Unified communications (UC) can play a major role in reducing enterprise conferencing, mobile and voice calling expenses, while improving productivity, efficiency and collaboration. But while audio and email are standard in today's workplace, many organizations are just scratching the surface of what can be done with UC. \n\nIn a recent survey of 250 IT managers, unified communications solution provider West Unified Communications found that 68 percent of respondents use UC solutions beyond the typical email and voice in their organization, but of the available tools, audio still reigned supreme. Audio conferencing solutions were used by 79 percent of respondents, with Web conferencing (76 percent), IM\/presence (73 percent), video conferencing (68 percent) and screen sharing (67 percent) rounding out the top five. \n\n[ Related stories: Is the office desk phone obsolete? ]\n\n\nGoing beyond the standard\n\nBut UC has the potential to go beyond just updating traditional methods of business communication to actually facilitating better collaboration and driving greater productivity, says Taher Behbehani, CMO at cloud-based unified communications provider BroadSoft, a trend driven largely by the influx of millennials in the workplace and by the shift to the cloud.\n\n"For millennials, which is the largest proportion of today's workforce, it's the type of multi-channel communication they thrive on -- messaging, team work spaces, screen sharing, video, and even voice. The challenge is to make UC accessible for everyone and help to integrate UC services across devices so that it doesn't hamper productivity, but instead enhances it," Behbehani says.\n\nThat's where UC-as-a-Service (UCaaS) comes in. The West Communications survey revealed that, for IT managers and technology buyers, quality trumps brand loyalty when considering UC solutions. \n\nThat sounds good, in theory, but in practice, organizations can find that integrating solutions from a number of different vendors becomes incredibly difficult. UCaaS allows for the delivery of UC solutions without many of the integration headaches, says Rob Bellmar, executive vice president of conferencing and communications at West Unified Communications. \n\n"Millennials are driving this in the sense that they demand the availability of certain technologies. Our survey showed that more than half of respondents believe best-of-breed technology wins out over vendor loyalty -- so now there's a lot of point solutions from different vendors. Great, but who's running IT departments right now? Boomers and Generation Xers, who are tasked with meeting those demands. So, they went out and bought all the best, the right stuff, all the right tools their users were demanding and said, 'OK', now you've got it,' without understanding how to integrate it for the greatest efficiency," Bellmar says. That's what IT departments are struggling with, and what UCaaS is aimed at solving. \n\n[ Related stories: Cloud adoption soars but integration challenges remain ]\n\nUCaaS to the rescue\n\nUCaaS enables video, IM\/ presence, chat, voice, file sharing and desktop sharing, and also allows for much greater accessibility through mobile devices, says Behbehani, and beyond that, companies like BroadSoft are working toward integrating UC solutions with other apps in the cloud, like Salesforce.com, or CRM solutions; any other cloud-based apps needed to run a business, he says.\n\n"The disconnect here is difficult, but it's where we see the future of unified communications moving. You need all these applications to run your business, and especially if you're accessing them on your mobile device, it's hard to toggle between them. Or, say you're on the phone with a client and your colleague Steve starts messaging you. That shouldn't even happen -- we want to work toward contextual intelligence so the solution knows, 'Taher's on the phone, we'll automatically reroute the message, or let Steve know he'll get a message back.'" Behbehani says. Connecting and integrating all these technologies is simpler through the cloud, he says. \n\nStreaming toward video\n\nVideo, too, is better enabled through the cloud. The West Unified Communications survey revealed that one-third of IT managers surveyed planned to implement or expand their video capabilities in the next three years, but cite it as one of the most difficult technologies for IT departments to maintain. This is, in part, because of the difficulties with the interface and with the delivery mechanism, says Bellmar. \n\nBusinesses still struggle with available bandwidth, with the issues around video conferencing and video content delivery, and around network planning and firewall traversal; until video technology becomes as plug-and-play as other communications methods, there's still some work to be done, he says. \n\n"There's amazing technology out there, but right now it's still pretty complex and enterprises are struggling to manage it and implement it. We are working on getting to the point where you can accurately predict what kind of network speeds and bandwidth you'll need to plan for video. UC isn't mature enough yet to be able to do that with any certainty -- but it's getting there, and it's getting there quickly," Bellmar says.