E-mail, voice mail and faxes find you in the office or on the go

Communications, at its core, propels business forward. If not for the daily barrage of phone calls, e-mail messages and faxes, business would probably come to a halt. It is this vast amount of communication media that cause what many refer to as a sort of “controlled chaos.” While there are ample solutions for each mode of communication in its own right, there are times when having a unified system makes sense.

Unified messaging is a system, mainly software-based, that stores media forms such as voice mail, e-mail and fax documents and keeps them accessible and maneuverable via a universal application. The medium of choice to run such operations is usually the good old PC, although PDAs, Blackberrys, cell phones, laptops and iPAQs are getting in the mix these days.

Unified messaging requires both hardware and software for operation. The hardware side is something usually already in place and under control (PCs, servers, LANs and the like), and unified messaging comes about via an installation of the system itself, as an add-on. “It can easily be added to existing Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Domino environments, and this has proven to be quite popular with customers,” said Mary Thiele, senior manager, Media Relations at Avaya—one of the prominent players in the unified messaging industry. This ease of installation helps explain why unified messaging has gained in popularity over the last five years.

Once the program is installed, icons appear on the screens of all users who have been granted access. Once launched, the user can see how many voice mail, e-mail and fax messages are waiting. From there, users can preview messages and jump directly to those that are high priority. This can be a time saver for those who receive many messages on a regular basis.

What about the fax machine?

Before you go chucking your fax out the window, consider that unified messaging may not be for everyone. In fact, some choose to give unified messaging systems to select individuals within an organization because not everyone will benefit by using it.

Mobile workers, members of the sales team, executives on the go and those who travel are prime candidates. There are horror stories about confidential or critical faxes getting lost or landing in the wrong hands. Unified messaging helps alleviate the problem by getting the information directly to the intended recipient, immediately, without any interference.

What are the drawbacks?

Unified messaging does not come with too many cons, but there are a few that should be noted, so that an informed decision can be made.

One of the biggest drawbacks is the threat of a network failure. Detrimental and costly in any scenario, they are more compromising when you rely on your network for all of your communication needs. When the phone lines go down in a traditional setting, you still have some access to e-mail. With a unified system, you would have to resort to using a cell phone. Of course, cell phone availability is pretty commonplace.

Other drawbacks are bandwidth limitations and user operations, but these are fairly small hurdles. Today’s networks generally address the bandwidth issue even before unified messaging is thought of as an aftermarket add-on. With the predominance of Web-based applications and large file-sharing processes, more businesses have already made the transition over to higher bandwidth capabilities that alleviate the concern.

The user operation aspect is something that occurs with any new program, application or process. Though using a unified messaging system may seem a confusing at first, proficient operation can be accomplished with a little training and understanding. Getting your employees and users on board and knowledgeable is half the battle.

Ready, set, commit

Delving into the unified messaging world takes commitment. While the processes themselves remain the same, the actual tasks are altered. Teaching people to check their computer screen for voice mail may seem simple, but such a change to routine practices takes some time to get used to.

The benefits can be substantial when compared to the alternatives. Imagine being able to send and receive phone calls, e-mails and faxes from wherever you may be.

Nowadays, such scenarios are possible. Employees are moving around more, and they need to have the proper tools of communication right at their fingertips. Unified messaging makes that possible. And hey, if it is good enough for Microsoft … well, you know the rest. EC

STONG-MICHAS, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached at JenLeahS@msn.com.