Unified communications (UC) might be a fashionable term, but many organisations still struggle to understand the benefits of a connected, IP-based communications infrastructure, a Butler Group study has reported.

Researchers found that many organisations think of UC mainly as a way to cut costs, when the real advantages are all about improving the way the business operates.

Many communications overhauls are designed mainly to consolidate infrastructure, reduce operational costs and improve levels of service quality, said Mark Blowers, Butler Group's enterprise architectures practice director, but these notions miss the point.

"Although these are useful goals, the real value afforded by unified communications and collaboration solutions ultimately arises from improvements to business processes, enhancement of stakeholder interactions, the optimisation of workflow, and driving innovation in the business," Blowers said in the study.

The study, "Unified Communications and Collaboration Report: Laying the Foundations for Business Process Flexibility and Innovation", was released on Tuesday, and examines UC from the point of view of CIOs and IT managers.

The research found that a sea-change is taking place in business, and that hierarchically organised communications infrastructures are no longer able to cope with organisations' needs.

Enterprises now require a common IP-based infrastructure to allow information to be more mobile and to deal with requirements such as staff location independence, Butler Group said.

The move to IP-based infrastructure also allows for badly-needed technical innovation, said Blowers.

"Moving away from proprietary solutions for voice and data to a horizontal communications architecture will enable the communications environment to be broken down into separate layers, making use of industry standards to integrate the hardware, common services, and administration elements," he said in the report.

"This componentisation and services-based approach increases flexibility, enabling services to be developed independent of the equipment."

The cost of implementation remains the main inhibitor, even for large enterprises, Butler Group said, citing a 2007 Datamonitor survey.

Security is also an issue, but UC doesn't introduce any new layer of vulnerability, the report said.

Last month Lotus Software's general manager Mike Rhodin predicted the "virtual office" would soon become the rule, based on social networking and instant messaging tools. IBM was investing up to $1 billion (£500 million) in UC technology, the company said at the time.

Earlier this month Nortel went open source with its SCS500, a unified communications suite for small and mid-sized businesses.