Be ‘present’ for the new communications revolution

3 Jan 2009

Unified communications means that executives are contactable and visible on any device of their choosing.

The business world has its fair share of truisms and clichés, but ‘time is money’ seems to be more pressing than ever, now that many firms are feeling the pinch.

Trying to reach a colleague for an answer to a technical question or advice on a customer issue can result in people getting bogged down in delays like telephone tag or waiting for an email reply. Productivity and profitability suffer.

Unified communications (UC) technology looks to reduce or remove that breakdown. As the name suggests, it combines several different means of communication into one, delivering a voice, video or text-based message to the intended recipient in real time, based on their preferred means of contact.

“You have one point of contact for people – you’re breaking down time and distance. If you’re looking for somebody, you’ve got one number to find them,” says Edel Creely, managing director of Datapac.

The ‘presence’ feature in a UC system indicates a person’s current status to colleagues on the network – whether or not they are contactable, and by what means. If the person is in a meeting, the status changes accordingly, so people don’t waste time trying to call them.

Alternatively, the person may be out of the office but reachable by mobile; with UC, the call would be forwarded to them seamlessly. The unifying element is that the means of communication no longer matters – a message sent in one medium can be received in another. As such, a UC inbox lists voicemail messages alongside traditional emails, for example.

“Telephone tennis, travel and ‘not contactable’ are things of the past,” says Joe Molloy, director of managed services with IT Force. “Organisations are reclaiming valuable time through virtual meetings, videoconferencing and real-time collaboration. The concept of ‘presence’ means that you can be contacted when and how you want.”

This improved efficiency is the main advantage of UC, according to Kim Majerus, managing director of Cisco in Ireland. “Over time, you will see better productivity. Productivity is key to business growth. And unlike some technologies, you can also see the return on your investment pretty quickly,” she says.

Richard Moore, business manager for the Information Worker Group at Microsoft, takes up the latter point: Eircom expects to save €950,000 per year through using UC throughout its business. “It’s not a very expensive investment, frankly, and people quickly see the benefits,” he says.

However, UC faces some hurdles before it can gain mainstream acceptance. Forrester Research noted a significant increase in the number of companies testing the technology, but a lower conversion rate to sales. Molloy believes Irish companies are at different stages of acceptance.

“Some do still need to be educated, particularly those in the SME sector. What works for us is showcasing the solution – we use our partner facilities to demo the solution, enabling clients to interact and use the equipment,” he says.

Senior management buy-in is critical to ensuring the success of a UC project, Molloy adds. “There is no doubt there is significant work involved in pulling out the old PBX and putting in a converged network. But once the solution is up and running, there is no handing it back.”

Moore says the presence and instant messaging features in UC can represent a big cultural change for many companies. For that reason, he recommends taking a small group or a department and implementing parts of the technology there, then taking lessons from that trial when rolling out UC in the rest of the organisation.

“When people see it and like it, everyone wants to press forward,” he says. “You also have to be conscious of the workforce. The kinds of people using sites like Facebook, Yahoo and MSN are comfortable with multi-mode communications. When they come into the work environment, the bridge for them is much smaller to cross.”

Majerus points out that gauging acceptance of UC is a tricky exercise. “I think you can’t view UC as a single product, but rather the convergence of several different technologies.

“Many smaller businesses in Ireland have been moving to voice over IP as the first step on the road to convergence. It’s quite early to judge the level of uptake because it depends on how you ‘measure’ UC adoption or implementation, but I think you’ll see implementations growing year-on-year as the benefits become clearer to people,” she concludes.

By Gordon Smith

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic