Unified Communication for Increased Business Productivity
As part of a small team, I find unified communication essential to being able to effectively switch roles, doing everything from writing articles, shooting video, business development, programming, and customer support over the course of my day. By maintaining my email, instant messaging, to-do list, video chat, and voicemail in one command center, I can easily sort information and refer to what I need for the task at hand. On many previous occasions I've written about piecing together solutions that allow you to achieve unified communications. You can build your own configuration to put everything in one personal information manager. The piece-meal approach I use works if you are a one, two, or even five-person company, but my approach doesn't scale and trying to piece several solutions together creates maintenance headaches.
Way back in 1998 I worked for a company building out unified messaging systems that put your voicemail in your email inbox. At the time, this was technology was revolutionary. Unfortunately, it was only available to companies with million dollar budgets for communication infrastructure. Today you can get a solution that integrates voicemail, email, video conferencing, instant messaging, webinar solutions, and online collaboration tools at monthly rates even small teams can afford.
When I talk to small businesses about the types of solutions they are using to meet these needs, most of them are fragmented much like my own approach, but in many cases the tools can't even share information. One application serves the needs of webinars, another routes voicemail to your inbox, an email vendor handles text communications, IM is frequently left up to the preference of individual team members. Each person in the company picked their own cell phone. This results in the most technically adept members of your company having the best access to information and everyone else is often left in the lurch. And pity the poor IT guy who has to provide support when something goes wrong.
I'm here to tell you there's a better way. If your small business is currently using Windows and Mac OS X on the desktop, you can easily deploy a truly unified, fully-managed communication system, without breaking the bank in the process. What's even better is you can do it whether your team works in the same office or collaborates virtually. The solution is based around Microsoft Communication Services, which is a hosted configuration of the following Microsoft products: Microsoft Exchange and Outlook, SharePoint, and Microsoft Office Communications Server (Microsoft Lync Server), which handles IM and video conferencing via Office Communicator or Lync and webinar presentations via Office Live Meeting. Since November 2010, I've worked with Alteva, one of the Microsoft Comunication Services partners, to test integration.
I've used Microsoft Exchange and Outlook in various capacities dating back to the earliest incarnations of both products. Outlook, in combination with Office Communicator (and probably soon Lync) provide the command center for team collaboration, both inside and outside your organization. By using a virtual PBX, coupled with some fairly smart Plantronics phones, you can get IP phones that you can literally take with you, with voicemail that routes directly to your Outlook inbox. The virtual PBX also allows you to route calls to your cell phone, home phone, or any other phone, which means you can be as available as you need to be. In a virtual PBX environment, extension dialing is enabled, so everyone on your team is three digits away for call routing even if you all work from a home office. Unlike Google Voice, the call quality won't leave the people on the other end thinking you're calling with a tin can and string configuration. Office Communicator is compatible with MSN and Yahoo! messengers, which means you can IM with people outside your org. If I were betting, my guess is this will be expanded to Skype as soon as Microsoft clears the acquisition of that company.
I try to avoid thinking about the Exchange piece of this puzzle, but Exchange does get you team calendaring, email management, task management, and all the server-side elements of your personal information management. The great thing about Microsoft Communication Services is that you hand off the administration of your Exchange environment to people who live and breathe this stuff, so you can focus on doing your work and being productive. For most small businesses (and even some large ones) this makes more sense than building out an IT operations team.
As long as you get a high quality HD Webcam (in the $50 price range), you can get amazing video quality out of the video conferencing components of Office Communicator and Live Meeting. For ad hoc meetings with remote team members, I find the video call quality of Office Communicator to be far more consistent than Skype or Google Talk, which helps make video conferencing feel much more like a real meeting. For presentations, the ability to hand off video in a round table discussion will make your team look like pros. Live Meeting suffers the same problem as every other webinar tool, in that you still have to download and install software, but the integration with everything else makes it worth it. Depending on who your typical customer is, they may already have the software installed.
SharePoint got a bad rap in my universe early on, because I felt like it required far too much work to get to the point where you can collaborate. With current versions, Microsoft and their partners, like Alteva, have done a great job of making it easy. While I typically use Google Docs for sharing files and collaboration, I'm finding the latest version of SharePoint to be a worthy collaboration solution. SharePoint is great for intranet solutions like project management, team knowledge management, and also working with your clients and customers. If you're already using all the other pieces of Microsoft Communication Services mentioned here, SharePoint is a natural extension.
While I'm sure Microsoft would love for you to ditch your iPhone and go Windows Mobile, you can take advantage of all this integration without giving up your iPhone. Apple has done a good job of making the iPhone work with Exchange, which means you can get all these features on the go. It's also worth noting that Microsoft's recent acquisition of Skype should only improve your ability to communicate with people outside your organization, without forgoing any efficiency over time as well.
The bottom line here is you can piece meal the components made possible by using Microsoft Communications Services partners like Alteva. In a piece meal solution, you won't get the same level of integration. You could opt to set up your own Exchange, Office Communications Server, and SharePoint. But you really can't achieve the levels of efficiency at an equivalent price, by the time you factor in additional IT staffing, hosting costs, and software licensing, you're better off going with a company like Alteva and letting them be the experts at what they do, while your team focuses on your core skills.