It's a truism, perhaps, that vendors sell unified communications but their customers buy cheaper phone calls. The start-up costs associated with moving to internet protocol (IP)-based telephony have long been a stumbling block. This has meant that the move is often delayed until a new private automated branch exchange (PABX) is needed for a new office, or an end-of-life PABX system needs to be replaced. But as travel costs increase, the prospect of connecting teams across multiple locations or supporting a mobile workforce may prove to be new drivers for unified communications technology. Australia has been tipped to spend $27.2 billion on communications technology in 2008, says research firm IDC. Interestingly, although vendors have, for some time, been touting the productivity benefits of IP-telephony features such as presence or click-to-talk, an IDC survey of Australian broadband and IP services usage released in February suggested that macro-economic growth inhibitors, including skills shortages, low unemployment and the increasing cost of travel, could be shifting the usage model for unified communications (UC) technology.
When asked about existing and intended use of IP value-added services, the results of the survey indicated that usage had shifted quite differently from the top two services nominated in 2006 - remote and teleworking, and storage access networks. In 2007, the top two services nominated were video conferencing and web conferencing.
While cheaper voice calls can lead to a measurable return on investment, so, too, can savings on travel. For this reason, perhaps, although vendors continue to tout presence, click-to-talk and other call functions as productivity drivers and time savers, it can be harder to push a business case past a board that cannot see a direct financial benefit.
While tactical click-to-talk applications can reduce connection times and dialing errors, it's difficult to build a case to put before the board based on this, says ¿Craig Neil, managing director of ¿NSC Technology, a converged communications integrator.
While desktop integration may increase organisational efficiency, very little return on investment can be achieved until you introduce conferencing and mobility.
Neil says that the costs of real estate, and the wish to support a mobile workforce, were helping to drive the uptake of mobility solutions within NSC's customer base.
Typically, these are not company-wide installations, but rather, are geared towards specific roles within organisations. "We're doing this within our own business. Our project managers and our professional services engineering staff spend around 80 per cent of their time on customer sites, and the rest of the time at home," Neil says.
Increasing property costs are making a compelling argument for hot desking and giving workers the option to work on the road, he says. "Of course you need the tools - a soft phone, mobile phone or BlackBerry. But usually, you'll be supplying those to a new employee anyway."
Last year, NSC established a satellite office in Sydney to act as a hot desking hub for its mobile workers, rather than expanding its main Sydney office at North Ryde. "We saved $250,000 by not expanding our office space in Sydney," Neil says. The hub has five pods and a meeting room.
The CBD office acts as a location to which its mobile workers have access and where they may have client meetings.
Neil says the nature of the work being done by his mobile workers meant he was not concerned about any inability to monitor their work. "All of these people within these roles are responsible for what they deliver. They are self-driven people, anyway."
He admits that IT companies are often quicker than others to embrace technology in the workforce, but says that one UC technology that is really breaking through in the wider business community is video conferencing. The savings on travel time and expenses are a demonstrable benefit, particularly for organisations with multiple offices. "It's really taking off, and I think the green side of it is driving it now as well."
As later generations of UC technology come to market, we are starting to see vendors make significant changes to features like presence to add automation and make it easier to use. Rich presence, also known as intelligent presence, is one such next generation feature, says IDC senior telecommunications analyst, David Cannon.
"Presence was only as good as the data you input," Cannon says. "If you were updating your presence as you went about your day, you got the benefits. But it was flawed in reality; are you using it to its full benefit?"
This refinement of traditional presence goes some way towards correcting the problem of users needing to manually input data to get the most out of the system. Intelligent presence allows the network to detect when users are working at the office computer and when they have moved away from it, in which case the system will begin to forward calls to their mobile, all without relying on users updating their location in the system. These kinds of features are being used by Wannon Water (see box) to allow mobile workers to work offsite while still taking calls as though they are in the office.
Another area where vendors are improving is on the integration side of things, Cannon says. "Vendors understand that a real pain point of UC is the reliance on the system integrator. They are trying to make it easier for a general administrator to implement, particularly in the small and medium-sized enterprise space. It won't grow in the SME space if it costs $100,000 to implement." Building a business case around value for money and return on investment is possibly even more important in the SME space, where business owners are often reluctant to invest in technology without a strong business case to decide it. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the drivers for UC in the small business arena remain firmly around voice over internet protocol and cost savings, rather than additional benefits like presence or mobility.
The Centre for Digestive Diseases (CDD), in Sydney's outer west, moved to its second generation of IP telephony not through choice, but because of what it says was failing hardware. The company is still involved in a legal dispute with the provider of its first IP telephony system, which it says provided poor quality hardware that couldn't sustain a quality phone system.
"We had poor call quality, we had calls dropping out. Just about every problem you could have, the system had," CDD's IT manager, Peter Tomsia, says.
