UC – it’s quite simple after all

For many Canadian small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs), unified communications (UC) remains just a buzzword despite the benefits experienced larger businesses using the technology.

Cost, complexity and unfamiliarity with UC are significant adoption barriers for SMBs, according to Tony Olvet, vice-president for communications practice at analyst firm IDC Canada in Toronto.

Unified communications refers to the integration of disparate communication systems, media devices and applications.

These could include fixed and mobile devices, voice, e-mail, instant messaging, audio, video and Web conferencing, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and IP-PBX.

“Many SMBs are not so sure what UC means,” Olvet noted.

“They can identify their needs and are aware of some of the technology out there, but need guidance on how to put it all together,”

No more than 15 per cent of Canadian SMBs use advance communication productivity tools such as videoconferencing, teleconferencing and online collaboration products.

This compares to 25 per cent of large organizations that use these technologies, according to a recent IDC survey conducted for telecommunications firm, Telus Corp.

Thirteen per cent of SMBs do not use UC tools at all, compared to just one per cent for large businesses.

To reach out to this largely untapped market, the Barnaby, BC-based telco has partnered with Microsoft Corp. to develop UC products and services targeted at SMB organizations.

“SMBs are the single most underserved market in Canada,” according to Sean Seaton, director, communications sector, at Microsoft Canada. Seaton was a participant in a Telus-Microsoft roundtable in Toronto on Thursday.

Many small businesses with 10 to 50 employees often have neither the expertise nor the resources to deploy and manage servers. These firms could benefit from hosted services, Seaton said.

Outlook Voice Access, a component of Microsoft Exchange 2007 which was released this week, is one such service.

Voice Access enables users to access their Telus hosted e-mail, contacts and calendars using landline or mobile phones.

By calling a toll-free number, users can connect to their mailbox to dictate, hear and forward e-mails.

p>They can also get to their messages, agenda, contact and documents from any computer over the Internet by accessing Outlook Web Access on a Windows Mobile-based or BlackBerry handheld.

This enables smaller organizations to avoid the capital investment needed to put up complex and costly communications systems, said Brent Douziech, vice-president of new product planning and introduction at Telus.

“The top concerns of SMBs are ease of access and simplicity of use and management,” he said.

This need for quick set-up, easy use and management will come into play when the World Police and Fire Games Federation (WPGF) holds its biennial athletic competitions in BC next year.

WPGF is an international non-profit organization of police officers and firefighters

WPGF president Don Hardman likens the organization to an SMB but says but says in some ways it is unique.

“We’re much like a small business in the sense that we have 10 to 20 employees. But a few weeks before the games start we will be handling and army of more than 3,000 volunteers”.

The games opening on July 31, 2009 are a 10-day event featuring more than 10,000 athletes and about 20,000 guests in more than 40 sports and non-sports venues in BC.

The WPGF will be using more anywhere from 300 to 500 mobile devices and online hosting services provided as in-kind donation by Telus.

A Website providing collaboration capability to WPGF workers and online access for viewers to event updates was also developed using .Net Framework.

“We needed a turnkey [system] quick to set up and take down after the event,” Hardman said.

As the WPGF does not have the required UC technology expertise, a hosted service made the most sense.

“The challenges faced by WPGF are a good example of difficulties that many SMBs confront,” says Olvet of IDC.

For example he said, many small businesses need mobile devices that require minimal training to operate and maintain because they time and money are often tight for these organizations.

An SMB rollout of UC technology is most likely to be geared towards business generation, he said.

“While large organizations use UC to connect employees, SMBs are more likely to use the technology to contact customers, suppliers and business partners.”

Small businesses considering UC must look for flexible systems that can scale to accommodate their changing needs, industry insiders say.

The IDC survey suggested certain best practices. These include:

  1. Taking a problem resolution approach – Overall, SMBs that took time to analyze their problems and determine their root cause, achieved substantial payoff from their projects.
  1. Pooling resources – Companies with silos of resources generally did not perform well on crucial projects.
  1. Using formal, standards-based integration Organizations must ensure that information communication technologies (ICT) are in sync with business processes.
  1. Free up the ICT environment Businesses must develop an ICT environment unconstrained by infrastructure. This speaks also to management culture and style and an organization’s guiding principles.
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