When converged networks uniting data and voice traffic were first developed, the 'carrot' that vendors used to lure customers to invest in the technology was the saving they would make in reduced phone bills.
Although there are still some companies that have yet to weigh up the cost benefits of shifting to voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), the convergence pitch has moved on. Today, network hardware suppliers, service providers and software developers are eagerly touting applications that make use of an integrated communications infrastructure not just to reduce costs, but to change the way that businesses operate.
Their hope is that organisations will see the new modes of working made possible by converged communications not just as cost-saving, penny- pinching measures, but as a key source of competitive advantage, if not an operational necessity. As yet, though, these new applications are largely untested, and there is considerable debate over their usefulness.
Collaboration tools will certainly be both enriched and simplified by the integration of audio and video data. By integrating VoIP with desktop calendar applications such as Outlook, for example, it will be possible to arrange and execute a conference call with a few mouse clicks, rather than having to pay costly third-party conferencing contracts.
However, many analysts still question the business benefit of voice-enabled collaboration tools. "The theory that these tools will cut down on air travel is totally specious," says Steve Cramoysan of analyst group Gartner. "We could easily come up with a counter argument that so much remote communication might reinforce the value of face to face dialogue."
But unified communications networks will have a much deeper impact upon collaborative work when the features are integrated into existing working processes. Neil Sutton, general manager of IT Services at BT, believes, for example, that significant productivity benefits will be derived from integrating communications with document management.
"Using collaborative tools on shared documents and shared content makes the process much more efficient. Rather than sending round massive emails, an employee can use their own personal portal to distribute the information," says Sutton. The increased personal responsibility for documents engendered by this approach, he argues, will also increase productivity.
US business intelligence company Fair Isaac is one early adopter of voice-enabled collaboration. It uses Microsoft's Live Communications Server to support communications channels such as instant messaging and live conferencing both internally and with customers. Since the roll out of the technology in 2005, the company says it has shortened the average length of its sales cycle by 30%.
The possibilities of the new 'presence' applications enabled by integrated communications are generating even more excitement. Using the session initiation protocol (SIP) communications standard, applications or users can automatically see the availability of colleagues, clients or partners. As all forms of communication are integrated over the same network, anyone can find out whether the person they are trying to contact is on the phone, using the Internet or out of the office, and contact them via the most appropriate means – email, instant message or mobile phone. Furthermore, the message can be automatically adapted to suit the preferred device of the recipient.
Again, the benefit of presence applications when used on their own is debatable. "If the only advantage is saving half an hour for an individual per day, that's a pretty weak value proposition," says Gartner's Cramoysan. But when built into business processes, an automated awareness of the location of key team members might make those processes more efficient and fail proof. If a certain level of employee is required to approve a purchase order, for example, presence technology could find which appropriate staff member is readily available, and accelerate the process.
In the call centre, quickly being able to track the whereabouts of an individual with specific experience might help manage calls more effectively. "The focus of the contact centre is the time it takes to turn around the call," says Rob House, head of business solutions at communications technology vendor Siemens. Using presence and SIP technology could reduce the time it takes to connect the customer to the right contact.
Indeed, converged networking promises to revolutionise the way call centres are operated. Abbey, the UK Building society, recently rolled out a solution in partnership with BT and Cisco that enables excess traffic to its call centre to be routed to available staff in branches around the country. Such a system could equally be used to divert traffic to ad-hoc home workers, whose availability can also be monitored by presence technology.
"It's hard to imagine any CRM application of the future that will not have this technology embedded," says Jerry Caron, an analyst with research company Current Analysis.
Many of the new generation collaboration technologies being enabled by integrated communications are primarily designed for information workers. The premise is that their knowledge is an asset that needs to be made more available, more quickly, than has previously been possible. Examples of task-based processes that have been enhanced by integrated communications are not numerous, although some such projects are underway.
But although many of the applications are presented as a justification for switching to a converged network, they may, in fact, not be dependent on a wholly IP-based infrastructure. Launching such applications on a mixed circuit- and packet-switched network may involve more programming, and perhaps more hardware, but for many companies this will be preferable to throwing out their legacy systems.
Equally, the potential of converged communications has only begun to be explored and many of these applications are still in their infancy. However, the fact that the integrated communications infrastructure is based on open, standard platforms means that new ways of building multimedia into business processes can and will be developed rapidly, enabling new modes of communication that are likely to revolutionise the way businesses work.