But while CDD had a bad first experience with VoIP, the decision was made to try another IP-based solution, rather than to spend what would have worked out to be a comparable amount to return to a traditional PABX solution.
"PABX is outdated technology, and in this electronic environment it's so much easier to set up and manage than having a PABX technician have to come out to make changes. Plus, in two-and-a-half years it will be paid for," Tomsia says.
In choosing a second generation of IP telephony, he says that voice quality and reliability of the service was the priority.
A pool of about 30 staff manage CDD's incoming calls and bookings. "All of our bookings for our surgery and consultations are via telephone - we rely on this," he says.
To ensure that its second crack at IP telephony was more successful, Tomsia says CDD elected to replace the failed system with specialised hardware in which there was a layer of built-in redundancy. "The ShoreTel E1 switch manages the phone line, and we have an ISDN 10 line connected to that. The other switch is the management side for all the phones throughout the centre. On top of that you have a server that contains the management interface.
"If the server goes down, the switches will still maintain calls coming into the centre -the only thing you'd lose would be voicemail and autoattendant [part of the interactive voice response system]." CDD staff are making use of the advanced call features like "click-to-dial" to streamline calls. "Our reception is now carrying half the load it used to," he says.
But most staff do not need its remote access capabilities or the advanced call manager features, he says. In the two years since it has been using the ShoreTel system, the only upgrades CDD has installed are software patches - Centre staff are content with the call management features they have.
Organisations catering to workers with multiple sites are a more natural fit for the mobility features offered by UC. Specialist contracting firm John Holland Group recently upgraded from a basic voicemail service to a full UC platform from vendor IPFX. The company has 3000 staff working in specialities such as tunnelling and telecommunications at various sites.
John Holland Group's IT systems administrator, Tim Rollason, says the company was attracted by the ability to manage both its infrastructure and telephony applications through a single interface, via Lotus Notes. The solution was compatible with its existing Cisco network.
"The fact we were already working with IPFX on basic unified communications meant this decision was simply an extension of the relationship," Rollason says.
The IPFX solution comprises a single application that provides an IP private branch exchange, voicemail, unified messaging, call routing, presence, and real-time directory services.
The centralisation of its communications, including email, voicemail and fax, meant that staff could use the one interface to manage and prioritise communications.
Work away at Wannon Water
Wannon Water is a water authority operating in five catchment areas in south-west Victoria. As part of the state's second largest water authority, Wannon's 190 employees service over 70,000 people across 24,000 square kilometres, including the regional town of Warrnambool. The company was formed when three separate water utilities merged in 2005.
This January, Wannon Water replaced its three existing legacy PABX systems, centralising on a Nortel Communication Server 1000 IP telephony solution. This utilises the existing wide area network across its four regional offices and 21 regional sites. Nortel Business Communication Manager IP PBXs were installed in its smaller regional offices.
The migration to a VoIP solution allowed for centralised management and considerable cost savings on STD calls between offices, says Wannon's systems support officer, ¿John Parker. "We had over 20 sites connected into our wide area network, but staff were making STD calls between sites." The Nortel system has also allowed Wannon to create a virtual call centre environment, allowing staff at any of its sites to field calls to its 1300 WANNON phone line. The cost benefits were considerable. "We worked out that after four years it would pay itself off." The move to VoIP also meant that all sites are now compliant with call reporting requirements. "We have to do a certain amount of reporting on calls answered within 30 seconds, calls missed and calls received, but under the old system only one of our locations could comply," he says.
Having staff spread across a wide area, and with its records and geographic information systems teams working from the road a lot of the time, support for mobility and remote working was of particular interest to Wannon. It began trialling Microsoft Live Communication Server (LCS) shortly after the Nortel solution was installed in January, and will shortly stagger a full rollout across its network. It expects a considerable benefit in reduced travel time through using audio and video conferencing. "The main benefit is having people off the road. We have four main offices, each of those sites is separated by an average (distance) of 100 kilometres. So for meetings, people need to drive an hour each way," he says.
Another drawcard of LCS was its support for online collaboration. "While people can share documents by placing them on the central drive and working from the same document, usually people email a document to and fro and a new version ends up in their sent mail each time. We're hoping this method will reduced wasted storage space and increase productivity."
For the IT department, being able to troubleshoot problems for regional workers via the remote assistance feature was also a selling point of Microsoft Office Communicator (MOC).
"Remote access is a function that's within Windows, but it's typically hard to use," Parker says. MOC makes this process much simpler: "Instead of a two-hour drive, I can be in an IM [instant messaging] conversation, click on 'actions' at the top of the MOC client, and ask for remote assistance."
After a successful trial, field workers will also gain access to the UC functionality, including follow-me access to the network and portable extension numbers. "Using the software client on my notebook, I can go anywhere in the world and receive my desk calls," Parker says.
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