The term unified communications (UC) was coined in the mid-1990s. Before that time we were happy calling things what they were — videoconferencing, telephony, et cetera. When tools that could detect a user’s presence were inserted into the mix it just made sense to have all the communication methods come together and share common information — so users could easily escalate their collaboration between the formerly separate processes.

A long development

We often speak about the factors that make unified communications the only technology that has been launching for nearly twenty years. These have included outdated, silo-based management by IT departments, intentional mystification and incompatibility by manufacturers and, most importantly, an overall focus on the technology instead of the user experience at far too many organizations.

While enterprise technology offerings are better today than they were all those years ago, improvements alone would not have caused the disruptive change the industry is experiencing. The democratization of technology is the biggest factor in today’s world of UC.

In the recent past, users were forced to work with only the tools their IT gatekeepers provided to them. Nowadays, every “no” from the IT department drives the user into the “shadow IT” of picking their own apps. It is this widespread availability of many consumer-facing tools that has driven the most progress in UC.

Learning from the past

Our smart devices have taught us that videoconferencing shouldn’t be hard; that good VOIP is possible; that team chat applications can help drive productivity at an organization — and that none of it should be very expensive. As an active example, the collaboration industry is poised to go through another hype cycle around electronic interactive whiteboard products, which will most likely end the same way the last hype cycle around “telepresence” did — with user organizations realizing that they don’t have to pay nearly as much as the larger manufacturers want for these systems because start-ups and other smaller firms and apps will democratize the space.

No matter what tools happen to be in fashion, the challenges of the field remain the same. To achieve a successful collaboration strategy, organizations must first get to know their user base, understand what business outcomes and user experiences are truly needed, and then deploy simple, interoperable, secure and inexpensive tools to help achieve them.