Skype for Business: One year on, so what are the results?

It’s now a year since Microsoft transitioned the Lync unified communications suite into Skype for Business, but has the enterprise embraced or shunned it?

The morphing of Microsoft’s unified communications (UC) suite, Lync, into Skype for Business a little over a year ago (early 2015) was more than just a change of name and logo – it was way for Redmond to get the enterprise user who was already familiar with the consumer version using the service within the corporate network.

But has that really happened? More importantly, how has the change gone down among users?

There were concerns around the launch of Skype for Business because users didn’t know what was behind the change, according to Ann Strachan, senior product manager at Orange Business Services. She says that Lync had a strong brand of its own, particularly because of its enterprise voice capabilities.

“Obviously, Skype was seen to have the stronger brand among consumers, but there were also concerns that the enterprise features of Lync would disappear under Skype for Business. However, it was purely a brand change in the end so worried users weren’t as vocal as they might have been,” says Strachan.

Where confusion did arise was around the pricing model of Skype for Business, says Shaun Ward, professional services infrastructure architect at services house and Microsoft integrator Trustmarque. This was because Skype is technically free-to-use for single users, although with extra functionality available at a cost.

“Microsoft, therefore, understood that simply changing the name of the product would not help users understand the difference between regular Skype and Skype for Business, as an evolution from Lync,” says Ward. This meant launching Skype for Business, which eased conversations around the rebrand and helped to overcome any confusion, he adds.

“As a result, conversations about Skype for Business are focused on the new feature sets rather than just the name and nature of Skype for Business when compared with Lync. Overall, we’re now seeing users start to forget about the Lync product as they move towards a full Skype for Business, or a hybrid solution.”

Challenges for the enterprise

Ward says that another couple of challenges for enterprises involve deciding on the strategic roadmap for Skype for Business, along with where to place their telephony service, and whether this means scaling to a full on premise Skype for Business solution, a hybrid model, or possibly a fully-in-the-cloud Office 365 solution.

“Options for this will, of course, expand once the Microsoft E5 subscription plan is available globally,” says Ward. Another challenge with which businesses struggle is facilitating the training of both backend IT administration staff and Skype for Business end users.

Strachan says the biggest challenge was finding out what it meant for the customer.

“With any unified comms solution, the most critical part, other than the network, design and deployment, is going to be the education programme and end user adoption. If you don’t get that right, you get dissatisfied end users and potentially low adoption rates,” she says.

She adds that setting up a unified comms platform such as Skype for Business starts with involving the users from the very beginning. The next step is to define what you want to achieve, including the amount of functionality you want to give users. Then comes the pilot phase, particularly if running it from new.

The importance of testing

“It’s important to get a wide range of users testing it and making sure the tools are successful on a small scale first before rolling it out more widely,” says Strachan.

Ward adds that a solid pilot phase is key when making the transition from one technology to another. “Organisations need to plan a pilot user community that will work collaboratively and use the platform without providing a false impression of the success or failure,” he says.

After that comes the need to ensure a guaranteed quality of service. People give up if the quality is poor, so ensuring the network is in place ­­­– with the right amount of available bandwidth – is important. “Only then can you put together a comprehensive plan,” says Strachan.

Ward adds that by setting key goals, collecting data on usage and performance throughout the process, as well as holding the solution to those strict requirements is essential to ensuring success.

“Moreover, gaining end user feedback is also vital to ensure the success of a technology deployment. Organisations should be following up each user community meeting with a questionnaire to find out the limitations and successes of the technology, as well as the sentiment towards it,” says Ward.

Managing the change

When deploying a project such as Skype for Business, things can get easily be derailed before it even gets moving, says Ward. “Organisations must remember that people absorb communications in different ways, so just sending emails to people is not always 100% effective when it comes to notifying them of the change,” he says.

The use of intranets, staging workshops, product flyers and on-the-job training are key to ensuring users adopt Skype for Business successfully.

Skype for Business is generally seen as intuitive by nature and easily picked up, but by physically demonstrating to users how they can improve their productivity and collaboration efforts using it will see a much more successful deployment and happier end users, adds Ward.

Nigel Dunn, managing director for the UK and Ireland at wireless technology developer Jabra, says during the first wave of implementation and deployment he saw that too little attention being paid to getting users to adopt and embrace unified communications.

“Whether this is because IT departments see themselves only as implementers of technology and not guardians of productivity, remains to be seen,” he says.

The result of this was little take-up of voice capabilities and low adoption among users. “In the wider roll-out phases we are now seeing much more emphasis on adoption. Ultimately, the success of a Skype for Business roll out is user experience,” adds Dunn.

Learning the lessons

The move to Skype for Business (and indeed UC) is all about the customer journey and user experience, according to Strachan, and it’s “also important to make sure you’re providing the UC tools that the users actually want”.

“It’s all very well going out and scoping something and just putting some tools in place. However, if it’s not suited to what people need to help them in their everyday business, it won’t be a successful project,” she adds.

Any technology project is judged on how many people use it and the tangible benefits. “That’s why you should involve users from the beginning and why a phased approach is key to a good deployment,” says Strachan.

These sentiments are echoed by Ward. He says that when deploying new technology, organisations need to prepare a plan to tackle user resistance.

“Many people will have an affinity with the same devices (handsets, for example). However, some will use the same device in different ways – some with headsets, some without – so organisations must never gamble on a one-size-fits-all solution,” says Ward. “Organisations need to also ensure they are in the Lync Catalogue for compatibility, and prepare manuals for staff.”

Dunn says the biggest lesson to learn is that if companies view the shift from Lync to Skype for Business as a technology change, they will miss the opportunity to transform the way people work.

“Despite the obvious benefits of mobility that Skype for Business provides (the ability to do the same tasks in any location) most rollouts come with wholesale deployments of new telephones,” he says. “It immediately means that all users are tethered to the same desk they had before, which will ultimately mean they miss out on the incredible benefits of UC.”

The move to Skype for Business must be able to focus on the transformation of the way people work and not the technology, according to Dunn.

“The focus should be on how to make the user experience an ultra-positive one, and to make employees more productive. By understanding how people work, in what environment and where, we can provide ideal solutions to enhance the user experience which will drive adoption, increase productivity and ultimately enhance the bottom line.”

Next stop is the cloud

While on-premise has been a big part of Lync and now Skype for Business, ultimately the cloud beckons. Matt Hurst, technical director at Sonus, says the next development phase for Skype for Business has been the introduction of voice services in the cloud, with the launch of CloudPBX in Office 365.

Hurst adds that this “has introduced a new dynamic for enterprises to consider, such as ‘How much can I move to the cloud, and how can I leverage voice within this new cloud architecture’”.

He says that many organisations will face challenges deciding on the right deployment strategy for their voice services.

“It’s rare to see an organisation make an overnight cutover of voice infrastructure and voice access services at the same time. Therefore, it’s important to transition at your own pace, consider the deployment options and make sure you have the right solutions in place to make your migration to the cloud a seamless one,” adds Hurst.

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