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Unified communications: where the world is heading; The convergence of network appliances with employees' electronic devices is helping businesses lower communication costs while improving knowledge-worker productivity and customer service.

It didn't happen overnight, but the era of unified communications is here. Consider the decision by a 100-person private investment bank to deploy unified communications across the entire company. This bank is equipping all its staffers with applicable client software on their PCs, laptops and (soon) BlackBerrys to allow 30-minute closure on customer queries. Payback was less than a year.

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On a larger scale, Nortel Networks Ltd., the Canadian telecom giant, has created the means for 20,000 of its employees to stay connected anytime, anywhere and on any device through unified communications. This allows users to create a virtual office, whether they are working in a conference room down the hall, at home or at a remote site.

These companies may be in the vanguard, but the notion of unified communications is a powerful one that will only grow more widespread. (As commonly understood, "unified communications" consists of telephony, instant messaging (IM), video, multimedia conferencing and application sharing, combined with powerful concept of presence.)

The integration of computers with personal digital assistants (PDAs) and wireless phones is galloping along, and the paradigm of the 9 to 5 office worker is quickly eroding. It's a surprising but very real statistic that 50 percent to 70 percent of office space is unoccupied during normal business hours (according to the International Telework Association and Council).

Where are these employees? Some are elsewhere in the building or visiting another company site, while others may be working at home or on the road. With the widespread adoption of telecommuting, wireless and various other "virtual office" technologies, this trend will only increase.

Not all of this has happened without a few bumps, however. Companies need to ask themselves a few critical questions, such as: How can they ensure that time and distance do not become barriers to productive collaboration and to competitive advantage? What is impeding their efforts to increase real-time communications effectiveness?

Users, knowledge workers and others with the need to communicate and collaborate are faced with a number of pain points. These include:

1. Managing multiple contact numbers and inboxes (the lack of service ubiquity).

2. Losing productivity when away from the office (the lack of geographic flexibility).

3. Using disparate systems (telephones, room video conferencing, email and file servers) to communicate across teams.

In addition, many enterprises see regulatory and security liabilities arising from employees using public communications services, especially instant messaging, email and other Internet-centric services, involving public servers or storage nodes that lack encryption.

The Inter-Human Web Emerging

In just over a decade, enterprises have gone from a wary tolerance of the Internet to an all-out rush to reinvent themselves as ebusinesses using Internet technologies. This is coming not only in the context of how businesses serve their customers, but also across all internal business applications.

Web browsers have dramatically lowered the barriers between people and information, providing rich media through the click of a mouse. This has facilitated increased data center consolidation and single instance network-based applications. At the same time, Web development methodologies have enabled faster and cheaper deployment of end-user information services, both internal and external to the enterprise.

The Web has changed everything--or has it? Clearly, electronic mail was the Internet's first "killer app." More recently, IM has made inroads into the workplace. Each has speed and cost advantages over "snail" mail, but in terms of expressive power, each has relied almost exclusively on text, a restricted subset of what is available through traditional mail.

On the voice front, running voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) networks has provided network efficiencies and cost savings, although VoIP's effect on end users has been limited so far. In fact, cellphones have more profoundly impacted how people communicate compared to the Internet, but without fundamentally altering the medium of exchange: "voice."

With all its media flexibility, why hasn't the Web made a significant change in interpersonal communications? Will the Web paradigm do for person-to-person communications what it has done to information access and transaction networking? Will it put the end user back in control of his or her communications space? Will it enrich how enterprises communicate with customers and enhance how people collaborate? Will it create the inter-human Web? The answer is "yes," but the more important question is "how?"

Convergence and Unified Communications

That starts with network convergence, the act of bringing voice, data and video onto a single Internet protocol (IP), Ethernet or optical network. That's one network to plan, deploy, make reliable, operate and secure. This is where networks are going and, in fact, thousands of enterprises, big and small, have already upgraded their networks to reliably support convergence.

The next step is communications convergence. Communications convergence is the act of leveraging the full potential of the IP multimedia networking to make a significant change in how people communicate and collaborate. The industry has widely accepted "unified communications" to describe this class of solutions.

When real-time communications aren't possible, unified messaging fills the bill, providing a single mailbox for voice, email and fax, and including voice-to-text and text-to-voice capabilities. Unified communications provides a seamless user experience across all these media. Because unified communications have to be always-on, this implies a level of reliability not generally associated with platforms supporting general purpose business applications such as email, work flow and document handling.

There are three key attributes of unified communications: presence, client adaptability and personal control. Real-time presence information is captured across a broad range of activities, including being active on a device (telephone, PC, PDA, BlackBerry), having a call or session in progress, or being at a location (office, functional area like a conference room or surgery). This is then communicated to the user's community of interest.

