Introducing Unified Communications into a business gives the business a whole new set of tools that, can aid collaboration and improve performance, however just introducing the tools is only half the battle. First you need to win them over to working collaboratively.
Unified Communications (UC) gives businesses the ability to combine their voice and data traffic onto a single network and gives employees new tools such as instant messaging, video conferencing, and web-based collaboration, which can help them to work more closely in teams, be more productive, and deliver information more quickly.
But introducing new ways of working to the workforce can be a difficult matter, because it means encouraging employees to engage with new technologies, work in a different way, and adopt new business processes.
Introducing UC means changing the business culture, and it is therefore important to have a clear strategy for how you're going to communicate with employees before and during the process of rolling out UC tools and technologies.
With any new IT initiative, it's a good idea to talk to staff from the outset, and to highlight the benefits of the new technology. For example, UC can bring to business users a universal inbox, a single phone number they can use from different devices, a set of contacts they can access from anywhere and the ability to indicate to people through Presence, what their availability is and how they would like to be communicated with.
Other benefits include giving employees greater mobility, as they can work more effectively out of the office using UC technology, and for the business itself, departments and business units can lower their call expenditure by using UC, which is a technology that harnesses low-cost digital IP telephony.
Understanding the workforce
Businesses should also take some time trying to understand how different groups of people communicate with each other, and which methods they currently use, for example e-mail, social networking, or even conversations at the water cooler.
This should take into account different modes of communication, for example whether employees use formal, informal, team-centric, or broadcast communication channels; and their cultural preferences and tools, in other words how they communicate, what they communicate, and how much they communicate.
Consider whether there is a risk that deploying a single UC application will actually disrupt the existing flow of information and get in the way of effective collaboration. If this is the case, then it's worth using a cautious approach with a lot of discussion with staff, to see how the introduction of new ways of working could be beneficial.
Some experts, including Microsoft, encourage new UC user organisations to build an end-user community in order to assist them with the transition, treat them as partners in the venture, and act on their feedback in order to give them a better service. Some of the tools they suggest using include internal blogs, discussion boards or information 'wikis'.
Experts say you should be prepared for surprising questions, to encourage ownership by power users, and to handle rude comments quickly rather than letting co-workers berate each other. Encourage professional behaviour and collaboration, and a team spirit in adopting new ways of communicating.
Making UC Champions
Some companies find that it is beneficial to find a technology champion in each department or team, who can explain to the others the best ways and the benefits of using UC.
Champions can be highly effective in learning and teaching how to use the new tools effectively, and encouraging their colleagues. You can offer incentives in terms of their personal development plan or career path, or even a prize for the most innovative and effective use of the new methods of communication.
As for the individual tools, businesses have a lot to gain from incorporating instant messaging into their daily working. Firstly, it means that colleagues can check and disseminate information and come to decisions quickly. It also means that time-critical and important decisions do not stay in the e-mail in tray. However, employees need to know that instant messaging is useful for certain things, and not ideal for others.
Voice conversations may be better for more detailed discussion. UC systems enable impromptu three- or more way conversations to be initiated, for immediate problem-solving or passing on information.
However, video conferencing also has its place, and again, UC systems can be used to pull diverse employees in from different geographic locations very quickly, to talk 'face-to-face' and also share information on interactive whiteboards, for example, or collaborate using images or online voting polls.
Managing the introduction of UC
With all of these new tools, it is very important to introduce them into your business without alienating the workforce. And because UC can be used to communicate between teams of employees, partners, customers and service providers, it is essential that everyone is comfortable with the tools they're using, including partners.
Like having a technology champion in each department, having IT or human resources personnel on hand to explain the functions and features of the new tools is also a good strategy.
The personal approach can help put people at ease who might be suspicious of technologies such as instant messaging, feeling they are being used to spy on them, or track their activities. This approach can also help to encourage people who are not used to sharing information freely, and may have anxieties or reservations about using digital collaboration or communication.
This face-to-face help can be supplemented with online documents, notes in the staff handbook, and posters highlighting the benefits and key features of the UC suite. Some degree of staff training might be beneficial, and sometimes external trainers are available for the main software suites, who can highlight the features and benefits of particular applications.
It is also worth explaining to employees the long-term goal of introducing new communications technologies, and helping people to understand that the business wants to be an organisation that communicates more efficiently, makes decisions in a more informed way, communicate with customers and partners better, and is more agile and responsive as a result.
After all, every business wants to be better than the competition, and if unified communication can help, it's worth getting the business to back it whole-heartedly.