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UC has been building buzz – and evolving – since companies first began fusing email and voicemail together. Now, top GovCon CTOs think UC has turned a corner on more widespread use.

Many believe it’s only a matter of time before unified communications revolutionizes the workplace. Its advocates, supporters and, ultimately, users rave about its opportunities to increase collaboration in the workplace, especially for large companies with offices spanning the globe.

And maybe even more important, from a business perspective, it has the potential to dramatically increase productivity.

The final hurdle to more widespread adoption of such a promising tool, especially for the government-contracting industry, seems to be overcoming its relatively low profile. While unified communications may be an idea whose time has come, it’s still an idea that needs a little explaining to many people.

Yogesh Khanna, chief technology officer at Computer Sciences Corporation, is a unified communications true believer. His voice spilled over with excitement when he spoke about the myriad benefits and technological minutiae of UC.

But what exactly is it?

“Often, people think unified communications is a piece of technology,” he said. “But unified communications and collaboration is really a term that refers to the integration of typically disparate systems.”

Those disparate systems include things such as email, voicemail, fax and instant messaging; and even more cutting-edge applications such as white-boarding — the real time updating of shared files, audio conferencing and video teleconferencing.

“It’s all bundled together so that it’s easily accessible and tightly integrated so you can seamlessly move from one to the other,” Khanna said.

Bob Brammer, vice president and chief technology officer at Northrop Grumman, acknowledged there are a number of definitions for UC and that it straddles the line between being a system and being a service.

A 2007 Computerworld article about the brave new world of unified communications speculated about the possibilities of a network that could tell users in real time “where one another are located, how best to make contact and, after making contact, support collaboration and access to data from anywhere.”

Khanna likened UC to a fusion of technology, which makes the whole of the integrated system, more “beneficial to the end user,” than the sum of its diverse parts.

Steve Derr, executive vice president for engineering at Avaya Government Solutions, said his company strives to “place people, not systems” at the center of unified communications.

“The purpose of unified communications is to connect people and present relevant information to those parties in real time,” Derr added, “therefore improving productivity, reducing decision times and, ultimately, increasing the speed of execution.”

In seeking to create a unified definition for the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink nature of unified communications, it might be simpler to define UC by what it isn’t: unified messaging. Or at least, it isn’t only unified messaging.

Most observers agree unified communications has evolved from unified messaging principles, such as combining voicemail and email, which date to the late 1990s.

Northrop Grumman has integrated voice messaging with email, through its Microsoft Exchange server, Brammer said, which is now a “pretty elementary form of unification,” he noted, although one of the most common.

Usually, instituting a unified communications system in-house simply makes sense, but Khanna mentioned that often demand from clients has driven the really “compelling” solutions.

The seemingly simple act of connecting people in an increasingly global world and workplace has created a need for those compelling solutions, such as the virtual 3-D immersive collaboration environment CSC built with venture-backed firm Teleplace.

CSC often works on proposals, Khanna said, which draws upon a workforce often dispersed over the globe. The traditional model — paying for participants’ travel, food, expenses — is highly inefficient. But this 3-D environment works by enabling a company to bring a virtual proposal room to its users, he explained.

Participants access the virtual room through a browser, which is the same, no matter what far-flung corner of the globe they log in from. They are assigned an avatar. And, like any good meeting room, there is a white board in the room, which can be passed to other participants and can also store PowerPoint and Word documents.

The room is also complete with virtual file cabinets and chat features.

“It’s a very cool environment for collaboration particularly when you’re dealing with very diverse locations,” Khanna said. “And it’s very interactive.”

Unified communications is far from the only collaborative tool at a forward-thinking CTO’s fingertips.

Major information technology firm General Dynamics IT has not implemented unified communications, but Rick Parkington, vice president and chief technology officer, said the firm has instituted a number of collaboration tools.

“As recently as five to 10 years ago,” he said, “new employees would ask which telephone number was available for their use. Today, the phone is just one means of communication and often the least-preferred one for the younger generation.”

Instead, younger workers often want to know what collaborative Web 2.0 tools are available, he added.

