Unified Comms for Small Business with Office Communication Server
Let’s be clear from the start. If you or your client is a very small business – say, only one small location– if there isn’t time or staff to set up and maintain at least one and possibly three servers, or if there is not sensible money available for software licensing, then Office Communication Server (OCS) isn’t the right choice for them.
That’s because it’s one of the most demanding products from Microsoft to configure and maintain – primarily because it will become the heart of communication within a company and with its customers, replacing
or integrating with a mix of existing systems.
By becoming that heart of communication, it can create many opportunities for improved communication: knowing who’s available, online meetings, group chat and sharing, and calls via voice over IP from person to person with seamless transfer to Windows Mobile devices. The benefits to large businesses, especially those with multiple locations, are clear. Can the same benefits be obtained, albeit at a smaller scale, for small to medium-sized businesses?
Big picture Communication
The first thing that OCS adds to a company’s communication infrastructure is an entirely new dimension – that of presence: the ability to see and to share willingness to communicate. Presence allows tasks and workloads inside the company to be structured in whole new way; by what can be done with the people currently free and available to do it. While this in itself is not a universal improvement on current ways of working, it is certainly a new dimension that will have practical benefits.
All too often, even in small companies, it’s easy to get your progress on a piece of work stalled, because some information you need is only available from a particular person. Having the ability to see who is available allows your clients to structure the ordering of tasks in a manner that avoids these stalls where possible. If a user does get hung up waiting for a colleague, they can tag the online status of the person they need to be in contact with to proceed, and get on with other work; when this changes they’ll be notified.
This presence information is primarily visible through the Office Communicator desktop client, but it also extends and integrates into the Microsoft Office suite of programs. Outlook will tell you the availability of the people with whom you have been exchanging email – letting you choose whether the conversation is best continued by email, or by an instant message, or a phone call. Microsoft Office SharePoint Server will tell you the availability status of document owners, and further allows you to start a communication with them straight from the SharePoint page being browsed. And OneNote can be started up with one click from any conversation (voice or instant message) allowing you to take notes and even record the conversation and time-sync notes.
One of the biggest changes in many small companies over the past few years is the removal of gatekeeper roles inside the company. It’s increasingly rare for companies to task someone with, for example, a secretary/receptionist role; rather they are looking at tasks that need to be performed and spreading those tasks as appropriate to appropriate groups of people.
In a similar manner, companies have also, for a number of years, been moving away from the concept that a computer on a desk ‘belongs’ to the person sat at that desk. Files, information and email are now usually centralised, and a well-configured Active Directory domain will seamlessly provide a user’s profile, including their applications, to any computer to which they log into.
Several aspects of OCS would help companies move further in this direction. Since all the communication information is stored centrally with OCS, then a person is no longer tied to a particular desk and a particular phone extension. All of their voice mail and other communication information moves with them, no matter where they are. If they are tasked with helping answer the main office number, then their phone will ring when it is called.
Integrating Communication Methods
What makes OCS unified communications rather than a fancy IM system is the way the disparate methods of communication are brought together into a unified whole made accessible from the desktop, the Web and from mobile devices. As well as Instant Messaging and presence, OCS combines audio conferencing, video conferencing, Web-based conferencing and VoIP telephony in one solution. This enables users to choose the most appropriate method of communicating with someone based on the task at hand.
The voice features in OCS R2 are also improved. It is integrated with the Unified Messaging function provided by Exchange Server 2007, offering the ability to divert calls to voice mail and access other voice functions. But the most important new feature in OCS R2 is its support for SIP trunking, where telephony traffic can be passed to a telephony service provider over an IP connection without requiring standard circuit-switched phone systems – including PBXs – at all. This can save a large amount in outgoing call costs, and provide large amounts of flexibility in setting up telephone numbering in a flexible manner to suit the company as well as employees. With SIP trunking, or an existing PBX that can be controlled by OCS or a gateway server, a direct-dial phone number for an employee can be configured to roam to wherever they are sitting, or can be automatically forwarded to their mobile device if they are out of the office.
And finally, there is one other benefit, for you as much as for your customer. You’ll often be supporting at least three disparate systems for your customers - the PBX, voicemail, mobile email, email itself and possibly even fax to and from the desktop. OCS consolidates all of these, meaning you only need to understand and support one operating system and one service rather than many. It ends the need for yet another company directory service – that of which phone number is allocated to whom, and where that rings. With OCS it’s all contained in Active Directory – and your number rings wherever you happen to be.
OCS and Small Business
Looking at Office Communication Server from a small business perspective, it’s easy to ask why you should even consider implementing it. Setting up OCS in a small business could easily be costly, especially if existing communication infrastructure is not due for replacement. Depending on their structure, small businesses might not see all of the potential rewards as they don’t have exactly the same communication issues as larger ones. For example, if the business is on a single site then there won’t be much need for in-house video conferencing. Nor will be there any saving using VoIP as the basis of telephony (though seamlessly handing off a call from your desk to your mobile phone will be great for busy people!) Even presence itself isn’t much use when you can look around and see pretty much everyone you deal with.
This view is mistaking small businesses for simple businesses. A simple business – a single site with an uncomplicated set of business processes – is definitely not a good fit for OCS. However, if the structure of the company is even a little more complex than that, there are potential benefits. In a company where there are people who work from home, or sales people on the road, or consultants or people with similar roles who are not generally in the office, OCS can provide a communication structure by which they are no more remote than someone sitting in the centre of the office. Their office telephone number will ring on their computer. Voice mails will be in their Exchange mailbox. They can use the webcam on their PC to have face-to-face chats with people in the office, and share information with them via Web conferencing, white boarding and sharing their computers’ desktops and applications.
