Cutting through Clutter for Unified Communications

Device confusion is bad enough for individual professionals, but it also has bottom line implications for businesses

Despite increasingly versatile mobile technology, the average professional still carries and uses multiple devices while working. In addition to laptops, smartphones and the ubiquitous MP3 player, some executives may carry an extra personal phone. Market research bears this out, with Gartner reporting smartphone sales jumping 13 percent during the first quarter of 2009, even as IDC projects the portable computer market in the United States to double, from 30 million units sold in 2007 to 61.1 million in 2012. Add the growth of VoIP and unified communications and it's easy to foresee professionals struggling to respond to cell phone calls, softphone calls on the laptop, voicemail along with e-mail, mobile IM and text messages.

Many pundits have speculated that modern smartphones lead to fewer devices. Yet today, many job functions require multiple devices which can aid productivity, but can also create a complexity issue. Here's a common scenario all professionals can relate to: a conference call participant hears one of their other phones ring, leaving them to sort through their remaining devices to respond to the call -- even if all they want to do is stop the noise to focus on their meeting.

Adding to the confusion, many companies are now piloting or deploying unified communications solutions and turning the laptop into yet another "phone." At Kingston Technology in Southern California, international calls, including conference calls, have long been routed through IBM's Sametime to reduce costs. Kingston has offices across the globe and experimented with full UC deployment in their operations in Mexico. "We recently switched to using VoIP only for calling in Mexico and almost immediately saw a 30% reduction in phone charges," said Theron Sanders, MIS IT Help Desk Manager at Kingston. "We'll continue to explore utilizing unified communications and VoIP specifically and encourage employees to take advantage of this technology whether the VoIP calls are through their desk phone or their laptop."

The Bottom Line Effect of Device Confusion and Complexity

While the cost savings associated with VoIP are very real, so are the potential complexity issues.

Device confusion is bad enough for individual professionals, but it also has bottom line implications for businesses as IT hardware budgets continue to shrink. In fact, Gartner projects that the global computing hardware segment will experience the steepest decline in 2009, with spending projected to decline 16.3 percent as IT departments struggle to do more with less. This same pressure is also on IT departments to try to consolidate the number of mobile laptops and smart devices carried by the average professional soldier.

IT managers, particularly those who are implementing unified communications see device confusion as a threat to their deployment. IT departments view multiple devices as a security, management and maintenance threat, particularly when employees bring consumer technology into the workplace.

A little over a decade ago, this problem was nearly non-existent. Professionals had one office phone and a PC for managing e-mail, business applications and using the Web. Office workers depended on landline business phones. For IT managers, this scenario gave them maximum control over technology in the enterprise.

Fast forward to today's environment. Professionals depend on a wide range of communication tools that extend beyond traditional e-mail and phone calls to instant messaging, and even consumer VoIP services like Skype or Google Voice. In a typical workday, professionals participate in scheduled Web meetings and conference calls and ad hoc calls to customers and colleagues, listen to music and videos, while fielding instant messages and staying on top of their daily e-mail and deadlines.

Buried under this avalanche of communication services and evolving technology, professionals and the IT managers who serve them seek ways to simplify this device confusion.

Simplifying Device Confusion with Bridge Solutions

New software and hardware products are emerging that help professionals -- and IT departments -- bridge multiple devices and applications. By combining wireless headsets, USB-based handsets and other hardware with software to manage calls and audio, IT managers can simplify daily communications, minimize help desk calls and help employees stay productive.

At HealthNet, based in Northern California, "road warriors" have been outfitted with Cisco IP Communicator and rely on a wireless headset system that connects via Bluetooth to both a mobile phone and PC through a USB dongle. By outfitting them with Cisco IP Communicator licenses, individuals can connect to their in-office phone line over the network. This means they can be contacted via the same telephone number whether in the office or working from home.

The headset itself can add to the complexity for the end user if it is not simple to use and if it doesn't provide the audio quality expected in an enterprise. Percy Edwards, Healthnet's Telecom IT Manager, notes the headset system he deployed with Cisco IP Communicator doesn't take "a rocket scientist to hook up." "Since it's reliable and intuitive to use, we don't encounter many hard-to-handle headset support issues from remote workers," said Edwards.

In the office, headset systems and software can link a PC-based VoIP phone with a desktop phone, and then manage both from their PC with a simple point-and-click interface. Some systems even allow the user to connect calls from both devices to create an impromptu conference call, add a caller to the discussion, and even mix phone conversations with PC-based audio (e.g., webinar).

As more employees work from home, bridge solutions offer a simpler way to stay connected to the office and manage communications to streamline workflow. In an increasingly dispersed workforce, it is critical for home-based workers to stay connected with customers, colleagues and partners in ways that had previously been limited to the office environment.

As unified communications and mobile devices continue to evolve, the challenges caused by device confusion and complexity will eventually subside. In the meantime, business executives and IT professionals must find a way to bridge the river of device confusion coursing through the workforce both in the office and beyond. As noted by the experience at both Kingston Technology and HealthNet, the key to success is to qualify and implement the communication system and devices that best match the specific needs of both the organization and the end user.

Gunjan Bhow is Vice President and General Manager of Unified Communications, Plantronics.

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This story, "Cutting through Clutter for Unified Communications" was originally published by CIO.

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