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ASEAN’s growing appetite for unified communications

Led by enterprises in Singapore and Malaysia, adoption of unified communications tools is expected to grow with the surge in demand for cloud-based and hosted offerings

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CW ASEAN: CW ASEAN: Connect your people with UC

At Pan Pacific Hotels Group, a Singapore-based hotel operator with over 10,000 rooms in Asia, Australasia and North America, employees have been using their personal devices to make and respond to calls as they move around the workplace.

That was not always the case. Before Pan Pacific implemented unified communications (UC), a set of technologies that brings together various real-time communication tools to improve collaboration and productivity, its staff members were provided with corporate devices that incurred costly phone contracts and handsets.

“Employees can respond to calls and attend to guests more efficiently as they move about the hotel,” says Tsi Lip Siong, vice-president of IT at Pan Pacific.

“For example, if a guest mentions there is a fault in a hotel room, the staff member can quickly call the maintenance team or an external supplier to resolve the issue, rather than moving to a different part of the hotel or returning to the back office to make the call from their desk phone.”

The hotel’s workers now spend most of their time attending to guests throughout the hotel. They can also work remotely when required, reducing the demand for additional office space that will incur higher heating, cooling, furnishing and cleaning costs.

“The right collaboration technology encourages human-to-human connections that enable workforces to be agile and drive productivity,” says Minhaj Zia, Polycom’s vice-president of sales for India, Southeast Asia and South Asia. “According to our survey, 63% of workers want access to unified communications for this reason.”

“With millennials and younger generations forming a huge portion of the workforce today, working environments now need to be agile, responsive and efficient. Collaboration needs are both real-time and non-real-time and across all desktop and mobile devices,” he says.

Growing demand for UC

UC is only possible with the use of IP (internet protocol) to facilitate voice, text and video communications, complete with white-boarding and file-sharing capabilities, on a single platform, alleviating the need to manage multiple collaboration applications and communications services.

Across Southeast Asia, the demand for UC services and applications has been growing. Frost and Sullivan, a technology research firm, divides the market into two segments: on-premise UC applications in the customer premises equipment (CPE) model, as well as cloud-based and hosted services.

In 2017, the CPE market was estimated to reach $551m in Southeast Asia, and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 5.5% to reach $618.4m by 2022.

The growth in demand for cloud-based or hosted UC services is even higher. By the end of 2022, that segment of the market is predicted to grow at a CAGR of 11.8%, and reach $98m – up from just $60m in 2017.

Jessie Yu, research manager for ICT at Frost and Sullivan Asia-Pacific, sees telephony and conferencing as the two of the most common UC applications in Southeast Asia, like other regions.

While the use cases for UC are similar in every region, the difference lies in the challenges they solve. For example, when healthcare service providers implement UC, their aim is to bring medical care and consultation to a wider audience through telemedicine, says Polycom’s Zia.

“However, this solves different issues in different countries,” he adds. “For instance, our partnership with the Quang Ninh Department of Health in Vietnam helped bridge the rural-urban divide, by extending critical healthcare services to rural populations, and by providing increased access to doctors and medical staff via its telehealth network across 24 hospitals and community healthcare centres”.

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Over at Beijing Xuanwu Hospital in China, besides bridging the rural-urban divide, the other challenge Polycom helped to alleviate was to enable centralised training and real-time guidance in diagnosing and treating stroke patients, so that time-critical help can be rendered.

UC suppliers including Polycom and Microsoft, however, say the adoption of UC is not uniform across the region, with the majority of deployments taking place in more developed markets such as Singapore and Malaysia.

Polycom’s Zia says Singapore stands out as one of the world’s easiest places to do business, with a multitude of multinational firms as well as small and medium-sized ones that have strong collaboration needs in order to do business locally and globally.

“We have seen strong demand in Vietnam and Indonesia as well,” he says. “Vietnam's public and private sector infrastructure investment averaged 5.7% of gross domestic product in recent years, the highest in Southeast Asia, while Indonesia’s strong economic outlook drives investment in technology that helps businesses grow.”

Slow cloud adoption

But from a technology perspective, Yu says Southeast Asia lags behind Australia and New Zealand in adopting cloud-based UC offerings and IP voice, noting that many organisations are using on-premise UC offerings, and that some are still holding on to traditional telephony based on time division multiplexer (TDM) private branch exchange (PBX) technology.

