Mobile Business – The biggest thing to happen to work since email

26 Mar 2011

Unified communications – the set of technologies that will make the phone on your desk look like a dinosaur – will unite voice with data and make the workplace universal.

Unified communications (UC) is set to be the biggest change agent to be introduced to the workplace since people began getting email and internet access at their desk in the 1990s. it will remove the clutter of our working lives – email, smartphones, desk phones, iPads – and unite them under one cohesive framework.

Making use of ‘presence’ technology, colleagues will know if co-workers are available to talk by phone, by instant messaging (IM) or video conference in an instant. An executive could be strolling down a street in New York but could participate in a video conference call with executives in London, Paris and Berlin simultaneously.

What is unified communications?

UC is a platform that brings together voice calls, IM, audio conferencing, web conferencing and videoconferencing into a single platform for companies that saves costs and helps teams to work better together.

It takes the best of the ICT revolution in business and ensures that companies can be lean and efficient without surrendering quality or effort.

Since UC burst onto the scene in recent years, Irish organisations have begun migrating their workers off traditional PBXs to server-based solutions that transform their telephony needs. Irish firms are right now successfully reducing costs by introducing voice over iP (VoiP) capabilities and providing rich web conferencing technology, which helps teams to communicate and collaborate without having to travel.

UC supports increased productivity by enabling co-workers to find and communicate with each other, whether they are in the office or on the road.

The next evolution of UC to UC4 (unified communications, collaboration and call centre) will see entire enterprises develop and evolve around this platform, which will do for business voice and video communications what email did for the written word.

David Lang of Phone Pulse, a firm that has been serving the communications needs of Irish firms for more than 21 years, believes unified communications will help SMEs become more lean and efficient.

“Unified communications is where the business user’s work space experience is seamless between their voice and data applications and devices,” he says.

“In today’s challenging business environment, companies are focused on obtaining the highest level of productivity from staff to ensure their business remains competitive and cost effective. Many companies overlook the benefits that efficient communications brings to both the bottom line and productivity of staff.

“Companies that seek to collaborate more efficiently deliver an enhanced customer service experience. With this drives loyalty from customers and the ability to protect the business from a decline in revenue. Customers have naturally been seeking cost savings from suppliers over the last few years. The trend is changing with value and service now the focus as customers realise that they have reached the threshold where costs have stabilised.

“Many companies continue to seek short-term cost savings within the business to reduce overheads. In fact, a more forward-looking approach is necessary to consider solutions like UC to assist companies in becoming more agile. With flexible finance options available, companies are upgrading their telephony system now to quickly obtain the agility and efficiencies to be leveraged from UC. The reality is most find the cost savings greater than expected, making the ROI more compelling.

“UC will eventually be a standard feature of a user’s work space where it will continue to integrate with more work space applications.”

Next-generation UC

In November, Microsoft launched its next generation of UC, Microsoft Lync, which brings a unified IM, presence, audio and videoconferencing capability to Microsoft 365. Lync is a single platform that integrates instant messaging, presence, audio, web and videoconferencing and voice to bring people together through a single interface.

Jeremy Showalter, IW business group lead at Microsoft Ireland explains: “With unified communications people and organisations can unify all business communications into a single experience and platform, including email, voicemail, instant messaging, HD videoconferencing, online meetings and enterprise voice. With a unified communications approach, businesses can improve how they work and cut costs (less travel, less commuting, lower telephony costs, etc).

“Unified communications enables people to work faster and easier across all their communication options and provides significant cost savings for organisations.

“A simple example is you can receive voicemails, including an auto text transcript, or missed instant messages directly in Outlook, enabling you to stay in touch while on the road or from multiple devices. Today, many companies are exploring various aspects of these capabilities, but often in a very fragmented way.

“Office 365 provides a unified experience across these capabilities from within Microsoft Office to enable people to work in new ways in the context of where they work today, enabling organisations to adopt new capabilities quickly and easily.

“Lync is the next generation of Microsoft’s presence, instant messaging, audio/videoconferencing, online meetings and enterprise voice capabilities with the ability to completely replace a traditional phone system (PBX).”

One of the problems in bringing unified communications to the Irish marketplace is few businesses understand it. Showalter agrees and believes there is work to be done in terms of education.

“Too often SMEs are not aware of these capabilities and not aware that they can adopt these services easily and cost effectively, though we are seeing significant organic growth of these types of services through our current BPOS offering and significant interest in the Office 365 offering,” he says.

“SME companies are focused on growing their businesses, and often that is related to improving how they communicate and how quickly they can communicate with their customers, suppliers and partners.”

“One of the barriers is the culture changes associated to the work styles unified communications enables. For instance, are firms and managers comfortable with employees working from anywhere? do firms have the vision to think about their traditional telephony options in new ways or are they held back by legacy PBX systems?”

UC and cloud computing

Showalter sees cloud computing as a significant enabler for unified communications. “With previous generation services like LiveMeeting in the market for many years and now with Office 365, we expand those communication capabilities with a full roadmap to deliver all unified communication capabilities via cloud options like Office 365.”

Damovo country manager Mary Bradshaw believes that more and more organisations in Ireland are switching on to unified communications. They see the value in making the office universal and equipping workforces to communicate in the office and on the road, she says.

“It’s true integration. It’s the integration of the full suite of communications tools in real-time into one single intuitive user interface, whether you are on a notebook PC, sitting at your desk or on a mobile device walking around. This is the technology that does that efficiently.

“In terms of the return on investment for the SME, it puts everything into one repository and you can be contactable and in touch via one device if you want – there’s no split between PC or mobile.

“Large organisations are using this in a big way, but to be honest it has huge benefits for SMEs in the same way, improving the way people and systems interact and collaborate. Putting all your communications into one single device like a smartphone, for example, makes it so much quicker, dynamic and efficient, and to become lean and efficient it is about improving effectiveness.

“You could accomplish more in a single click rather than picking up a phone or leaving voice message. Access to presence technology will tell you whether someone is available or unavailable. You can send messages over IM, click into an email or start a video conversation.

“Unified communications is convergence. All those technologies that used to sit aside from one another – phone systems, email, CRM, workflow – can all be accommodated in the one place to enable simpler collaboration, better customer service and, ultimately, providing a better service to your own business.”

Many firms are beginning to get rid of their old PBX systems and access unified communications as a managed service, Bradshaw adds.

“Why do you need these systems on premises? Can’t you go into the cloud?

“Unified communications provides a whole raft of different sets of return on investment – your business communicates better, your colleagues collaborate better and individuals become more efficient,” she says.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years