The benefits of taking unified communications mobile.
Unified communications (UC) is often viewed as an office-based technology. Because UC is founded on VoIP, and VoIP is increasingly replacing legacy PBX systems, there is an associated preconception to think in legacy PBX terms, with one box (or server) routing voice calls to extensions throughout a building.
But this is the age of agnostic networking.
Packets don’t care if they run over Ethernet, Wi-Fi, LTE, or anything else. They also don’t care if they’re voice packets, video, or text. As such, it’s imperative to view UC as a mobility solution as much as a productivity and collaboration tool for desk workers. In an increasing number of cases, it can pay to not distinguish mobile from desktop UC at all.
Joe Schurman, UC strategy consultant and former founder/CEO of Evangelyze Communications, points to “simultaneous ring” as one obvious way in which UC now blurs the line between mobility and office communications. In the PBX model, “follow me” ringing was the norm, wherein a desk phone might ring first, then fail over to a second phone when no one picked up, and then perhaps to a cell number, and then, at extra long last, to voice mail. This was as inefficient as it was frustrating for callers. However, IP-enabled simultaneous ring merely rings every line associated with the user at once, and whichever line picks up gets connected, regardless of client device type.
Schurman points to Microsoft Lync as one platform that makes ultramobile UC a particularly rich experience.
“Out-of-the-box features, like remote user access, allow Lync users to access all of these awesome features from any location outside the firewall,” he says. “Also included is control of your incoming calls. If I miss a call, I receive a missed call notification via email and in Lync [via instant message], and if the caller leaves a voicemail message, I receive a notification for that, as well. Leveraging Microsoft Exchange Unified Messaging, I receive an email message with the voicemail attachment and preview of the message in the message body—awesome. And unlike other UM systems out there, when I play the message or delete the message, the entire system synchronizes, so I don’t have to go back to my office phone and play and/or delete the message there, which is annoying and archaic. I can even call into my Microsoft Exchange Server and retrieve email, calendar, and voicemail messages, making changes to each directly using my voice over the phone.”
Mobile UC: Beyond The Box
Such extras often allow existing line of business functions to go mobile. For example, the ice UC call center platform from Canadian provider Computer Talk Technologies dovetails with Microsoft Lync and can allow “one” voice- and chat-based call center to be distributed all over the world while still being centrally managed from a single management console. This allows for lower overhead (reduction or elimination of physical call center facilities), higher employee morale (they can work closer to or in their own homes), and usually lower total costs compared to equivalent non-UC solutions.
Traditionally, when employees left the office, they became largely invisible. Now, IM presence reveals their status almost as well as a peek around the cubicle wall—sometimes even better when that presence links into a shared calendar system. This allows colleagues to engage in more natural collaboration more often and removes some of the inefficiencies often caused by geographic separation.
With a properly equipped mobile device, a UC-enabled mobile worker can start conferences, schedule meetings, co-edit shared documents, and much more from practically anywhere.
“One of our kind of early flagship success stories was a retail organization,” says Evangelyze's Schurman. “They had internal people in their accounting department and a mobile sales force. This client said their biggest problem was their sales force would call in about orders they thought were messed up or improperly shipped, and with UC these very separate groups could be looking at the same order at the same time."
"They weren’t trying to co-surf separately, he adds. "Even more important, the solution took off for this client because these two groups of people, one highly mobile and one desk bound, were able to use a consistent and easy to use tool with the same experience no matter where they were. If the sales people happen to be in the office sitting down, they had that tool set. When they went traveling outside, they had that tool set. It’s the consistency and ease of use value that really made that mobility story.”
Quality And Caveats: UC Moblity
It’s important to remember that mobile does not necessarily mean wireless. As in the case of a distributed call center, workers may move fluidly between offices, and unified communications (UC) systems should be able to deliver similar experiences across these differing environments.
As a result, one of the first things a company should examine is the quality of the connection and environment in predictable, repeating employee locations, such as a home office. In general, a cable or even DSL connection should support a satisfactory suite of UC functionality, including video, at about 1.5 Mbps or above.
However, in cases when video will be used for business, it’s important to assess not the average networking throughput to the client device(s) but the minimum throughput, as this will determine whether video will suffer from stuttering and dropped frames. Companies may need to invest in higher quality client adapters and better router/access point equipment in order to ensure adequate performance levels. (See our feature, Why Your Workplace Wi-Fi Struggles at http://bit.ly/H5DyuF for more on this.)
Another concern with mobile UC is making assumptions about mobile application functionality. For example, an application that users enjoy on desktop platforms might rely on right-click menu functionality, but on a tablet there is no right-side button to click. This could put a crimp in collaboration situations in which mobile users find themselves unable to match the editing and creation functions being performed by their colleagues. Thus it’s important for managers to trial trial shared applications in mobile UC deployments, especially when those apps are being run across multiple client types.
These are not insurmountable issues by any stretch. They mostly require an emphasis on advance planning and consultation with UC vendors and service providers. With this diligence done, UC can play a tremendously positive role in companies and transform the effectiveness of their mobile forces.
“We like to think not so much about the impact on the end user but the impact on the business itself in terms of how it can pull latency out of the business process by bringing people together,” says Allan Mendelsohn, Director of Unified Communications Solutions Marketing at Avaya. “That’s where we define unified communications and collaboration as bringing together the right people with the right information to deliver business results in real time. It’s how we use unified communications to orchestrate and facilitate how that’s going to happen.”