02 Oct 2012
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Unified comms has to be simple, stupid

By Donovan Jackson

The ability to communicate via any one of a variety of modes, or a combination of them, is one thing. Making that simple and convenient for the user is another.

The success of Unified Communications in the enterprise rests on the ability for solution providers to create an appealing user experience akin to the one we enjoy on our smartphones: simple, easy and reliable.

Donovan Jackson examines the issues in a four-part feature.

Take a quick look at your smartphone: That’s a unified communications device right there, capable of voice, video, email, text and data communication.

While readily accepted by consumers, unified communication (UC) in the enterprise is a slightly different kettle of fish – and that’s largely owing to the complexity which comes with scale. But what remains consistent regardless of where UC is introduced is the necessity for convenience and ease of use which individuals have come to expect from modern technology.

According to Polycom NZ MD Gary Denman, UC is driven to some extent by the consumerisation of IT.

“Bring your own device [BYOD] has a huge impact as these mobile devices and the ‘micro app’ model makes technology accessible to a broad audience," he says.

"That has an impact on corporate IT; the technology we have at home is at least as amazing as that which we have at work.”

Where UC is concerned, this means the mass market is applying the concept in their daily lives, even if they don’t call it that.

“Certainly, the availability of all these modes is changing the way people communicate. And they want to communicate in the same way when they are at work,” says Denman.

Of course, for the corporate CIO or the individual controlling the purse strings, providing fun and engaging communication to the end user isn’t as much a driver as is achieving benefits which bolster the bottom line.

But Denman believes those benefits are becoming apparent. “New Zealand is a developing market for the true integration of all types of communications mediums into a central environment,” he says.

Describing a ‘surge of momentum’, Denman says the first phase is the introduction of presence and instant messenger systems. He also says that in the early years, finding a direct business benefit could be tricky, “but when you switch it [UC] off, that’s when the business case will be apparent.”

The ability to communicate via any one of a variety of modes, or a combination of them, is one thing. Making that simple and convenient for the user is another.

The success of Unified Communications in the enterprise rests on the ability for solution providers to create an appealing user experience akin to the one we enjoy on our smartphones: simple, easy and reliable.

Donovan Jackson examines the issues in a four-part feature.

Barely barriers to entry

Combining all modes of communication into a single device doesn’t have to be expensive; smartphones have driven that point home squarely. But what about scale – whether for tens of users in a small business, or thousands in a bigger enterprise? Igor Portugal, CEO of Vadacom says the barriers to entry have all but disappeared.

“Seven years ago, there were big issues in terms of how to get voice and video on to the IP network. Today, connectivity is far less of an issue; it is possible to provide a solution regardless of the connectivity provider,” he states.

Indeed, Portugal believes just about any business can take advantage of UC; “There is no reason why you couldn’t have a business case for it; if you want UC, you can get it. That of course does depend on the type of business you’re running – if there is no benefit, then naturally, it would not make sense to spend money on it.”

Where Portugal sees a major advantage for such systems is in their ability to seamlessly connect remote workers to the office.

“This works for all kinds of organisations, from call centres which can employ home-based agents, to large corporations which might want to provide flexible working arrangements, such as for executives who are also new mothers,” he explains.

The ability to communicate via any one of a variety of modes, or a combination of them, is one thing. Making that simple and convenient for the user is another.

The success of Unified Communications in the enterprise rests on the ability for solution providers to create an appealing user experience akin to the one we enjoy on our smartphones: simple, easy and reliable.

Donovan Jackson examines the issues in a four-part feature.

Hello video

Voice, text and email communications are hardly revolutionary; we’ve used them for years, either independently or in various combinations.

Video is somewhat newer, although most individuals are more comfortable using video communications with people they know (privately) rather than in a business context, agrees Tony Warhurst, managing director of Aastra.

“There is some resistance to video and there is some pushback [from IT managers] with the bandwidth required when used at scale,” he says.

While compression deals to the bandwidth issue, there is something more fundamental which underpins user acceptance. That something is the ease of use with which we are all familiar, thanks to our smartphones.

“People who have to book rooms and set up video conference calls will tend to not use the facilities, says Warhurst.

"In some cases, these facilities cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up, but go unused for months.

"And then when the time comes to use it, nobody can remember how."

Denman says the market is in effect waiting for a ‘video dial tone’ which will move video to a commonality associated with voice communication.

The concept of the video dial tone is significant because it implies the interoperability which is associated with the good old telephone: it doesn’t matter which company made the Customer Premises Equipment (CPE), it all works together without any trouble.

Achieving that, says Denman, will negate the ‘tyranny of distance’ to allow immediate and effective interpersonal communication from the desktop.

The ability to communicate via any one of a variety of modes, or a combination of them, is one thing. Making that simple and convenient for the user is another.

The success of Unified Communications in the enterprise rests on the ability for solution providers to create an appealing user experience akin to the one we enjoy on our smartphones: simple, easy and reliable.

Donovan Jackson examines the issues in a four-part feature.

The power of presence

Microsoft solutions specialist Paul Dolley says presence is a big deal. While Denman has introduced the concept of the video dial tone, Dolley says presence is the pervasive dial tone of UC.

He explains why: “Regardless of the communication mode which is being used, it is all based around presence.

"That shows whether the person you’re contacting is online or offline, what their calendar indicates they are busy with, whether they should be contacted on their mobile or their office devices.”

Presence, says Dolley, provides for making informed choices when communicating – and that, he says, adds a lot of value in the enterprise.

“It’s the 21st century dial tone; with presence, it is no longer about contacting devices and hoping to get hold of people, it is now a people-centric model.”

UC, continues Dolley, is about a lot more than just convenience.

“Yes, there is a good deal of that which is appealing, but it should also solve business issues, especially in terms of ‘lost’ or ‘dead’ communications," he says.

"Used properly, for example, UC results in voicemail going down by 70%, because when communication is initiated with presence as a guide, it tends to be successful more often.”

Ease of use is the ultimate test

What is clear across the concept of UC is that the tools provided at work have to be at least as good as those we al use on our personal devices. It is a big ask, since ‘one to one’ communication is far less complex than managing multiple users.

There is also the attendant overhead of security and performance for companies, which is not much of an issue for consumers (if FaceTime or Skype connects poorly, it is no big deal).

While convenience isn’t seen as a business case for unified communications, Aastra’s Warhurst says it is nevertheless critical if people are to adopt and use their UC solutions on the job.

“It’s actually all about convenience," he says.

"If the UC solution you put in is not easy and convenient to use, it does not work. It is as simple as that.”

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