Client adaptability implies that unified capabilities are adapted to the characteristics of the device being used; for example, application-sharing may not be feasible on a telephone with a three-line display. Personal control allows users to define their communication "reachability" based on various parameters, including caller and time of day.

Broadband connectivity is also becoming available on public cell networks with the introduction of so-called third-generation systems. Overtime, unified communications will be extended to partners and to business and consumer customers.

Communications convergence is created by the inter-human Web, enriching how people communicate and collaborate and creating the real-time virtual enterprise. But it goes beyond this. Application convergence transforms business by extending these unified communications to a broad range of enterprise business applications, such as customer service, supply chain management, enterprise resource planning (ERP) and work flow systems. For example, a business application such as supply chain management could be made aware of user presence and be able to initiate multimedia conference, inviting available decision-makers to rapidly resolve supply chain issues.

Convergence Is Now

What's the bottom-line value to the enterprise of always-on integrated communications? According to a recent Nemertes Research study, the major business drivers behind the movement to these new types of collaboration solutions include increased employee productivity, quick communication, speeding time-to-market, cost savings and higher sales.

Unified communications follow you, wherever you may be, and adapt to the device and network you're using and, finally, give you control over how people communicate with you. Just imagine what this could do to help your business lower communication costs while improving knowledge worker productivity and customer service--as well as shorten your time to increased revenues and lower costs. Unified communications is no longer at the bleeding edge; nor is it something you see only in Star Wars. It is going to fundamentally alter the way companies communicate to their employees and customers.

RELATED ARTICLE: Case Study: VoIP

Voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) is an enabling technology that facilitates convergence and unified communications. Until recently, VoIP equipment and technology could not pass the stringent voice quality standards of the contact center industry. However, significant reliability and quality improvements in VoIP infrastructure and customer premise equipment (CPE) are causing many contact center managers to take a second look. Some of the contributing factors are the adoption of technical standards, the increasing percentage of long distance traffic (estimated at over 30 percent) carried over VoIP networks and the consumer acceptance of residential VoIP carriers like Vonage and AT & T.

As contact centers make the transition from "order-takers" to profit centers, VoIP has spurred U.S. companies to consider reversing the offshoring trend to establish better control of their customer-facing operations. Enabling VoIP in the contact center creates a host of efficiency opportunities. Integrating voice, data and video with customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems provides the best means for technologists and contact center managers to achieve efficiency and productivity goals.

VoIP advocates have promised efficiencies and cost savings of 30 to 50 percent to the enterprise for years. Technology has finally caught up with these promises. How? By enabling every agent to manage voice (inbound and outbound), chat, email, video and fax requests from multiple customers at the same time with highly advanced converged communications servers. Efficiencies can be increased by choosing one provider to provide voice, data and video to the contact center.

A typical contact center agent can be on a call with one customer, answer questions submitted through chat sessions by other customers, have emails and faxes from other customers assigned to them and respond to those emails in off-peak time. Additionally, each agent can be ready to initiate or take a video session from the company's most important customers.

By forecasting the amount of voice, email, chat, fax and video traffic terminated to the contact center, a contact center manager can efficiently have agents multi-tasking. By integrating IP-ready private branch exchange (PBX) with the CRM and ERP packages, agents no longer have the need for telephone handsets at each station.

Each agent utilizes a soft (PC-enabled) phone that is fully integrated. Customer interactions--including voice recordings, faxes, email correspondence, chat sessions and video files--can be easily stored in individual customer database records to ensure historical contact information is available to agents, supervisors and management at any time. These enhanced telephony and data features greatly augment service to customers by meeting the customer in a manner convenient for that customer, rather than utilizing traditional communication methods.

RELATED ARTICLE: take aways

* Unified communications, involving voice and data, network appliances and devices like PDAs and cell phones, have become a reality for some companies.

* Obstacles remain, among them the loss of geographic flexibility, service ubiquity and the inability of disparate systems to communicate effectively.

* Enabling VoIP in the contact center creates a host of efficiency and productivity opportunities by integrating voice, data and video with CRM and ERP systems.

* Major business drivers behind these new collaboration solutions include higher productivity, quick communication, speeding time-to-market and higher sales.

Tony Rybczinski (tonyryb@nortel.com) is Director of Strategic Enterprise Technologies at Nortel Networks in Ottawa, Ontario. Mahesh Shetty (mshetty@ctap.com) is CFO of CTAP, a Richardson, Texas-based technology company that implements converged voice and data networks and the applications that ride on that infrastructure.
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Title Annotation:IT integration
Author:Shetty, Mahesh
Publication:Financial Executive
Date:Jun 1, 2005
Words:1836
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