8 Aug 2014
For all the hype and investment, unified communications (UC) is only now starting to deliver the benefits it promised a decade ago, when enterprise leaders were initially sold on its transformative potential. The business case for UC is now largely agreed, and capital investment needed for UC deployment is now well within reach for SMEs as well, due to competitive cloud offerings and the wide availability of good bandwidth connections, both in the office and on the move through tablets and smartphones.
UC delivers the collaboration, which enhances decision making and teamwork, allowing organisations to become much more nimble. Important decisions in large business are not made over instant messaging, or, in this day and age, even by phone – people want group collaboration. According to Frost and Sullivan research, there were 60-70 million physical conference rooms globally in 2013, but less than five percent of these meeting rooms had video conferencing capability.
Video is coming and employees are increasingly asking for it
Video is coming and employees are increasingly asking for it, so SMEs are finding themselves in a position where they need to establish how they will effectively deliver it to staff on multiple levels.
The right infrastructure
IT professionals have a challenging task in order to make video work for their company: delivering a consistent, integrated user experience, while keeping up with a proliferation of devices, and keeping all of that within budget. For starters, even with the optimum hardware, you need to ensure you have a fast internet connection with high bandwidth and low latency to stop the video stream from stuttering and freezing, especially for full HD. Equally, when using video conferencing reliability is vital, so a wired ethernet connection will always be preferable over a wi-fi or mobile internet.
For video conferencing software, there is a wide range of quality and cost-effective choices available, from Skype or Google Hangouts, to subscription-based cloud solutions like Microsoft Office 365, or business quality UC solutions from Microsoft, Cisco and Lifesize. Video conferencing delivered through UC platforms such as Microsoft Lync and Cisco Jabber bring together voice, video and instant messaging within the software. They also provide the ability to collaborate with larger groups internally, or with business partners external to your company.
A report by Wainhouse Research indicates that a significant majority – 85 percent of people – agree that their company’s video conferencing deployment, room and personal systems, help them to be more productive. Furthermore, video adoption, as Frost and Sullivan found, is equally shown to boost overall UC adoption.
The reality on the ground in many companies is a little patchy. Although affordable and high-quality desktop video collaboration tools are readily available and provide a viable solution, sophisticated room-based video conferencing equipment is limited to large boardroom style meeting rooms, due to the expense of its deployment.
However, newer and affordable hardware solutions are now coming onto the market, allowing SMEs to deploy business-grade video conferencing in multiple small and mid-sized meeting rooms. Prohibitive costs are no longer a barrier to adoption. You can now create a roadmap for reliable and high-quality video adoption across the entire company, creating spaces that allow employees to foster an ‘anywhere, anytime’ workplace culture.
To maximise your company’s return-on-investment, you should choose the best quality, UC-certified devices that will boost user experience and encourage adoption and frequent use. People are used to an HD experience in the living room and expect the same in the workplace.
High-quality external webcams and headsets dramatically improve the desktop video-calling experience, making it much more lifelike and enjoyable, so that those involved quickly forget any initial inhibitions about using this technology. The same applies to video conferencing in the meeting room, where the key to success is to provide a consistent experience. This allows employees to simply connect their laptop and instantly participate in the video conference, having the familiar experience they are used to when using a desktop.
When selecting hardware, HD-quality is a necessity. In addition, you should look for devices with H.264 video encoding and scalable video coding technology. This allows the video stream to be processed within the camera itself, improving quality, and dynamically adjusting to available bandwidth. A wide angled lens with pan, tilt and zoom functionality will improve the webcam’s versatility, allowing multiple people to participate and allowing you to zoom in on details or a particular speaker during a video call. Far-end control is another interesting feature supported by some UC clients, allowing you to control the remote camera in the other room.
Whatever hardware and software solutions you finally choose, that decision has to be informed by the user: when and where do they need to collaborate, and how to provide a top-quality experience that encourages adoption and ensures return on your investment.
Equipment should be tailored to the person and their use case. The challenge is to maintain a consistent user experience whether the needs are at the desktop, in a collaborative environment or increasingly in a mobile scenario. A one-size-fits-all approach to devices is unlikely to succeed in today’s multi-faceted workplace.
It is also important to define bandwidth requirements. Video conferencing is a challenging application for business networks, and while newer encoding technologies can alleviate the demands on networks, best practice requires careful planning of bandwidth requirements across endpoints, location, expected call rate and concurrent call demands.
Another aspect to consider is the potential need to survey company meeting rooms and plan for deployment across all room types. Organisations tend to budget to equip the largest meeting room in a company; this is a mistake as it leads to having overly specialised equipment, which is under-utilised by the broader workforce. Consider how your meeting space requirements can evolve to fit a faster, fluid collaborative workspace, and take advantage of newer, affordable video conferencing solutions for small, ad-hoc meeting spaces, as well as high-demand mid-sized meeting rooms.
Savvy business owners and IT teams understand the pace at which the workplace is evolving, and the need to invest in technology to enable a collaborative workforce. It’s important to formulate the company strategy around collaboration, decide what part video conferencing will play in it, and plan the roadmap for the next 12 to 24 months accordingly. Traditional barriers to adoption, be they technology or user habit, are quickly being broken down. A new breed of video conferencing hardware is now available, providing an affordable alternative to high-end, immersive video conferencing solutions previously out of reach for most SMEs.
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