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Unified Communications: Complete Communication Anywhere

Microsoft Lync Server 2010 eliminates geographic restrictions and works across multiple computing devices—both of which translate into significant savings.

William Van Winkle

Microsoft made an intriguing discovery several years ago when the company studied its employees: The average worker was only at his desk 40 percent of the time. Today’s users are all mobile, whether they’re on the road or not. However, most businesses continue to build their communications infrastructure for a deskbound workforce. There has to be better way.

Consider the Bavarian Auto Group, a Midwestern luxury auto dealer with approximately $300 million in annual sales. The company has roughly 1,300 employees, most of who travel internationally throughout the year.

A Siemens Private Branch Exchange (PBX) system was proving increasingly inadequate, forcing employees to wait for e-mail and voice mail replies, while international calling rates ran up several dollars per minute. Moreover, as the auto retailer sought to support its customers and earn new accounts, travel costs climbed accordingly.

By 2008, the company knew it had to find a better solution. It turned to a unified communications (UC) system from Microsoft, specifically Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007 and Exchange Server 2007 Unified Messaging. (Both have recently been updated under the Lync platform.) With OCS running alongside the legacy PBX system, employees suddenly had presence and instant messaging, Internet-based voice, video chat, collaborative whiteboarding and seamless document sharing through Office SharePoint Server.

The UC tools proved so robust that Bavarian Auto Group was able to reduce its travel by 20 percent in the first year. That resulted in a $400,000 savings. The company expects the savings to increase as employees continue to depend on the UC platform’s rich communications capabilities to boost productivity.

Lync Beyond the LAN

Some companies approach UC as a way to simply enhance worker collaboration. Instead of calling two floors down to accounting, for example, a quick, secure IM can get the job done faster. UC tools are relatively new, however, so many businesses haven’t entirely grasped how platforms like Lync can transform productivity outside the office.

Imagine a traditional call between two sales team members, one inside the office and one outside. Both are working on the same presentation project. Even before the conversation, there’s the inevitable game of phone tag.

That vanishes with Lync because the caller can see the client’s presence status. To confirm availability, one can IM the other with a quick note saying something like, “Are you free for a quick talk?” before starting the voice call. In fact, with video chat capabilities, both team members can communicate face-to-face.

In a sense, that improves their ability to concentrate on each other and the content of the conversation. The outside team member might have picked up some new files at a client site and need to share these with the partner. The person on the road can share her desktop with the inside rep, so both can review documents together as if they were seated at the same table.

Both have the same communication toolset, so there’s no disconnect between how they operate when on or off the LAN. In fact, the ability for Lync to unify workers regardless of location makes the LAN irrelevant to collaboration. Some Lync features are particularly well-suited to this geographic freedom:

  • Simultaneous ring: Rings multiple contact numbers, including mobile and softphone, at once rather than scrolling through a contact list.
  • Transfer a call: If you want to transfer a Lync call from your softphone to your cell or even to another user in a different office, the process is seamless so no call participants need to hang up and dial a new number.
  • Location sharing: The presence capabilities ensure everyone knows where you’re located.
  • Delegate: You can instruct Lync to delegate your calls to a team member, who will see an alert notifying him when an incoming call was originally yours.
  • Jump into whiteboard collaboration: Ad hoc collaboration tools connect available team members for whiteboard brainstorming.
  • Review recordings: You can record conversations, including video, screen sharing, whiteboards and instant messages. You can then save, send and review.
  • Skill search: Use the Skill filter within the Lync Contacts list to search for people by expertise keywords, use presence to see who’s available and IM your way to an instant answer.

Device Agnostic

Lync can also smooth out some of the inevitable bumps when using multiple devices. Your users may need to juggle smartphones, tablets, netbooks, notebooks and desktops, some of which might not even belong to them.

Lync Online, which is now part of Microsoft Office 365, lets workers run their contact card, presence, IM, VoIP, screen sharing and most other essential Lync capabilities right from the cloud. Because the user is licensed, not the device, there’s total freedom to leverage Lync across any compatible device from anywhere.

You can magnify that power of communicating anywhere and with any device when you combine Lync with third-party applications. Businesses and ISVs are free to design tools that work on top of the Lync architecture.

For example, Convergent created an application for utility companies that helps them handle downed power line emergencies. The system has hundreds of technicians in a database, each of whom has Lync access via a Web interface. The Lync environment polls 20 to 30 of these technicians at a time, gathering their response times and ETAs.

Convergent CTO Douglas Splinter should understand the power of UC better than just about anyone, given that his company is essentially based on it. “We don’t have an office[1S1] ,” says Splinter. “Our ‘internal environment’ is a bunch of server racks in a hosted datacenter. All we have is an Internet presentation.”

That philosophy and mode of doing business carries though everything the company does. “Every conversation you ever have with us will be over Internet-based voice,” he says. “We’ve always used what Microsoft calls Edge Connection services to support our employee workforce and handle all our clients. That’s how we collaborate. Everything we have is Internet-facing, from SharePoint to our CRM deployment to all of our communications with Lync.”

Bottom-Line Benefits

Lync provides a wealth of capabilities, but how can you quantify those benefits into actual return on investment (ROI) figures? In a report by Forrester Research Inc. (sponsored by Microsoft), Forrester surveyed 15 Microsoft UC customers and projected their results on a fictitious, 4,000-user conglomerate.

