Is there really such a thing as Unified Communication?
In the last few years the number of ways we can communicate with one another has exploded. We’ve moved a long way from promising to call later. Now we often require a protocol negotiation before we can get down to business, is it going to be Google Hangouts, Skype (for business), Facebook, something we’d rather not admit we’ve never used before, or that app reserved for family only? There are a lot of choices. It feels like we do our communicating in a much more fragmented way than we used to. And yet, check out the marketing, we are already several years into the age of unified communications. This blog looks at the reality of unified communications (UC) with a view to giving some guidance to small businesses that want to get a realistic sense of the possibilities.
Is there more to it than marketing?
Experience indicates that UC for SMEs is still as much about marketing as anything else. The basic idea is to bring together voice, chat, presence information, voicemail, email, mobility, video conferencing, webcasting, screen sharing, meeting rooms and so on and allow all of this to flow across multiple devices using a single identity and/or phone number. This has been achieved to a certain degree in the corporate world. Though it is rare to meet anyone, no matter how corporate, who would claim it all really works and, to the extent that it does, it is generally anything but seamless. This is even more true in the SME world where budgetary restraints and legacy systems mean that UC doesn’t usually go much further than getting voicemail as an email attachment, a colourful, but largely unused, LCD screen attached to the office phone or, most integrated of all, answering our landline number on our mobile (without the client knowing, apart from the moments of silence and background hisses and clicks).
Where does IT come in?
One reason why the whole concept hasn’t really borne fruit yet is that UC is often sold into SMEs, without reference to their IT systems, by telecoms companies with expertise in voice but few of the other elements that make up a unified communications environment – all of which are generally within the IT sphere. At the same time, IT companies have either opted to steer clear of voice altogether and see their job as keeping the network safe from Voice Over IP (VOIP) or other telephones or, worse, they have jumped on VOIP as an extra revenue stream without knowing much about it (what is there to know after all?). IT and telecoms companies are not each other’s biggest fans and they certainly don’t like to talk to one another. And so, we wind up with telecoms companies selling UC systems that are anything but, in that they leave out the IT system on which most communication takes place, and IT companies flogging phones to make a little extra money. This is not the way to achieve the integrated nirvana the marketers talk about, even less so when mobile phones are provided by yet another company or the users themselves.
So, we have the wrong people selling the wrong stuff. And, worse, they are usually selling it to the wrong people too. In the SME world, some variation on UC systems are most often bought by people who just want to replace or upgrade their telephone system. Usually they don’t want unified communications at all or even understand why there might be a need. The result is a new telephone system with a few extra bells and whistles and little or no connection to the IT system. In the best case the client ends up with a quasi-unified communications system, the slight limitation being that it only applies to voice and only covers company staff – and, it just gets used to make phone calls. The outcome of all this is that the end customer loses out: they don’t get the systems that could help their businesses. It is worth considering how we got into this ridiculous position in order to see how we get out of it and finally bring the benefits of UC to small businesses.
IT v Telecoms
The IT and telecoms companies that have grown up over the past forty years to serve the needs of small businesses are twins; but not identical twins. Their market niche is to stand between the big providers, such as Microsoft or BT, and the business consumers of their products and services. Without the inbetweeners both the marketplace and the technology are largely beyond use. Small IT companies began to appear in the 1980s, usually set up by people that had worked in corporate IT. There mission was, and is, to help small companies use the technology that was transforming the world of big business. This turned out to be much harder and more complex than expected and, as a result, IT companies have spent the last four decades trying to get it right on the correct scale with limited budgets. At the same time, they have had to fight to establish their respectability and necessity. Much of the modern IT industry emerged out of 60s and 70s counter cultural California and its place in the business world has always been a little tenuous (why does Microsoft still include games in its operating systems?). Given the enormous task they set themselves, IT companies have been loath to take on new challenges such as voice.
A certain sense of entitlement.
In the same time frame small business telecoms companies have made a very different journey. They emerged out of the privatisation of gigantic, government run, national monopolies and were born into a world in which the role of telecoms in business was unquestionable. You might say that their market position was handed to them on a plate. And, while of course there are many exceptions, there is a tendency for the industry to retain some of the arrogance that came with being a government run business providing an essential service. When was the last time, for an example, you encountered an IT company with the chutzpah to lock its clients into a three-year contract with no escape clauses (yes, I know, they do exist, but there aren’t many)? Some telecoms companies have dipped a toe into IT support, usually by acquisition, but they don’t often stick around: it is too complex and the client relationship too different.
The right tool for the job
This is a crazy situation and it is holding back the adoption of unified communications and making business a lot more complicated than it needs to be. Almost all business communication now goes via the computer (especially if we identify smartphones as the pocket computers they are). Only a trickle goes through the traditional phone system, usually where voice is a key part of the service, e.g. on a help desk. Next time you see a little 7” screen perched on top of a telephone sitting right beside a 27” computer monitor ask yourself whether that customer has been well served by the IT and telecoms providers they almost certainly contract. Once upon a time, as the name suggests, computers were calculating machines. These days, in business at least, they are primarily communication devices (as our customers attest, they are unusable when the Internet goes down). So, a unified communications strategy must be built around the primary communications system, the IT system; not the secondary or legacy communication one, the phone system. There is, of course, still a place for telecoms companies in unified communications but that place should be commensurate with the volume of business communication that goes through voice systems. The real strength they bring to table is in least cost routing, connectivity, leased lines, SIP trunking and so on; rather than the user front end.
We have watched Microsoft’s strategy in this regard with fascination. After a few false starts we now seem to be on track with the evolution of Lync, Skype, Skype for Business and, now, Teams. Teams comes as standard with MS Office 365 and finally provides the framework on which a genuinely effective and, most importantly, universal unified communications system can be implemented. We have embraced Teams and are in the process of migrating over our legacy VOIP telephone system. We will aim to keep you posted as our UC strategy comes to fruition. And, of course, we are not just doing this for ourselves: our aim as ever is to bring the benefits to our clients once we have ironed out the wrinkles, as with all our technology, by being our own Guinea pigs. If you would like to know more about this and how you might start to use some of the tools you almost certainly already have please get in touch. And do get in touch if you are in the throes of being sold a unified communications system to replace your telephone system.