Unified comms defeating the tyranny of distance


By Jonathan Nally
Monday, 14 December, 2015


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For enterprises whose operations span wide geographical areas with dispersed workforces, unified communications is the solution to many problems.

The ability to effectively communicate in a timely manner is essential to the efficient operation of any enterprise, large or small. And these days, of course, there are far more ways to communicate — landline phone calls are no longer dominant, and who sends snail mail anymore?

To get a feel for how modern communications are making a difference, we spoke with senior executives from three very different Australian organisations.

Unified comms to the rescue

WIRES is a not-for-profit native animal rescue organisation that operates in NSW. It has a volunteer base of 2500 people, about 1200 of whom are actively involved in rescues. In 2014, it received around 250,000 phone calls from members of the public, resulting in 69,000 rescues of injured, orphaned or sick native animals, some of which were brought into care for rehabilitation and then released.

Keeping track of that many volunteers working out of their own homes, plus a network of around 700 vets, is a large task — not made any easier by the manual processes WIRES used to have. When a call was received, WIRES staff would have to consult a series of spreadsheets to find an appropriate rescuer based on location, availability and training in dealing with different species.

“We’d reached a point where it had fallen over,” said Leanne Taylor, WIRES’ CEO. “We couldn’t physically make the number of calls we needed to, so there were these lengthy delays from when the call first came in about an animal to when we physically were able to reach someone that was available.”

Something had to change, so WIRES looked around at various solutions and settled on a unified comms system from xMatters.

“It’s a two-way technology that allows us to contact groups of people instantly across a range of devices, whatever they elect,” said Taylor. “They also get to choose how they want to engage with us and what kind of availability they have.”

That was another limitation of the previous system, where the people who wanted to volunteer also wanted to nominate their availability.

“To make changes to their availability on a daily basis across 1200 people was just not possible,” said Taylor. But with the xMatters system, “they can enter the details themselves — they can literally say, ‘I only want to be contacted on a Tuesday after 5 pm for these particular species’”.

The system pushes messages out to the volunteers via SMS, phone calls, email or smartphone app. “We’ve got about 40% of people using the app that they can download,” said Taylor.

“As they’ve become more familiar with the product, the feedback has been good — because I think the experience for them being a volunteer within WIRES has changed, because they’re now deciding how they’ll be contacted and when,” said Taylor. “So it takes away that pressure or obligation that they’ve got to be available all the time. This way, they’re only seeing the rescues that they’ve put themselves down for.

“I’m hoping — and we are starting to see this — to have much better retention of volunteers, because it’s a new way of them engaging with an organisation and doing what they’re passionate about.”

The sharing of ideas

Unified comms comes into its own when an organisation has a large geographic footprint, which is not an uncommon thing in the Australian context. One such organisation is the Catholic Diocese of Armidale, which covers a large portion of north-western New South Wales across a region totalling 91,500 square kilometres. The diocese encompasses 25 parishes, 24 schools and one university residential college. To improve its communications abilities, the diocese chose a video communications solution from Blue Jeans.

“Overcoming the tyranny of distance lay at the heart of our consideration for a unified comms solution — the time, safety and expense related to travel as well as the convenience to create and stage meetings in an ad hoc fashion as individual need arose,” said John Moloney, the diocese’s CIO and parish support manager. “Blue Jeans also is partnered with Telstra, which means billing is integrated with Telstra. Telstra’s underlying network infrastructure is also inherently collaborative.”

According to Moloney, the implementation was quite straightforward.

“Its implementation was as simple as us making the decision to use it,” he said. “The fact that it is vendor non-reliant means that, for our staff or clients, no meeting is missed due to the constraints of software platforms or hardware discrepancy and changeability.

“The fact that the Blue Jeans videoconferencing platform hosting is cloud based means that at points of connection where bandwidth is an issue this platform is able to make the best use of what is available.”

Moloney says there have been big savings in costs due to a reduced need for travel and accommodation.

“More clients, particularly within the mental health area, have been able to make use of face-to-face counselling that would otherwise not have occurred,” he said. “The ability to now have a greater frequency of training across the diocese has meant the entire diocese has become more united and integrated, leading to a greater cohesive state between both disperse locations and different agency segments.

“The sharing of ideas and insight is now faster and more relevant, as feedback and discussion is able to enhance ideas in an improved and rapid manner.”

Improved engagement

On the other side of the country, and facing an even larger geographical challenge, the WA Department of Child Protection and Family Support has introduced a videoconferencing (VC) solution from Polycom to improve its internal communications abilities.

Peter Harrison, the department’s head of infrastructure, says that one of the primary reasons was the need to reduce costs.

“The Department for Child Protection and Family Support has over 150 sites throughout Western Australia, some in very remote areas,” said Harrison. “As such, a significant amount of money was being spent on travel and accommodation costs when we needed to bring regional staff into Perth for important meetings, as well as for caseworker meetings, particularly with regard to our smaller offices in the regional areas.”

In order to alleviate cost pressures, videoconferencing was proposed as a means to improve communication and collaboration amongst staff between the department’s head office in Perth and its major regional offices, as well as within the regional areas themselves.

During the vendor selection process, a number of solutions were tested on the department’s data network, including PC-based software solutions and web-based solutions. The tests revealed that the Polycom-based solutions provided the best results and were most compatible with the department’s internal infrastructure.

“In addition, we also got field staff involved in the testing process, who concluded that the Polycom devices met business requirements to a high level,” said Harrison. “The Polycom units were the easiest to set up, deploy and operate. This is important in driving staff uptake of the technology.

“In terms of implementation, the process was relatively straightforward. The Polycom partner took care of everything and helped us through the process, including how we should communicate the operation and use of the technology with our staff to maximise the benefits from day one.”

As for uptake by staff, it “has been exponential, something we didn’t expect”, said Harrison. “Once users overcame the novelty of seeing themselves on video, they embraced the use of videoconferencing technology wholeheartedly. VC in some cases has become the de facto method of communication.

“While we had initially installed only 12 units, the number has now expanded to 65 room-based systems and over 100 desktop systems, which enables us to accommodate 45 concurrent conferences. In fact, we even had to add additional ports recently as we were regularly hitting the maximum number of conferences.”

Harrison says that since implementation, productivity, engagement and communication have improved significantly between head office and the regional areas. VC technology has also enabled the department to deliver more training sessions via video. While face-to-face trainings are still applied, the technology has reduced the need for hands-on training where a physical presence is actually required. “Prior to this, staff who required training only had the option of travelling to Perth for it,” said Harrison.

Some key unexpected benefits have included improved work-life balance for workers, as they no longer have to be away from their families for a business trip. Additionally, Harrison says staff have also experienced improved health and safety as well as fatigue management, given that they no longer need to drive long distances in remote areas.

“In summary, VC has become an essential technology used by all areas of the department for a myriad of uses. We are now able to communicate better internally and with our partner agencies to provide the best outcome for the protection of children across Western Australia.”

Image credit: ©Nmedia/Dollar Photo Club

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