As well as struggling to understand what I do for a living (“Mark works in computers”), my mother-in-law struggles to understand the concept of working from home. In fact, many people above a certain age do – in the same way that they may struggle with the concept of not wearing a suit and tie, or with flexible working hours – but, to sum it up on one sentence, work is something that I do – not a place where I go.
Work is something that I do – not a place where I go.
I work from anywhere, with colleagues in the UK and Europe, but also with contacts in the US and Australia (i.e. in different timezones).
So the business challenges in this new world of work are about working together in real time, keeping people up to date, sharing information and working in any place, at any time. Whilst it’s important to amend business processes (and personal attitudes) to accommodate these requirements, technology plays its part too. I was recently freed from the shackles of our corporate infrastructure to use a skunkworks mobile working platform that gave me access to Exchange Server 2007’s Outlook Anywhere functionality (no need to VPN into the corporate network) and Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007 but I still have some challenges to overcome – like many people, I suffer from communications chaos – playing “telephone tag”, getting stuck in “voice mail jail” and suffering from “e-mail overload”. Then there’s RSS feeds to keep up to date with and I often find instant messaging to be a distraction. Finally, I have to turn something off and MAKE IT STOP!!!
Inbox Zero helps with the e-mail overload. I’ve now reset all my RSS feeds and try and spend time at the start of each day reading the latest updates. My calendars are synchronised and my mobile phone is diverted to the VoIP desk phone in my home office when I’m not working somewhere else, and if I’m at home but away from my desk or on a call, the voice mail is forwarded to my e-mail Inbox (and filters prioritise it for action). In a way, I’ve started to unify my communications but only at an individual level.
What about my colleagues? Some of them have desk phones and mobiles – which should I call? I might be able to see their calendar and work out if they are at their desk but time of day could also be a consideration. If they are travelling then I might call the mobile. But sometimes I actually want to reach their voice mail (e.g. if I want to leave a message outside their normal working hours). If they only have one mobile phone (I have two so I can keep work and home life separate) then I don’t want to disturb them when they are on holiday – e-mail might be a better option. That’s why we need to unify the communications chaos.
Then there are meetings. As I consider whether my journey is really necessary (the picture here dates back to the second world war but these days the issue is rising fuel prices and a need to cut back on carbon emissions), I take part in an increasing number of conference calls and webcasts but I miss the interaction too… sometimes it’s useful to meet up face-to-face (where I work, my team has not met face-to-face for over 2 years, despite having been re-organised several times) but even if that’s not possible, video conferencing, and smart conference phones like the Microsoft Office RoundTable can really help.
So far, I’ve covered some of the reasons to unify communications but there’s another term that’s often banded about – unified messaging – what does that mean? Unified messaging is a form of unified communications and in order to understand the need for unified messaging, it helps to understand the concepts of synchronous and asynchronous communications.
The telephone is an example of synchronous communications – where we communicate in turn. We even have a three-way handshake at the beginning of a telephone call (phone rings, I answer, you reply). Other examples of synchronous communications are video conferencing and instant messaging.
But what if I don’t pick up the phone? It’s likely that the call will be diverted to voice mail and the caller’s brain struggles to switch to an asynchronous mode as they leave a message with all the pertinent points to be acted on later). Other examples of asynchronous communications are letters, faxes, and e-mail.
Unified messaging brings synchronous and asynchronous communications together – for example allowing fax and voice mail messages to be accessed together with e-mail in a single Inbox. Unified communications take this concept further and integrate unified messaging with instant messaging, presence awareness, video conferencing and desktop sharing.
To demonstrate the Microsoft view of unified communications, check out this short video based on the film “The Devil Wears Prada“:
In the video, a variety of Microsoft technologies are used to unify communications (all of which are available today):
- Phone call and secretary takes message (hard desk phone – the traditional way of working – although this could be integrated with Exchange Server 2007 and Office Communications Server 2007).
- Call on soft phone (Office Communicator) from a mobile contact (Windows Mobile) – forwarded to hard desk phone (Office Communications Server).
- Instant message to instantly warn colleagues of an impending event (Office Communicator and Office Communications Server).
- Message sent from smart phone to bring forward a meeting (Windows Mobile).
- Conference call set up in a matter of seconds (Live Meeting, with Office RoundTable conference phone in meeting room and personal webcam in remote office).
- Desktop sharing (Live Meeting).
- Mobile voice access to mail and calendar – move a meeting back and call by name (Exchange Server Unified Messaging).
- Status updates available at an instant (Windows Mobile).
Having set the scene for unified communications, subsequent posts will examine the technology in more detail, together with some of the challenges around implementation.
This post was based on the opening session from James O’Neill‘s presentation on the Microsoft View of Unified Communications earlier this week.