The first examples of using the internet to make telephone calls date back to the mid-1990s. However, only recently has the technology reached the level of maturity where companies can combine telephone, internet and computing functions into a single package. "We first looked at IP [internet protocol] telephony about seven years ago, but the technology just wasn't reliable enough to implement,"
explains the chief information officer for Melbourne receivables-management group Recoveries Corporation, Mario Anders.
"What happened in the interim is that we had grown considerably, and had to manage communications out to branch offices, and at the same time the internet telephone applications we'd first looked had been expanded to include a lot of other desktop-software applications."
The motivation for Anders to set up telephone calls over the internet lay in substantial reductions in capital expenditure and operating costs associated with establishing new offices, and managing many existing offices. However, he soon realised that the new generation of unified communications systems provide far more than an internet-based phone service.
In the seven years since Anders last considered an internet-based telephony service, not only has the technology come of age as a reliable voice carrier, but it also includes various new productivity tools. IP telephony has morphed into unified communications, and what had at first been just a cheeky way to save on the phone bill has become a compelling business software package.
"We've got four different offices, and we were having difficulties maintaining a switchboard across the company due to absenteeism and holidays in different states," Anders says. "However, by switching over not just to IP telephony, but to a fully unified communications system, we've defeated telephone tag."
"The switchboard can always see who's at their desk, and whether they are on the phone, so they can switch customers straight through to someone who can handle the call immediately."
After sending out a request for tender, Recoveries instituted a unified communications system from NEC over three weekends in October 2007. "We switched from the PBX to the unified communications package to save on cost, having software phones on the desktops allowed us to replace a $700 handset with a $100 headset per desk, and it's less costly in terms of cabling because we only run the internet cabling to each desk," Anders says.
"The real savings are occurring in terms of increasing the productivity and functionality of the business. Working from home is the real value creator for us - people don't need to be in at work, they just need to log onto their laptop, and they can take calls wherever they are."
Using the internet as the backbone, unified communications can also benefit global corporations, such as listed health-care-management software provider IBA Health.
When IBA Health took over the United Kingdom health-care technology provider iSoft in late 2007, newly appointed chief information officer Martin Wilkinson needed to figure out how to connect 4000 staff in 35 countries.
"As soon as the acquisition was announced, we began looking for a global communications network supplier; we needed to rationalise the communications infrastructure, and needed to enable the staff to travel around the world without having to reconfigure their PC for every different office they arrived at," Wilkinson says.
The same system that provides staff with the ability to take their phone number with them as they travel around the world also provides access to productivity-enhancing technologies such as web conferencing and instant messaging, making it easier for IBA Health to consolidate its acquisition rapidly.
"Everyone talks about cost savings being the main driver behind unified communications, but I really think it's justifiable based on the improved communication outcomes," Wilkinson says.
"Being able to see who's on the phone and who's not and being able to see people in different countries as we participate in a video conference all adds to our capacity to elicit contributions from staff in different countries, and helps them feel they are really part of the business."
Wilkinson is gradually establishing the communications infrastructure on a country-by-country basis, improving management and saving on communications costs as the project progresses.
"We've been very selective in term of rolling it out to different offices around the world; it's very powerful in terms of integrating offices into the company and getting staff to work together more efficiently," he says.
"We're not fully down the road in terms of the cultural change, we're still working with the issue, people are still wanting to send an email rather than having a conversation, but we're working towards it."
Cool change - how to integrate new ways to communicate Despite the potential for huge savings in operational costs, many unified communications projects do not deliver their full benefits by failing to integrate new modes of communication into business practices. With unified communications projects in 50 countries, Verizon Business suggests potential adopters review the following checklist:
• Invest in advanced internet protocol networks - flexible and expansive IP networks serve as the foundation of a successful unified communications deployment.
• Inventory technology and human resources - departments should perform skills-based assessments of technical staff to pinpoint possible new recruits and individuals requiring additional training.
• Establish a benchmark for success - survey corporate end users to understand their needs and willingness to embrace change, understand their requirements and develop profiles covering main functional areas.
• Create a comprehensive road map - develop a plan covering technology and finances, as well as detailed deployment and implementation.
• Maximise impact on business processes - integrate presence and automation capabilities to optimise productivity, streamline customer service, product development and human-resource activities.
• Tackle security at the onset - the network should offer quality-of-service capabilities and sound security measures.
• Determine capabilities for continuous management - only select in-house management if the relevant skills and experience exists within the organisation.
• Develop support systems and processes - corporate help-desk staff must be prepared to deal with end-user performance issues and questions; automated processes will reduce demands on help-desk personnel and improve response times.
• Train and educate end users - develop online training modules to help users adopt and embrace these new tools so they can work more efficiently and productively.
• Measure and modify - build success milestones into the deployment plan.
Source: Verizon Business
Sidebar: Evolution of internet voice technology
Fourteen years after the first internet-based telephone was released by Israeli software vendor VocalTec, the technology that enables phone calls to be made over the internet is finally reliable and affordable enough to replace conventional private-branch exchange or PBX phone systems.
As server technology and computer networks were broadly introduced to the corporate sector during the late 1990s, the idea of using software to run voice over these networks became popular, but early adopters often found the technology costly and unreliable.
Sending data back and forth over networked connections led to substantial productivity improvements. However, sending voice over those same systems proved more complex than initially envisaged.
Problems emerged mainly because of the nature of internet protocols that divide large amounts of data into smaller portions called "packets".
These packets are broken up and sent from one point to another in no particular order. When they arrive at their destination they are reconfigured into the right order before they are finally delivered to the intended recipient.
With email, it doesn't really matter what order the packets arrive in, or whether or not a part of the message arrives faster or slower, because all the different pieces can be reassembled without damaging the message.
Using internet protocols to send voice proved more difficult because the packets of voice data need to be sent quickly and in a specific order. If any packets are lost or arrived milliseconds late, the person receiving the phone call would experience brief silences, making it impossible to understand what was being said.
To send voice signals over internet connections reliably, the voice messages must be given priority, so as not to become jumbled up with other internet traffic.
At the same time as the internet telephony vendors were resolving what are known as quality-of-service issues, a set of communications tools was also evolving.
Instant messaging, collaboration suites and mobile technologies are now combined in a single suite of communication tools, generally referred to as "unified communications".
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