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Untangling your communications

Untangling your communicationsDespite the chatter around unified comms, viagra many offices are still tangled up in traditional landlines. David Braue investigates whether it is time to answer the call.

Like any company working in project management, everyday life at the Communications Design and Management (CDM) office is a hotbed of activity. Projects are managed from offices in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra – each with around 50 staff who spend more time at client sites than they do at their own.

“Some people start here, come in for orientation day, and then I never see them again,” laughs IT manager Adam Merretz, into whose lap recently fell the responsibility for developing a new strategy for the company’s communications systems.

Merretz wanted to simplify communications between the company’s four offices and help staff stay in touch from the field. It wasn’t long before he realised it was time to upgrade to unified communications (UC), a collective name for a fast-growing category of software that is revolutionising the way employees collaborate.

What is Unified Communications?

UC typically includes systems for providing several capabilities including voice over IP (VoIP) phone calls, email, unified messaging, instant messaging, contact management, and conferencing via the web, video, and audio. If VoIP was about changing phone communications, UC brings every other form of online communication together under a single umbrella.

Even amongst sceptics – Merretz admits he was one, initially – UC quickly proves its worth as employees find themselves rapidly adapting their work practices to take advantage of its capabilities. This ranges from simple things – being able to use presence information to see whether a colleague is on the phone or out of the office – to receipt and management of voicemails as emails and sophisticated multipoint video-conferencing.

Within months of implementing the new system, CDM employees were communicating more actively, more frequently, and more effectively with colleagues around the country.

“The guys are using video conferencing between branches, and we get the ability to meet some people we would never meet in person. Teams now have the ability to see each other face-to-face, and even little things like sending voicemails into email inboxes are helping the business become more productive,” explains Merretz.

Although you’ve probably used Skype to make VoIP and video calls, today’s UC solutions offer more features, and better integration with the rest of your business. Skype still exists in a different sphere to your internal office communications. For example, employees need to maintain separate phone directories in Skype, on their mobiles, in their office phones and in their email environment.

UC connects all these working spheres together, allowing each employee to maintain one directory that’s accessible from whatever device they may be using at any given time. Receive an email in Outlook, and the system will look up the sender’s phone number and let you call them with one click. Get a new voicemail or fax, and it will appear in your inbox as an email message that can be read, listened to or replied to from wherever you are.

The business case

One big challenge for small businesses is many of the benefits of UC are hard to quantify. For companies still working from monolithic PABXs, simply modernising can make life easier.

Better still, costs for the upgrade are more manageable than ever. Small businesses may enjoy hosted telephony and UC offerings that can provide everything you need for a flat rate per month, per user. That approach lets you convert telecommunications expenses from capital expenditure to operating expenditure, and simplifies financial forecasts with a UC solution that your business can use for as much or as little as you care to do with it.

Justifying a UC investment – even a simple one – becomes easier still when it’s part of a natural business expansion or restructuring. Moving to a new site, adding another site, or simply starting up a new business are all triggers that require reconsideration of telecommunications strategies. Ensuring that new strategies include access to UC capabilities is a smart move given how quickly today’s businesses are changing.

Less is more

That doesn’t mean you have to take the whole kit and caboodle. A lighter, hosted UC solution from ShoreTel, for example, recently proved to be just the right medicine for Airlie Women’s Clinic, a Melbourne-based general practice with 16 full-time doctors seeing around 300 patients per day.

In the past, the clinic had three dedicated secretaries answering phones, rushing to keep up with nearly 800 calls per day using an aging Commander PABX that was loud and clumsy. Since there was no automatic answering system, calls had to be picked up and patients put on hold while staff jumped from one PABX line to another.

When the clinic opened a second building 400 metres away, it was time to reconsider things, and a VoIP-based UC environment was the perfect fit. Calls come across 16 phone lines into the site, but are handled across the company network as data traffic. Receptionists answer calls by clicking on their computers and talking into wireless headsets that have replaced desk phones.

The clinic is now a much calmer environment, where patients can hear the radio playing across the building. More importantly, the clinic has cut back its secretarial support. Now, just a couple of full-time employees can handle the same volume of calls that used to keep three staff members in harried disarray.

Although many companies know what they want from UC, not all know how to get it – or what to do with it when they do. Issues like network bandwidth must be carefully monitored to make sure the new capabilities don’t jam up the company network, especially when it comes to mobile employees connecting via wireless or secure virtual private networks (VPNs), which may not offer good enough quality of service to deliver a smooth experience.

While many small businesses are looking into UC, it’s important to do your research before you start talking with vendors. Many providers have latched onto the label ‘unified communications’ without offering a fully-fledged solution, and there is strong pressure to favour incumbent brands even if they don’t offer the broadest set of capabilities.

Be realistic about UC: if your company doesn’t have IT staff or a good relationship with a reseller, you’ll need to make sure you have the skills to implement it and the user acceptance necessary to make it work. Depending on your needs, you may even find that Skype remains a more than adequate communications platform.

Indeed, if there’s a lesson in UC, it’s that the technologies are about more than just the next version of the dialtone: UC is a set of tools that can, if appropriately applied, change the way the business operates and help employees build project teams regardless of technological or geographical boundaries. The benefits are there to be had; the key is to evaluate the business case and identify the right time to answer UC’s call.

Image credit: Thinkstock

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