Monday, July 8, 2013

Unified Communications and Small Business

Unified Communications (UC) is that mystical holy grail that ties a company together through communication tools.  It allows you to connect with staff, customers and vendors using a standard set of tools.  These powerful sets of tools include things like VoIP phone systems, video conferencing, instant messaging and several other inter-connecting technologies.  They key is that they work together so that they can leverage the common features seamlessly.

UC has helped many companies in many ways, but typically these companies are mid-size to large enterprise companies.  What about the small guy?  You know, the mainstream of America, the small business.  The mom & pop; the small company with fewer than 50; or those small companies that are on the verge of mid-size that just needs that little push.  UC can really help these companies as well.

Over the past year I have been integrating UC throughout one small-size company on the verge of mid-size.  We have had several successes; some failures and the effort is still on going.  I would like to share some lessons learned from our efforts.

Choose your platform carefully
Many solutions exists today and all have matured into very stable ones.  Choose the size; scale and complexity carefully.  First thing is to decide on either a hosted solution or an in-house solution.  Hosting is ideal for the mom & pop size as there is typically no one that works for the company that would be able to put all the pieces together (a techie that works for you).  Leveraging a hosting provider will help make sure all the pieces will fit together.  Their staff knows their products and solutions very well.

For the in-house choice, you will need an in-house technologist. Typically the knowledge that is needed is: networking (Firewalls, routing & quality of service)    experience, PBX phone system knowledge, System administration experience, and Project management experience.  Many of the in-house solutions come as pieces parts and it will take all this knowledge and experience to put it all together, even with the help of solution providers.

Choose your solution provider carefully
Solution providers are abound within technology, however not many exists for UC.  Many can do one part or another, but not many can actually do it all.  For instance, a service provider can install the phone system, deal with the network and tie all the desktops into the solution.  But ask them to integrate the cell phones and they can not achieve the same success.  Then when a trouble is discovered deep in your firewall, the same solution provider is unable to assist because their engineers only know the standard configurations for UC and not the rest of the security concerns of firewalls.

When choosing a hosting provider, ask to talk to other companies that have implemented the solution and then talk to them.  Ask about those things they felt the hosting provider knew well and what they felt they did not know well.  Ask how difficult the implementation went and if there was any other interruptions to existing services, like getting to the Internet.

Don't implement everything right away
Sounds like an idea that is sound, but there are somethings that I would like to make clear.  By implementing every aspect of UC from the start, you will be so overwhelmed with so much to learn that everyone will have problems communicating.  That defeats the purpose of UC.  But on the other hand, you need to get your investment out of UC or why do it. 

First thing to do is work with your solution provider to determine those features that will give the highest impact.  Then plan stages of learning over a few short months.  This will help you determine if those features are the right ones.  There are so many features to UC that it can be very attractive to just "go for it all", but don't fall into this trap.

A typical implementation of UC can take close to a year for any size organization.  You may even need to almost reimplemented a few things, because the original implementation was not clearly defined to the business and the available UC features.

Be weary of "that feature is being release..."

UC is mature, but like all technologies it is forever changing.  What you may see in UC is that a feature works great in one operating system, but is not yet available in another.  For instance, a feature for an instant message to quickly become a multi-participant video conference is available in Windows 7 but the Windows 8 version is still under development.  This goes double for smart phones.  The features may vary greatly from one smart phone device to another.

Standardize, Standardize, Standardize

Once you choose a UC solution, try to use the same technologies as much a possible.  When you mix the pieces-parts of the solution you end up trying to solve extra issues needlessly.  Using the same web cameras on the same desktop operating system helps reduce the number of compatibility issues with UC applications.  Likewise , using the same smart phones or trying to combine UC features within a single version of  Microsoft Office will help reduce issues.

Unified Communications is a very powerful set of tools that can make your small company communicate and stay in touch with staff and customers, just like the big guys.  It will take a very concentrated effort to implement.  Don't have the impression that just by turning it on, the magic will happen.  UC can be complicated, however if you do your homework and create a structured plan, your company will see the benefits of United Communications.