But despite the new, exciting opportunities, there are impediments that hinder UC and other collaborative tools from being more widely adopted.

One of the biggest challenges is convincing people that unified communications can have a measurable return on investment.

“Quite frankly, the industry as a whole has a tough time putting value on productivity improvements,” Khanna explained.

Even after tying together, or in Khanna’s words “fusing” together the various technologies, one question remains. “How do you bring it down to concrete savings?” he asked.

The answer, Brammer said, is in increased productivity.

“The notion of tying all these systems together can be effective from a management viewpoint,” he said. “You don’t need expertise in different systems; you have a single system to manage, and it can be more cost-effective from both cost and end-user viewpoints.”

Collaborative tools can also accelerate the flow of information into the hands of decision-makers, something that has “tremendous value,” Parkington said.

“Across all segments of government, the public sector is seeking ways to shrink decision-making cycles — from getting critical intelligence into the hands of our war fighters, to minimizing the time needed to respond to cybersecurity threats to our nation’s infrastructure,” he added.

But even with the vast technological strides made, challenges still remain.

“Integration and interoperability of these various products is a formidable technical challenge that has to be addressed,” Khanna said, adding that with any system that’s effectively integrated, there’s a lot of hard work that goes in behind the scenes. The greatest measure of success may be users’ obliviousness to the system, when it works as planned.

A particular technical hurdle that has already been cleared is the penetration of Voice over IP technology, Khanna noted, which has only become workable in the past few years.

“The evolution of the IP technology, particularly the Voice over IP and the dramatic reductions in the cost and price points of some of these technologies, has really allowed us to round the curve,” he said.

In fact, Khanna thinks the improvements in unified communications and collaboration systems in the last two years outstrip the gains made in the entire 10 years previous.

But Brammer struck a note of caution. While incredible leaps in technology have taken place over the last few years, there are still security implications with the new technology that need to be worked out.

“It’s certainly possible,” he said, “for a reasonably sophisticated hacker to penetrate a system that’s part of a unified communications system… as it is any kind of network.”

In 1998, unified messaging shot to the top of Wired magazine’s Hype List, a roster of emerging, buzz-worthy tech trends.

Brammer acknowledged the early buzz surrounding unified messaging around that time fizzled out because the technology just wasn’t ready yet.

“The networking and the email systems just weren’t functional enough to make that a successful venture,” he added.

But that doesn’t mean it was a bad idea, Brammer was quick to say. “It just meant the first attempts were a little early and the technology needed time to grow up,” he said.

Now that the technology has had time to grow up, what bodes for the future of unified communications and other collaborative workplace tools?

“Just as unified messaging has become a subset of a broader notion called unified communications, I think unified communications is becoming a subset of a more general unified computing approach to the enterprise,” Brammer said.

Northrop Grumman is currently re-engineering enterprise data centers and operations to create a more unified approach, he said.

Khanna speculated that the final product, so to speak, could be UC “offered as a pure service.” And increasingly, he sees that service being delivered through another emerging trend that has been hogging headlines lately: cloud computing.

But companies would be wise to affirm that new collaborative techniques actually fall in line with the company’s broader mission.

“When Web 2.0 was born,” Parkington asserted, “the driving idea was, ‘build it and they will come.’ But as the federal government tightens the budget, which reverberates throughout the government-contracting industry, companies simply can’t afford to create a collaborative social media site, for example, “that sidetracks employees from their duties and is disassociated from organizational goals,” he said.

Brammer pulled the curtain back even further on the future of unified communications. What UC looks like and works like in the future will likely be determined by what types of messaging have sprung up by then, as well as what types of messaging survive the natural evolution of technology. For example, instant messaging was born anew through applications from Google and Facebook. Not so, the lowly fax.

“Over time, we will see different types of messaging or different types of communication grow, and then fade out,” he said. “There seems to be a natural life cycle to all these different techniques,” including various assessments of performance, security, privacy and cost effectiveness, Brammer noted.

Unified communications has already traversed many winding turns in its life cycle. Many of its ardent proponents believe, in terms of widespread adoption and use, it may be nearing its last bend in the road.