It is Tuesday morning at work. You are also on a tropical beach, with the sun beating down, and the rhythmic advance of the waves massaging the soft white sand. You have been reading a report. Your handset bleeps -- you put your drink down, and connect to colleagues and clients, dialling in from all around the world. While on the concall, the manager IMs the client’s desires, enabling you to speak better on the fly, impressing the customer – hopefully -- with your flexibility and foresight.
Adopting virtual meeting environments that help users collaborate with internal and external contacts is becoming easier. CRN’s roundtable, ‘Unified we stand’, sponsored by Plantronics, found that more companies are looking at unifying their communications – combining technologies from IM to email, voice and video calls to remote network access for anywhere, any time collaboration.
Roundtable participants agreed that harnessing unified communications (UC) can slash business travel bills. Even when people are far away from the office, they can team up, working wherever necessary. After decades, the infrastructure, interoperability and integration of communications hardware, software and services is catching up – and UC is heading for prime time.
Paul Clark, UK and Ireland general manager at Plantronics, agreed that flexible working is a major driver for UC currently. Deployments can also be fitted into many organisations’ longer-term strategy, rather than simply being a basic tactical purchase – all of which is good news for the reseller, especially in tougher times.
“When we talk to our customers, it is usually about end points. But at the moment, what we are seeing is more dispersed collaboration. We are seeing people untethering from desks to work anywhere, and at the times that suit them. It is a move to smarter working practices,” Clark said.
“That’s how you get some real bottom-line savings. People are using our headset technology, on the road, in hotel rooms, and when working from home, for instance.”
Plantronics last year surveyed 1,518 office workers and managers about remote working. It found that 57 per cent of UK office managers would be more likely to allow their employees to work flexibly, despite the recession. Just eight per cent of UK office managers asked said they would be a lot less likely to encourage flexible working during the economic crisis.
Some say flexible working makes more work for those left in the office. However, 75 per cent of respondents said they did not have greater workloads as a result of flexible working.
Flexible working can also help organisations retain quality staff. A May survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers of 1,167 UK based professionals – “Managing tomorrow’s people” -- found that flexible working arrangements were the most important workplace benefit, according to 47 per cent of respondents. Performance-related bonuses came in second, with 19 per cent opting for bonuses as most important.
Expansion in a time of cuts
Things are certainly changing. Chris Nunn, line of business manager for converged communications at integrator Dimension Data, said there are other drivers, such as building better customer and peer relationships generally – and the UC market has expanded and diversified.
Today, DiData works with all sorts of vendors in the UC space, putting more towards consultancy and services-led offerings -- rather than resales of kit from Cisco and the like. There have been salvos from non-traditional players such as Google, Skype, and Salesforce.com as well. All of which, Nunn said, have opened up the market – after the traditional long fanfare -- to a point where business users genuinely want and expect to be able to collaborate anywhere, any time.
“Whether this is really the year UC really takes hold, who knows?” Nunn added. “But [UC] is about, for example, how [customers] can get more manageable relationships with their customers -- talking to them three times a month, instead of once.”
Brian Condron, business development manager for unified communications solutions at Kcom Group, pointed out that the challenge for UC – as in so many parts of the IT industry these days -- is about tailoring the offering to the customer, rather than simply selling ‘UC technology’. And in that area, more work is needed from the industry.
“It has to be about what it does for the customer, rather than what it is,” he said. “[UC] might now fit well into IT, but in terms of trying to generate budget and traction, that is still to come.”
Kcom Group recently designed and installed a complete UC solution, incorporating fully converged voice and data, for Lloyds TSB’s corporate markets arm. The bank was looking to consolidate its corporate-facing businesses ahead of moving 1,100 staff – including 200 traders – into new City premises.
According to Kcom, since duplication of administrative tasks and systems has been removed, Lloyds is getting massive time and cost savings and complex time-dependent customer relationships, as well as cross-selling opportunities, are benefiting.
Condron noted that success often comes down to the culture of an organisation. If they do what they have always done, they will get what they have always got. They have to be taught how to understand that, and then learn how to import converged communications into the business such that it fits into and enhances a process.
Richard Ellis, director of unified communications at integrator 2e2, said the focus does need to be more on how IT can improve a customer’s business – many if not most customers tend to see IT as a cost centre that should be cut as much as possible, because saving money is being seen as increasingly important.
“However, we have got new capabilities now that can be delivered to users – which is not something they yet understand,” he said. “UC is about enabling people to work better together.”
UC can enable customers to cross the gulf between expectation and fulfilment faster, especially when processes have been highly automated – which is being seen increasingly in an overall business drive to cut costs. And the channel is crucial, partly because so many vendors are designing products with lock-in, Ellis said.
