, primciple analyst at Freeform Dynamics