The end result was that one company spent nearly $6 million deploying Microsoft UC and realized a risk-adjusted total benefit over three years of almost $40 million. That yields a $33.4 million savings for a 563 percent ROI.

Forrester calculated several factors into that ROI analysis. First is the time savings. With user presence information, 59 percent of workers indicated saving at least 15 minutes per day in avoiding wasted calls and unnecessary voice mail. The streamlined interface of Microsoft UC and convenient ad hoc nature of group calling also assists with video. Sixty percent of workers saved one to five hours each week through live videoconferencing and not having to deal with session setup, scheduling and troubleshooting.

There are also time-saving considerations such as improved decision making and improved work efficiency. Forrester figured that senior executives were each saving 100 hours per year that could be used on more productive tasks. Subject matter experts saved 100 hours, content managers 60 hours and infrastructure workers 40 hours. In all cases, a certain percentage of these hours were anticipated to be time wasted during travel. Given average hourly wages for each group, Forrester estimated almost $20 million in added employee output.

The savings in travel cost is also significant. Eliminating 10 percent of business trips in the first year and 30 percent by the third year (assuming an average cost of $1,500 per trip) saved nearly $15 million. Other hard-cost savings included things such as dial-in conferencing fees ($600,000) and fewer telephone calling charges ($1.2 million).

Lync and UC can also help make travel and mobility more effective. Business travel is obviously good, but wasting time during travel is not. Another element that Forrester examined was how some employees could use UC to become more mobile, increasing productivity by an average of three hours per week. Ultimately, this yielded a value of more than $3 million.

Keep It Clear

Benefits realized from Lync and UC depend in part on the quality of the user experience. This relates to the audio/video equipment used. In the legacy PBX system world, phone options are often limited and expensive.

Lync arrives with an entire ecosystem of hardware already optimized for UC and certified by Microsoft to deliver a superior experience. This is doubly important for mobile users, who are more likely to need clear communications while working in noisier environments.

The human ear can generally detect sounds in the 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz audio spectrum. The human voice only creates sounds in the 80 Hz to 14,000 Hz range. Everything above and below that range is heard only as noise that can distract and impair voice intelligibility. One of the things a good noise canceling headset will do is filter out sounds beyond the perceivable voice range.

Legacy PSTN telephones use “narrowband” audio, which fills the 300 Hz to 3,400 Hz range. “Wideband” audio, also called HD Voice, spans from 50 Hz to 7,000 Hz, and delivers a greater range of sound reproduction meant to match that of human voices. Those deeper lows are what give wideband audio a far greater sense of naturalness and presence. Speakers sound “right there.” There’s far less need to ask people to repeat themselves.

Lync-optimized headsets use wideband audio, while many competing IP telephony devices do not. Also, Lync headset devices all use USB connections, instead of analog, through the PC sound adapter. You can use the headset to control the sound experience and not be at the mercy of potentially problematic audio drivers.

Lync-optimized devices run the gamut from corded and cordless headsets to group speakerphones to widescreen webcams. Some notebooks from Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Lenovo contain integrated devices (microphone, speakers and cameras) certified to meet Lync standards. Many of these devices are straightforward and single-purpose, but some offer added functionality suited to mobile workers. The Jabra GO 6430 wireless headset, for instance, uses Bluetooth to pair with both mobile phones and PC-based softphones.

“In enterprises with distributed offices, where there might not be IT on hand, having a headset makes a lot of sense. Users with little or no training can plug it in and use it right out of the box,” says Travis Hatmaker, director of the Microsoft Alliance for Jabra. “There are multi-use headsets at the high end that are a little more complicated, but the usual solution is simply plug-and-play. It’s recognized by Lync as the default device, and it’s very much behind the scenes. We work hard to hide a lot of the complexity from end-users.”

With so many device options, it’s more straightforward to pick the right headset or camera for your users’ needs and environment. Microsoft data shows that even Lync-optimized USB handsets tend to be less than one-third the price of a conventional IP telephone. If just half of a company’s user base switched to USB devices rather than IP phones, it could drop communications capital expenditures by 19 percent.

The Big Picture

Beyond the dollars, there’s a Lync story that revolves around work/life balance. Some people feel that because an employee works outside the office, he has “more freedom.” All too often, the opposite is true.

Mobile workers often spend more time stuck in traffic, more time running for meetings and more time waiting for clients at client sites. Without having a full-blown PC at their fingertips, mobile workers are often trying to stay at least as productive as their deskbound counterparts but with less-robust technology. All of this translates into more pressure and fewer hours to spend enjoying life with friends and family.

Lync lets people communicate more efficiently, so there’s less running or waiting. Often workers can stay off the road altogether and simply work from home, which makes for a great “green” benefit alongside all those cost savings. As a platform, Lync can bring people together in more ways more often, both on the job and off. Try it out free for 180 days from the TechNet Evaluation Center.

William Van Winkle
William Van Winkle is the former managing editor of Reseller Advocate Magazine. He’s been a freelance technology writer since 1997, and has contributed to PC Magazine, CPU, Smart Computing, Processor, Tom’s Hardware and many others. He likes to  blog about the impact of technology on everyday life. He lives in Hillsboro, just outside of Portland, Ore.

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