Adrian Sturdy, senior unified communications specialist at POSTcti, said its client Salford City Council specifically sought a route to what it calls agile working, that will enable it to move more quickly and efficiently while keeping productivity high and serving customers better.
“Since the snow back in February, when nobody could get into work, they have embraced UC, because then they saw 92 per cent able to work as a result of deploying UC,” Sturdy said. “With no UC, they would expect only 15 per cent to make it [into the office].”
Sturdy added that POSTcti has seen UC demand expand across the public sector – not just from local government, but from the NHS, and education, such as at Huddersfield Uni.
“They [departments] now have shared working groups, and are using Microsoft Live Meeting to hire people, [for example],” he said. “When they have ‘war room’ exercises, they can collaborate. It creates access to all these silos of information that people have, and is giving them an easy-to-use front end.”
Savings from UC in certain NHS projects – for example, ones getting the UK’s 44,000 GPs to collaborate – may amount to billions of pounds, according to Sturdy.
Paul Dunne, head of channels in the UK and Ireland at Plantronics, said organisations such as big pharmaceutical companies are definitely getting tangible bottom-line benefits from improved, unified collaboration. For instance, UC can help pharma firms apply for patents more quickly – commercialising new drugs is an area where he who hesitates is easily lost, as competition is so fierce.
“Say you have a patent, you will have only ‘x’ amount of time to get to market, from centres of excellence based all around the world,” he said.
And since UC technology is so diverse, really no one vendor can provide the kind of UC that customers really want – flexible, interoperable, scaleable, and affordable. Channel services and solution providers must take the fight to the plethora of potential UC customers, said Dunne.
End points as crucial link
Dunne said Plantronics’ role as a headset manufacturer was primarily to ensure its technology functions as a pivotal link in a UC system, no matter how geographically dispersed the infrastructure. Getting the end points right is a stepping stone to the adoption and success of UC technology.
“If the end point doesn’t work, the view of the technology goes down,” Dunne said.
POSTcti’s Sturdy said that was also his experience. “When you talk to customers about a UC or collaborative solution, you need to talk about the end point as one of the very first things,” he said. “If they have a bad experience and are not using a specific end point, you can’t direct the quality of the experience. And then you can’t help them through the actual solution.”
UC, it would appear, is on the rise. But for real success, the smart reseller needs to go beyond implementing individual technologies to consider the whole solution and how it helps the business. If things go right, we may see you on the beach.
Top tips for successful UC
Managed services provider Intact Integrated Services (IIS) recently defined eight pointers for UC projects
1. Don't underestimate your customer's existing comms culture -- It's important to understand exactly how its staff communicate with their customers, and each other, before determining their ideal UC infrastructure
2. Get some UC project champions on board -- Any next-generation communications project will inevitably mean change, so you must have some key users in position to accelerate employee acceptance and support the project through a tough implementation
3. Prepare the environment -- Get some of the core building blocks in place, get a single authoritative directory of contacts, make sure it will be able to support the customer’s corporate IM, that the PCs all have the right specs for new UC software, and that they have got the right bandwidth and quality of service to support their network
4. Make the right architecture choices -- Are you going to go for a distributed or a centralised architecture? Many UC technology solutions rely on real-time protocols and that can place serious demands on the customer’s network
5. Assess their security requirements –- Services-oriented architecture (SOA) is a great integration approach, but when applications are asked to integrate in ways they never have before, serious security issues will need addressing right from the start. You have got to use all the customer’s existing security functionality, and have the same standards in place for staff working remotely
6. Find ways to maximise enterprise integration -- Explore every opportunity to connect the customer’s UC-enabled contact centre with all other parts of the business that have customer touch-points 7. Get good project management -- UC programmes can affect many parts of the organisation. Use a serious project management methodology such as Prince2 to ensure you can take advantage of all the processes, tools, templates and technologies that can help. Also consider adopting relevant ISO standards or ITIL initiatives. Done wrong, UC can easily derail hard-earned customer certifications.
8. Don't overlook support infrastructure -- Any UC project depends on its ongoing stability. Insist on contact centre SLAs, think about 24x7 support, have third-level support in place, and seek out remote management and reporting apps
Tony Butler, chief technology officer at IIS, said: “We are seeing an increasing number of organisations investing in technologies such as UC so they can be even more competitive as the recovery gathers momentum. However, UC projects are still extremely challenging, and for many organisations there are considerable risks in taking on such potentially complex projects.”
2e2 01635 568 000
Dimension Data 01928 793 100
Kcom Group 08009 155 226
Plantronics 01793 842 200
POSTcti 01423 534 560
MSP plans to use new acquisition to expand its security offerings
Reseller also saw its operating profit fall five per cent in its financial 2017
Wendy Bahr to bring 18-year spell at networking giant to an end
AdEPT says latest purchase will push revenue beyond £50m