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How Australian enterprises are unifying business communications

Business leaders and experts in rolling out unified communications tools in Australia stress the importance of change management and employee consultation to avoid digital white elephants

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Selecting the right technology to support collaboration and connection is probably the simplest part of any unified communications (UC) initiative – getting the processes and the culture right is often the bigger challenge for many organisations.

Deploying UC tools in isolation risks investing in white elephants. Productive deployments come from IT, HR and facilities managers working together to ensure workers have the right tools, work processes, skills and motivations to function fully.

BPay, a forward-looking business that offers electronic bill payment services in Australia, knew all of that, and sought to improve its workplace and work practices that were anchored in history.

Its chief information officer Angela Donohue explains: “In our old offices, we had ageing infrastructure that was in desperate need of investment. Our employees were anchored to their desks and there was a strong sense of ownership in the office space, which was a big contributor to siloed behaviour.”

BPay wanted to engineer a modern workplace where employees are no longer constrained by the office environment. “We knew we needed to implement a more flexible, digital and open work environment, in order to accurately position ourselves as an agile organisation with a willingness to try something different.”

Working with UC specialist Modality, BPay implemented a cloud-based private branch exchange (PBX) that integrates with Office 365, an office productivity suite already being used by its employees.

BPay was ahead of its time. Microsoft and Telstra announced in March 2017 that they will roll out a managed voice service later this year that will let people make phone calls from within Office 365 applications.

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The productivity and collaboration functions of Office, including the Teams collaboration platform, will be linked with voice through Telstra’s cloud-based PBX, which can be physically located on-premise or supplied as a cloud service. BPay didn’t wait for the vendors to get their act together and has already engineered that functionality on its own.

But engineering alone was not enough. Donohue needed a “robust change management solution” to deliver what the business wanted.

“We had a raft of strategies, including engaging in regular communication with staff, providing opportunities for collaborative decision-making about equipment used, and offering different types of training, she says.

“We have since redefined BPay’s values to better reflect our new ways of working. We introduced human-centred design into our realm of product development, ensuring we always step forward, work with minds wide open, and think customer.”

Driving collaboration

While it may think citizen rather than customer, the Australian government is also keen to break down enterprise silos and encourage more teamwork and collaboration.

John Sheridan, chief information officer of the department of finance recently announced that it is working with Australian IT service provider Data#3 on a government-wide collaboration service using Office 365.

It wants people to use the unified platform to work together, communicate, share documents and find collaboration partners. Engineering change management in the public sector is notoriously challenging, but it will have to be tackled if the UC service is to achieve what Sheridan wants.

Vaughan Klein, director of collaboration at Cisco Australia and New Zealand (ANZ), acknowledges that UC has mainly been adopted by large enterprises seeking agility and the opportunity to innovate.

One of the leading UC players worldwide, Cisco is now seeing double digit growth for these platforms that let employees participate in online meetings, complete with voice, video, messaging and white-boarding capabilities.

“You can bring together people quickly, seamlessly and dynamically. They can have access to a full suite regardless of location,” said Klein.

No field of dreams

Klein is frank that although the technology underpinnings are in place, UC is “not universally working well”. Indeed, this is no Field of Dreams, the film where a farmer builds a baseball pitch in a corn field because he hears a voice in his head saying “if you build it, they will come”.

Some UC and collaboration services risk being rolled out but used by no one.

Klein, however, believes the demographic shift underway in enterprises will help drive adoption, as younger executives move into senior roles and digital natives demand workplace flexibility and a different professional experience.

Enterprise IT, human resources and facilities managers will also need to “come together to deliver the employee experience to move the needle”.

Bjarne Munch, a Gartner research analyst, says that although enterprises in ANZ are adopting UC platforms, they often deploying point products rather than truly unified platforms, making them a little behind their US peers.

“Enterprises are still focused on voice telephone and slowly transitioning from their PSTN [public switched telephone network] with carriers,” he says. “But as contracts end, companies are looking to potentially cheaper and more flexible solutions, especially given the viability of running voice over broadband.”

Munch notes that there is still some bifurcation between UC offerings focused on telephone and those that facilitate collaboration. Complete integration and the opportunity for persistent collaboration are still rare, though he says both Microsoft and Cisco are moving in that direction.

User experience is king

The technology decision should however still be dictated by user experience, according to Klein.

He says organisations that succeed tend to understand what user experience employees want. They also work out use cases and identify projects or functions that people want to improve.

When building a business case, Klein says there is evidence that effective activity-based working, supported by UC and collaboration tools, can rein in real estate costs. There are also productivity improvements to be reaped and enhanced employee engagement – when solutions are deployed properly with due account to HR issues.

But his final warning is clear: “This has to go into workflow, rather than set up another silo”.

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