How to ensure a smoother unified communications deployment

By Graeme Gherbaz*, Managing Director, Plantronics Australia and NZ
Thursday, 05 April, 2012

How to ensure a smoother unified communications deployment

Implementing any kind of company-wide system has the potential to be a dramatic success or a dismal failure, and unified communications is no exception. Taking a structured approach can mean the difference between a dream deployment and a communications calamity.

Accessible and resilient lines of communication are critical to any organisation regardless of size or purpose. Increasingly, businesses worldwide are focusing on unified communications (UC) as the future of how we negotiate, share information, collaborate and socialise with one another.

At the most basic level, a UC approach unifies the many communications tools we use including instant messaging, email, voice, video, conference calls and desktop sharing into a single tool, and in doing so, makes communication simple. With the addition of ‘presence’, which is the ability to know when someone is available, in a meeting or offline, businesses can make it easier for employees to stay connected with one another when and where it is easiest to be contacted. In taking these many disparate channels and weaving them into a unified system, it does away with the frictions of managing each of these channels individually.

Its goal may be simplicity, but the actual implementation of UC solutions can be highly complex. IT professionals need to create a technical solution which incorporates and links existing communication channels, while also sourcing feedback from end users within the business throughout the deployment process. UC solutions usually require new hardware and software for all levels of the business, ranging from end-user audio and visual equipment, such as headsets and webcams, to server-level software to optimise and prioritise bandwidth across the business’s network. An effective UC strategy can be complicated to roll out and maintain, so what is the best way to approach its implementation?

Know the goal

The goal of any UC solution is to reduce friction. Not physical friction, but the sort which the user experiences when things don’t work the way they should or, more often, the way the user expects them to. When you disrupt your train of thought when searching for an email or can’t automatically share a link from your browser to an IM program, you feel that friction. We become most aware of technology’s presence when it doesn’t behave as expected, meaning the best communications solutions are the ones which blend into our daily routines.

The goal of any UC solution is to make communication via any media channel, whether it is text, voice or video, feel completely natural, and the transitions between different channels as seamless as possible regardless of location. More and more businesses are latching on to the benefits of implementing a UC solution. When properly executed, UC saves time spent conveying and clarifying information between different parties, offering users the ability to select the most appropriate channel for their needs at any given time.

This, in turn, can boost user productivity and effectiveness, cut down on organisational expenses and yield rapid operational benefits to communications-heavy business areas like customer service. For this to happen, the UC solution needs to be well structured and able to evolve over time.

Structured communications

The installation of any UC solution takes significant time and resource deployment, which can affect the entire organisation’s cohesion and effectiveness. Many of the successful UC implementations that we have been associated with have adopted a five-stage structure; best categorised as: trial, plan, deploy, adopt and evolve. Each of these stages places focus on managing the transition between communications environments so that the resulting UC solution does what its users want it to do, and does it well.

This process of tailoring the UC solution to user requirements is an ongoing one, which the ‘adopt’ and ‘evolve’ stages of the process address by seeking out ongoing user feedback and user-behaviour analytics. To assist IT departments in rolling out a successful UC solution, we developed our own UC Toolkit, to provide best practice guidelines and resources for customers. While we use our approach for implementing audio solutions to UC environments, the core tenets of the process are relevant for all degrees and magnitudes of UC solution development.

This raises the question: what channels should be prioritised when developing a UC solution? Future business communications will likely revolve around technologies in two areas: voice and video. These are the methods of mediated communication which seem the most natural to us, but so far they have gained only limited traction with businesses due to a combination of high costs and fragmented quality.

However, systems which achieve life-like telepresence are becoming increasingly viable thanks to more mature technologies and a reduction in entry-level barriers, like the cost and speed of available bandwidth. The rollout of the NBN and growth of mobile bandwidth, both across cellular and Wi-Fi networks, will have the biggest impact on Australian businesses looking to deploy UC systems.

This means that a well-structured approach to UC is all the more important to its organisational success. If a system doesn’t present users with obvious improvements at the ‘moment of truth’, when the first UC voice call or video link is made, then they have no reason to shift away from the status quo. Businesses must invest in the most appropriate technology and strategy for the UC systems they are implementing, and to do this, need a clearly structured and goal focused approach.

Quality and access

The functionality of UC always depends on business and user needs, which inevitably change over time. When consulting with users and business leaders, IT professionals should focus on three main areas: usability, accessibility and fidelity. The best UC solutions perform strongly in all three of these areas, providing a resilient baseline to meet evolving needs of different user communities.

First of all, the UC solution needs to be easy to use. Individuals within an organisation must be willing and able to take advantage of the deployed solution with minimal time spent on learning new processes. IT professionals can best address usability in the way they design and structure the UC solution in its pre-deployment stages. They can also compile training materials to help users make the transition and continue to oversee the way users are interacting with the system to identify pain points which might emerge post-deployment. IT professionals should also remember that the more intuitive the system, the fewer usability issues to address further down the track.

Secondly, UC solutions must serve an increasing demand for mobile access and connectivity. Mobility is a key issue for many workers and will continue to gain importance with the rising uptake of smartphones, tablets and increasingly powerful mobile bandwidth. A business where employees frequently run conference calls may prioritise its voice channel, while one with frequently-travelling employees may focus on increasing bandwidth for video. IT professionals need to be thinking about the current and future mobility practices of users as they design or update their UC solution.

Finally, the UC solution must provide high-quality communication capabilities. Users need clear and high-fidelity channels so they can get on with their daily duties. High-quality audio endpoints are a must when it comes to implementing a UC solution’s voice component. Headsets capable of HD Audio that incorporate noise-cancelling microphones should be the mainstay of this component. For users with mobility requirements, whether in-office or on the road, audio endpoints supported by wireless technologies such as DECT or Bluetooth increase the user acceptance and efficacy of the UC implementation. In this case, as with others, regular usage will highlight problem areas and issues which emerge within this sort of hardware and software deployment.

Unified communications is not just a system, it’s a process. Any communications solution will have to evolve to meet changing user habits, needs and desires, and while we can predict some of those, such as trends towards increased mobility and a desire for telepresence, others will inevitably catch IT departments by surprise. The rationale behind our UC Toolkit, which pulls together a large volume of strategic and training resources around audio systems implementation, is that businesses must be able to test, monitor and reiterate UC environment attributes. If the UC ecosystem is carefully maintained and fostered, it can yield valuable fruit for any organisation’s future.

*Graeme Gherbaz joined Plantronics in 1998 and since then has headed up the company’s operations in Australia and New Zealand. Key duties include strategic planning, corporate and product marketing, and business development and alliances. Gherbaz has worked in the telecommunications industry for over 25 years, both on the technical and commercial sides of the industry.

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