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Unified communications and the collaborative enterprise

10th Nov 2011
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Brent Leary interviews David Alexander, senior product manager for Microsoft's Unified Communications division, about UC's role in the collaborative enterprise and how Lync has supported Volkswagen's communications needs.

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BRENT: You are working in the unified communications side of the house for Microsoft, so maybe you could give us a little bit of a definition of what unified communication means to Microsoft.
DAVID: Sure, as we start to think about unified communications it’s really, here at Microsoft, about how we think about making organisations as productive as possible. If you look at all of the different ways people communicate inside of an organisation, you have a number of different forums. You have email, instant messaging and voice. What we have done as part of our unified communications portfolio is really take a look at those different kinds of communications.
Lync is basically a full product that will enable enterprise instant messaging. Give you access to presence information so that you can see the availability of the people inside and outside of your organisation through federation. It also has all of the conferencing capabilities that you may want. It has full audio, video web conferencing, in addition, one of the newest releases and one of the newest features of Lync is it now offers full voice PBX functionality. So it can actually act as your phone. 
If you want to think about how Microsoft really changed the way we look at Unified Communications, in all of our different products over the last couple of years, we have got a really strong push inside the corporate company today to start moving things to the cloud. That is certainly no surprise with what we are doing with our unified communications products, and we have rolled them into the Office 365, which is a new cloud solution.
BRENT: When you think about unified communications, maybe this is old thinking, but a couple years back you would think of enterprise level applications; like Exchange and others, or hardware and things that a lot of small businesses couldn’t afford. It sounds like Office 365 offers folks that at the SMB level the ability to really integrate unified communications at a cost and a technology footprint that is pretty easy to swallow today.
DAVID: Yeah, it really does. Our Cloud offerings are really available for the large enterprise customers to even the smallest soho’s out there, so the smallest small businesses. We really have the capabilities to do all of our different products online. We have got Exchange email, Lync, which is IM presence, conferencing. Then we have also got SharePoint and Office available within the cloud as well. All of those different capabilities that you may want - enterprises level capabilities - are all available for small businesses now in the cloud with Office 365.
BRENT: It is also a way for companies, maybe a little larger, not only to communicate with customers but to have more collaboration, information sharing and ability to communicate more internally with other folks throughout the organisation. You have an interesting project going on with the folks at Volkswagen. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that?
DAVID: I have been using the product, well over a year, a couple of years now, if you go back into the beta timeframe. It’s truly changed the way that I communicate. 
We were talking to one of our customers, Volkswagen, about some of their experiences as they were doing a pilot, actually of Lync and some of the numbers that they came back with, things like forty hours of productivity gained per employee, per month; just an overwhelming number of meetings and productivity gains that were actually happening inside of their organization. We wanted to go and highlight them throughout their entire roll out of the product. 
We created a site called TestDrivingLync.com and we have forty people inside of the Volkswagen Corporation who are actually blogging everyday about their experiences as they roll out Lync form both the IT perspective and the end user perspective. There are some interesting things going on here, people talking about how their meetings have changed. How their communications inside of their organization, across different geographic boundaries and time zone boundaries, are changing. How people are starting to access their voicemail through Lync. How they are actually accessing Lync when they are traveling on the road. 
There was an interesting story actually where one of the guys was able to get a wireless connection on, one of his flights from Detroit to San Francisco and he was able to actually keep his business moving and his employees moving when they had a lot of questions because he was able to actually have a quick conference with them while he was in the plane. So a number of different ways that people can stay productive and a product like Lync can actually drive productivity inside of an organisation.
BRENT: One of the things that kind of caught my attention about this approach that Volkswagen is doing is, you mentioned that they are blogging and you have the site set up, they are being really transparent about how things are going. Their blogging is open, it’s not something that is being monitored, but they are telling the day in the life story of how they are using Lync - the ups and downs, the good and bad.
DAVID: Yeah, exactly, you know, you certainly take a little bit of a risk when you open yourself up like that. We felt very confident in the products ability to really change the way that people communicate and so we have provided this unfiltered view. You will see that we go on there and we are commenting occasionally and talk to these guys on the blog, but this is a 100% unfiltered view of what’s happening inside of that organisation. There is a couple of mentions of a couple of patches that they ran into that they needed to run to fix an issue. There was talk about a power outage that happened, but there are also tons of opportunities for them to talk about all of the great things that they are experiencing with Lync as well and I think once people go and take a look, they will see that there’s a lot of great conversation going.