Flexibility and quality of communication is often key to a small business, and anything that improves the ability of people out on the road to do their jobs is going to help with that, especially with increasing business rates and office rents encouraging mobile working.
Looking only at what OCS can do for the internal communication processes for a small business also misses a key aspect of company communication processes as a whole. They aren’t just things that go on inside the company; they are the essential way in which others contact and do business with that company. Using OCS to provide new ways to communicate with these others has the potential to increase convenience, lower cost and improve services for both the company and customers, partners, suppliers and anyone else it communicates with.
The basis of such external communication in OCS is the concept of federation. Federated contacts are people whose presence you can see, and with whom you can communicate using all of the services in OCS, but are not part of your company; they don’t exist in the company’s Active Directory. They can be contacts in another company with whom you have a relationship, or they can be connected via one of the public instant messenger services. Coupled with different levels of access to your contact information, this forms the foundation of an intelligent new way of working with clients, customers, suppliers – in fact, everyone external to your organisation with which you do business. From here, the possibilities are endless. Replacing meetings with video conferences is only the beginning; you now have a completely new set of ways to interact – ways that can create closer working relationships than have been possible before, while at the same time cutting costs and increasing flexibility.
Direct communication to groups inside a company is now becoming common practice. This may be to a sales function or to a technical support function, or simply to those people responsible for answering the main office telephone number. Two new features in OCS R2 enable direct communication with such groups. The Team Call function forwards calls incoming to a team leader to that leader’s team. The leader can set up under what circumstances the team will be called. Each available member of the team is signalled with the incoming call, which ceases when one member picks up the call. This would be ideal for a number of people who cover a reception role for the company. For more complex situations where a more formal or complex arrangement would be useful, the Response Group Service lets you configure groups that allocate incoming phone calls to one or more people responsible for answering the calls. This would be ideal for dealing with customer support queries, sales or marketing functions, or similar areas where there may be a need for call queuing, automated responses, or similar functions.
Some group features could make it worth installing OCS in your own business. The new Group Chat console in OCS R2 would be a very useful tool for a Technical Support function. The Chat console allows users to participate in ongoing chat. The chat rooms maintain a log of the chat going back in time, enabling users to search for previously posted content. Using Group Chat for technical support provides a method where company members can engage with clients individually, whilst at the same time building up a support resource which could be offered to other clients in the future.
More than voice mail integration or presence details, this may be where OCS has the potential to have the greatest impact on small businesses; the provision of world-class contact between themselves and their customers, actual and potential. Many companies are aware that outstanding customer service is unparalleled in positively influencing customer retention rates. The trouble is that it has previously been too expensive to provide world-class ways of interacting with customers. Video conferencing and Web conferencing have tended to require major investment in new hardware and software, or renting a facility from third-party service providers. Incoming call management has required complex PBXes, including software and maintenance contracts. Call response services have commonly been provided by third-party providers, or even more complex PBXs.
Given how many of these features it can provide, Microsoft Office Communications Server ought to be an absolutely essential product for small businesses. There are many ways it could enhance the business processes of a small business, both internally and in terms of interaction with customers or clients. It certainly could work wonders in terms of integrating communication for a small business spread over a number of different locations, whether that’s a business with two different sites, or a collaboration of ten people working from home, or some combination of core business location and remote workers. The problem is that unless external telecoms costs are very high, the setup costs are likely to outweigh any potential saving in terms of call costs or productivity in the short term, and that’s a difficult proposition to sell in the current economic climate.
Microsoft is definitely focussing on simple configured servers for small to medium enterprises with Small Business Server and Enterprise Business Server. OCS would best answer the needs of simple or very small businesses who would benefit from many of the features if it was packaged as a simple-to-configure Communication Server to sit alongside SBS or EBS. But right now, the complexity of the product outweighs those benefits.
For companies that are contemplating a change in their underlying communication infrastructure – perhaps looking to move to VoIP from ISDN or plain copper telephony, about to move office, or looking to expand their customer service provision, OCS must be on the list of alternatives to consider. It’s a sleeper product in that it does so much – but even if you start small with it, the sheer range and flexibility of what it can provide in terms of communication will bring the customer back asking you to implement more and more of it.
Alternatives to OCS
Since OCS is quite definitely an all-in-one solution, and given its level of integration with other Microsoft products including Outlook and Sharepoint, there are no other single offerings that replicate its functionality exactly. However, there are many products or services that each replicate a part of its functionality.
It’s possible to run a local instant messaging server such as Jabber, giving a controlled method for communication both within a company and with its clients. While Jabber has recently been acquired by Cisco, there are many free implementations of both the server-side software and of client software. There are many SIP-based VoIP products on the market, ranging from open source software such as the Asterisk software PBX (www.asterisk.org) through to commercial products from all major telephony and networking providers, such as Cisco, Linksys or Netgear.
Hosted Web-based conferencing is available from a large number of different service providers such as Yugma (www.yugma.com) or GoToMeeting (www.gotomeeting.com), and voice and video sharing can equally be provided by a wide range of different providers; the obvious example is Skype (www.skype.com).
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