Cloud-based and hosted UC services offer several advantages over on-premise ones, such as lower capital expenditure and installation costs, minimal infrastructure requirements and access to the latest product updates. The only drawback is that organisations are more reliant on their internet link and hosting service.

Frost and Sullivan’s Yu says although cloud-based UC services, also known as UC-as-a-Service (UCaaS), come with applications such as e-mail, instant messaging, conferencing and voice, it might take two to three years for enterprises to migrate to the cloud for a few reasons.

First, because UCaaS is relatively new and typically managed by IT departments, there will security, return-on-investment and IT management considerations.

Also, with the consumerisation of IT, there are a lot more choices available in the market than before, so enterprises may take longer to decide on an UCaaS offering to some extent.

And finally, because UC is not usually seen as a mission-critical application for most enterprises, its role in an organisation’s digital transformation journey may only be slowly reflected in the next few years, says Yu.

Sandeep Mehra, managing director for collaboration sales at Cisco Asia-Pacific and Japan, however, notes that there is no right or wrong time for any business to move to cloud-based offerings.

Plenty of customers that I speak to consider security and data sovereignty a growing concern, especially in the public sector, and are hesitant to move to the cloud, he says. Frankly, they need a solution that they can consume on-premise and in the cloud.

For enterprises that are looking to implement UCaaS, IDC’s senior research manager for telecoms Nikhil Batra recommends establishing an implementation road map determined by business needs; devising a migration strategy; building an adoption plan to encourage users to use the new tools; and formulating a disaster recovery plan based on the opportunity cost of outages.

Team collaboration upstarts

Meanwhile, a new breed of cloud-based team collaboration tools and services that offer a better user experience have emerged, challenging traditional UC suppliers in some cases.

Take Slack, for example. While the company does not count itself as a UC player, that view is a merely a technicality as Slack’s integration application programming interfaces (APIs) allow businesses to fulfil their communication needs on the platform.

Slack, whose co-founder and chief technology officer Cal Henderson told Nikkei Asian Review in November 2017 that about 20% of its two million paying users are in the Asia-Pacific region, declined to comment for this story.

Yu says similar services such as Ding Talk offered by Alibaba are also entering markets such as Malaysia, while Facebook Workplace is growing in awareness and adoption in Southeast Asia. These team collaboration applications, she says, are driving UC into the broader digital workplace.

“Team collaboration applications such as Slack and Ding Talk are certainly driving workflow management in a mobile-first and user friendly manner,” she says, noting that their freemium pricing model reduces the hassle for enterprises to go through the drawn-out decision-making process.

However, for enterprise customers, Yu warns there will be a transition period as existing office automation and workflow management applications will need to be integrated into those platforms.

What to look out for in a UC service

Vivek Ravindran, senior director of modern workplace at Microsoft Asia Pacific, says organisations can consider the following areas in choosing a modern UC service:

A complete meeting experience: The activities before and after a call are as important as the meeting or call itself. Microsoft Teams, for example, allows employees to send an agenda, schedule invitations, and highlight the relevant discussions or content in the channel to provide context before a meeting.

Enhanced integrations with Office 365 will also give team members the context they need to enter a meeting prepared to have a productive conversation. Workgroups can view notes from past calls, review action items, and retrieve documents they’ve worked on together. During the meeting, it’s easy to capture critical moments and tasks.

After the meeting, members can publish notes, update content, and track action items right alongside the discussion in the Teams channel. Cloud-based recordings will allow team members who missed the meeting to catch up. In the future, AI-powered translation and transcription services will connect team members across language barriers and enable everyone to participate in the discussion.

Fully-integrated with productivity suite: Modern UC should not just be a conference call facility, but one that is fully integrated with office applications. With Microsoft Teams, work groups can collaborate right in their Office apps – co-authoring and editing files and viewing conversations, files, and tools right in the team workspace. Included in most Office 365 subscriptions, Teams is integrated with Microsoft Outlook, SharePoint, OneNote, Power BI and Planner.

Customisable workspaces: Modern UC solutions should enable workgroups to customise their workspaces to include apps and services for their team and the organisation, create channels based on work streams or topics, pin commonly used files, and even automate simpler work tasks by adding bots.

Enterprise security, compliance, and manageability: People do not use technology that they don’t trust. Modern UC solutions should be designed with enterprise-grade security, compliance and manageability in place. Microsoft Teams provides data encryption at all times, at rest and in transit. It has multifactor authentication for enhanced identity protection, and information protection with archive, e-discovery, legal hold, compliance content search, auditing, and reporting. Support engineers are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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