That is really what we wanted, this true authentic customer voice that unfiltered conversation to be able to happen. I think that is what our customers are looking for. I think that is what people are looking for out there, not just the marketing content that we all love to create, but also the real customer content that we are showcasing here.
BRENT: How has that open communication via the blog, impacted the way Volkswagen folks are communicating with each other and leveraging Lync, as they begin to push it out to 1500 people.
DAVID: Exactly and that’s a great question. Early on, it’s been kind of funny to see how these guys have changed the way that they communicate as well. Early on, we had to encourage these guys to make sure that they are blogging the truth - if you run into an issue blog about it. If you run into a great thing that is happening, blog about it, tell us your story. We had to let them know to be completely transparent because I think that they were expecting us to want a filtered down version, which we really didn’t want.
But as these guys are starting to use the product more inside of their company, not only are they feeling more comfortable talking about the technology and how it is actually impacting them, but just their ability to communicate has opened up. You will see that their tones have certainly changed and the conversations that they are having have certainly changed over the last 75 days, as of today we are 75 days into the program.
BRENT: Have you been able to get any feedback in terms of how successful they feel with using the unified communications via Lync and the other Microsoft technologies? Is it impacting their internal relationships the way they expected it to? Or, are they finding some surprises?
DAVID: Yeah, I think that is a great question and I could speak for them and say, I think that they seem to be having a great time with it. It certainly seems to be going very well. If you go to www.TestDrivingLync.com you actually can go and see exactly how it is going from their perspective. I would even encourage you to ask questions to the bloggers. These are real people over there, each of them have told their story on the website and they can certainly tell you in their own words how it’s going.
BRENT: Look out a year down the road, where do you see companies leveraging these kind of tools, maybe in particular, your suite of unified communication tools, to really improve the way they connect and collaborate, internally and externally?
DAVID: Sure, it’s no secret that the way that companies are communicating inside, even externally is starting to shift and we are seeing a tremendous shift as well. Not only as companies are seeing more pressure from a cost perspective, but even a productivity perspective. How do I make my biggest assets, employees, that much more effective? I think even in this down economy companies are starting to see their employees, their most important assets as places that they can really start to drive gains, efficiencies and they can do that by driving more effectiveness in their communications.
A product like Lync really enables people to communicate that much more effectively both inside of their company and outside, is really changing the way that people are communicating. Just having my laptop, for example, be my phone, makes me that much more effective when I am on the road. If I go and I am in a hotel room traveling for business and I open up my laptop, get an internet connection, it’s actually my company phone that I am taking with me, no matter where I go. I can go and communicate with people if I am in an airplane. I can have IM conversations. I can share my desktop. There is just so many different ways that you can communicate with a product like Lync, just driving that much more efficiency and effectiveness inside your organization.
BRENT: Will we see some of that also move over to some Window phone devices?
DAVID: Yeah, actually we have got our upcoming releases of our mobile clients coming out which people will not only be able to have this on their laptops, or on their corporate PCs, they will actually be able to have it on their mobile device if they are using an iPhone, Windows Phone or even Android device. They will actually be able to take Lync with them on their mobile, which will make them that much more effective, no matter where they are.
BRENT: Where can people go to learn more about what you guys are doing with unified communications?
DAVID: Great place to start is at www.Lync.com and there is a lot of great information out there about what the product can do. You can also go to www.Microsoft.com/Exchange and see what we got going on the messaging or the email side; a lot of great offerings out there in market. Lastly, if you would like to see how we can do all of these solutions in the Cloud, our www.Microsoft.com/Office365 site has tons and tons of great information for you.

Brent Leary is a crm industry analyst, advisor, author, speaker and award winning blogger. He is co-founder and Partner of CRM Essentials LLC, an Atlanta based CRM advisory firm covering tools and strategies for improving business relationships. In 2009 he co-authored Barack 2.0: Social Media Lessons for Small Business. Recognised by InsideCRM as one of the 25 most influential industry leaders, Leary also is a past recipient of CRM Magazine's Most Influential Leader Award. He serves on the national board of the CRM Association, on the advisory board of the University of Toronto's CRM Center of Excellence, and on the editorial advisory board for The Atlanta Tribune. Leary writes a regular online column for Inc. magazine, and blogs at BrentLeary.com. He can be found on Twitter at http://twitter.com/BrentLeary.

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