400,000 reasons why Quebec firm says unified communications rocks

John Lambert was overseeing his company’s latest customized metal structure construction project – this one a catwalk that would fit around an assembly-line conveyer belt – a project that would normally require that blueprints be swapped back and forth with the clients as revisions were exchanged and the potential for error increasing with each swap.

But this project was different.

Instead of physically swapping the plans with his client, Lambert was collaborating with them using Microsoft Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007 R2. Cogan Wire and Metal Products Ltd., based in Terrebonne, Que., deployed the unified communications software from Microsoft Corp. in May 2007.

The company had been using Microsoft‘s Office Live Meeting and RoundTable for conferencing and collaboration. Lambert, a vice-president at Cogan, describes the combined package as “groundbreaking.”

“When you’re actually passing the mouse back and forth, the time savings can be immeasurable, and the accuracy is much improved,” he says.

UC is still in its early adopter stage in Canada. But as companies like Cogan begin to see its effectiveness, 2009 may be a year the technology is more widely adopted, industry observers say.

Publicized business benefits include cost-cutting on the travel budget and improved productivity, while end-users are promised a richer communications experience with the tools they’re already familiar with.

Microsoft’s latest upgrade to OCS will be released Friday. A launch on a wider scale will occur in February.

OCS adds features to several Microsoft products that facilitate collaboration, says Bryan Rusche, unified communications product manager at Microsoft Canada.“It’s somewhere between a full version release and a service pack,” he says of R2. “It adds new features around some areas such as voice, collaboration and development towards aligning business processes.”

The release comes at a time when a growing number of Canadian companies are considering a move to unified communications, according to a study conducted by London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group.

Surveys and interviews with 21 companies found many organizations understand the benefits of the software.

Keeping in touch with a mobile workforce and cutting the travel budget are a couple of the driving factors, says Jayanth Angl, senior research analyst at Info-Tech.

“This is an opportunity to bring multiple and disparate communications tools under one umbrella,” he says.

Angl said the unfied communications toolset is growing, but more evidence is required that the technology is making things easier for the end user. “At the end of the day that’s where the benefits lie.”

Microsoft says OCS offers employees new communications abilities with the software they’re already familiar.

Using the Office Communicator 2007 instant messaging client, users can receive VoIP calls on their computer. Staff member using Microsoft Office products such as Word, PowerPoint and Outlook will be able to click a new button to start a Web conference session with a colleague.

While chatting, participants in an online conference can collaborate on a shared document and both make changes to the workspace. This is a capability Cogan has usedwith its clients, as well as in-house — among its engineers.

“We’re able to review information collectively and actively,” Lambert says. While the review process now takes a couple of days, previously it would’ve taken a couple of weeks and would require flying in people from remote locations, he says.

Conducting meetings virtually has helped Cogan save on its travel budget. The company expects to save $400,000 a year by eliminating airline ticket purchases and hotel rooms that were needed to facilitate meetings and conduct training sessions. An added bonus is the image Cogan projects to clients by using the software.

“The biggest benefit is customer retention,” Lambert says. “With the online meeting capability, I’m definitely looking more progressive and more professional.”

Microsoft’s intended role for OCS is to work alongside Exchange Server. While OCS handles the real-time communications, Exchange handles the asynchronous communications such as e-mail conversations, explains Rusche.

Combining the two servers offers added benefits, such as Exchange taking voicemail from unanswered VoIP calls delivered through OCS.

Cogan chose Microsoft’s UC software in part because it can run on premise, relieving the security concerns of company executives who don’t want information from important meetings they hold on a third party’s server. Another factor was the positive approval rating the software received during an employee test with OCS.

Accuracy is an important factor for Cogan, and even more important for the workers walking along that customized catwalk they’ve designed.

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