By Therese van Wyk
23 Jan 2012

Saying hello and asking a busy colleague a question can be easier at the water cooler: both of you are there and visible, and smartphone distractions aside, can talk to each other.

No cheap talk

To get two UC systems to talk, you can spend a lot of time on middleware and APIs, but cost may outweigh business benefit.

Away from the cooler, trying to get a decision or information from someone can be far more difficult. These days, one can play tag over SMS, Skype, instant messaging, e-mail, and several telephone numbers, losing time and one’s temper in short order.

But easily finding people on the channel they prefer, at the time you reach out, asking something and getting a response fairly quickly, whatever devices they’re using, is one of the major attractions of unified communications and collaboration (UC and C). One example of this is VOIP calling an international colleague, just by clicking on an e-mail, with UC presence information telling you he is available.

With consumer-grade UC tools colonising the workplace, and competing IT priorities, there are a few things to consider before migrating to corporate UC tools.

People-centric design

Businesses need to ensure their multiple communication channels are secure, says Dimension Data’s Bradley Bunch.

Corporate UC tools used to be affordable only to large enterprises. Predictably, smaller businesses and many corporates dived into a myriad of consumer tools such as Skype, Dropbox and Yammer, a Facebook equivalent for companies.

Lately, large UC solution providers have customised programs for SMEs, giving them access to the same corporate tools, including collaboration. There are some limitations on how big the product can scale for SMEs. For corporates, the price points have stayed the same.

In another UC shift, people don’t expect fixed-line call quality to be fantastic anymore, now that most are used to mobile calls. This creates an immediate cost saving in UC solution design, says Bradley Bunch, GM of Microsoft solutions for the Middle East and Africa at Dimension Data.

UC technology has also matured to the stage where the solution is not so dependent on design around infrastructure, which adds another cost saving, says Bunch.

The next big UC design consideration is company culture – how the company believes employees need to work, and how employees actually want to work. Far too few companies have a people-centric, rather than a tool-centric view of UC, but profiling users’ preferences helps for that.

Culture dictates whether people may work from home, whether the company virtualises the desktop, what operating systems are used, and what device brands (Apple for example) are included, as well as separating home and work data on personal devices. A call centre probably does require carrier-class voice quality for interaction with clients.

In addition, companies will need to ensure that connectivity to employees’ homes is improved beyond what 3G and shaped ADSL can offer: when talking to customers from home, employees still need a consistently acceptable connection. Or, they can use a consumer-level solution built on adaptive codecs, which can adjust itself to variable quality bandwidth during a call, for that last mile.

All this, says Bunch, determines how to make the UC solution enterprise-ready. There is also security to consider. “One needs to ensure that the multiple ways of working are secure.”

Not always so unified

As with any technology, some UC wrinkles still need ironing out. Most fundamental are the emerging standards.

Just say yes

If you don’t allow everything, employees will go work somewhere else.

“At the technical level, there is a quite lot to be done, for example, to improve UC between organisations,” says Stephen Davies, manager at Connection Telecom, a solution provider. “There is no agnostic standard that everyone can adhere to, so one gets a lowest-common-denominator effect when you work between organisations.”

“The collaboration on the front end might be there for a lot of the tools, but in the back-end it is disparate,” agrees Rob Sussman, joint CEO at managed services company Integr8. “Platforms with multiple tools don’t always plug together that well. To get two UC systems to talk, you can spend a lot of time on middleware and APIs, but cost may outweigh business benefit.”

It’s also useful to prune UC expectations, at least on Microsoft Lync, when an exec is reachable by mobile only and about to catch a flight.

“In reality, mobile is not as seamless as on the desktop, although the marketing says it is, notes Sussman. “That grey area where it’s not so smooth starts with the ability to cut a call over from fixed landline to GSM without dropping it. I think the telcos aren’t really ready for it yet, but network integrators and telcos will come together to enable those services at clients.”

Seamless UC does not necessarily mean impeccable voice calls either. Jitter due to latency is still part of the picture, says Sussman, but is completely acceptable these days.

Easy does it

Rob Sussman, Joint CEO, Integr8 Group

UC gives a return on investment in any sector and any industry, says Rob Sussman, Integr8.

For an SME, cost-effective UC means an Internet-accessible service. The business should not have to administer the solution on its own servers, says Davies. “It’s not much good to an SME if your communication is unified at your desk in the office, but becomes disjointed when you’re at a customer, out on the road, or at home.”

UC gives a return on investment (ROI) in any sector, any industry, maintains Sussman. “The ROI is not based on the number of users, it’s more about the size of the demand for applications, and the split between voice, video and data, whether it’s five or 5 000 users. Nowadays with not-perfect, but acceptable ADSL for small to medium businesses, with set monthly ADSL fees per month per site, UC is affordable to all business.”

Just rolling out wall-to-wall UC over a poor network infrastructure is the biggest mistake a business can make though, cautions Sussman. A phased infrastructure upgrade plan, based on the current network combined with the customer’s UC roadmap, allows a business evolve its network over time.

Affordable is still more money than letting employees use free consumer-grade UC. But persuading decision-makers to spend on UC can be done simply, says Bunch.

“Show them how it works – demonstrating a video conference is a slap in the face for most execs, because they all know how they lose 15 minutes of the hour they’ve booked, just trying to set up the call properly.”

What convinces people, says Bunch, is the ease of use, the intuition, the ‘it’s just so easy’, and that UC is not expensive. In the case of the Microsoft Lync UC solution, Bunch reckons it ‘comes in cheap’. Since it’s an integrated solution, one has to implement the full stack, which includes unified communication and collaboration as well as the Office business suite for each user.

‘Not expensive’ may still mean little when data centres and other IT priorities beckon, so Bunch was asked for a number. “For approximately R15 per day, the entire Microsoft Office suite as well as all the Microsoft Lync UC and C functionality, can be available to a user,” says Bunch. He calculates that rough cost estimate based on 264 workdays per year, excluding all other costs such as implementation, bandwidth, and UC-required upgrades to the network.

Whether such a UC solution is on-premise or in the cloud depends again on how people work. Local VOIP calls via the cloud may not be cost-effective. Using voice on a virtual desktop is a technical issue to address all on its own.

Because there are so many touch-points in a UC solution, a customer had better choose the solution provider carefully: a multitude of devices and work places have replaced the standard desktop PC and phone. The provider needs to understand your industry and business well, as well as UC technology.

To proceed with UC, a company needs to understand its employees first, design for their preferences and add some flexibility. For example, people often have distinct preferences for particular slate or tablet computers. “My view is, if you don’t allow everything, employees will go work somewhere else,” says Bunch. “A survey showed that a majority of graduates would not work in a company that doesn’t allow Facebook.”

Employees should prefer using company UC to reach that colleague who never visits the same water cooler.