Unified Communications can bridge the business gaps

Technology drawing together a host of communication tools is set to enhance the nature of business collaboration, say Gerard O’Neill and Frank Saad

The execution of business processes in manufacturing companies — from product development to sales and marketing — requires the ability to collaborate across a range of functions and disciplines within and beyond the enterprise itself.

This is easier said than done. While business processes are typically cross-functional, most manufacturers choose to organise themselves around individual functions so that these tasks become organisational silos.

The lack of integration between the so-called ‘unstructured’ communications tools available to these functions — email, phone and messaging — imposes another layer of silos onto the company.

The increasingly specialised ‘structured’ communications — such as enterprise resource planning or CAD applications — often serve to harden the silo walls by impeding rather than making it easier to share data with groups in other functional areas. Traditionally, software providers have paid little attention to the issue. As a result, the only way for an engineer to keep a patent lawyer abreast of important design changes might be for the lawyer to acquire an expensive ‘seat’ licence to use the engineering software.

A new generation of collaboration technologies known as unified communications (UC) looks set to bridge the silos and enable workers to share information without the need for traditional systems integration projects, which can be costly and complex. Loosely used to describe the integration of disparate systems, devices and applications, UC is intended to change the nature of collaboration in business.

An instant-messaging (IM) functionality will make it a one-click task to elevate an IM session to a call. Presence-awareness technologies will tell us, before placing a call, whether other colleagues are free to join us and, if so, we will click to conference them in. A single inbox for voice, email, fax and video will make communications easier to manage, enabling faster response times and eliminating the need for leaving multiple ‘call-me-back’ messages on different devices. Knowing where we are and what devices we are logged in on, the network will map communications to whatever device we are ‘available’ on.

Structured communications will also become easier. Software developers are already embedding audio, video and other features that create UC environments in their applications. Rather than having to purchase a user licence for the engineering software, it might be sufficient to use the software’s UC features to send an SMS to the lawyer’s phone when certain state changes (such as the design’s approval) occur.

BT believes that the impact on manufacturing operations will be profound. Consider R&D. With most of a product’s costs locked down, irreversibly, in the R&D phase of a product’s lifecycle, the imperative to get design right first time is high. Enhancing existing communications between engineers with voice, video, chat and IM will help to minimise the risk of error in development and avoid product defects and recalls.

Another area set to benefit is supplier relationship management. The rise of strategic sourcing enables manufacturers to concentrate larger orders over fewer suppliers in return for better terms and conditions. The selected suppliers are treated as strategic rather than transactional partners and their impact on operations is huge. It is increasingly common for strategic sourcing partners to provide value-added functions beyond the supply of parts.

Successfully integrating such suppliers into complex, global operations is dependent on the efficient exchange of information and rich communications environments — such as those provided by UC technologies — that minimise the risk of interruption or inefficiencies in information flows. As a result of fewer and larger opportunities, relationships must be sustained over extended periods and the cost of failure becomes higher. Relationships are easier to manage when an individual has a rich suite of communications tools to manage them with.

Presence-awareness, find-me-follow-me, click-to-call and other features of UC are valuable assets for many manufacturing environments, such as warehouse and logistics, where a misunderstood instruction may result in a cancelled or incorrect order that directly affects the enterprise’s profitability. The same features will make the production planning process more agile, enabling schedulers to rapidly communicate changes to those responsible for production. UC’s ability to drive improvements in efficiency is limited only by an organisation’s ambitions and imagination.

We can expect to hear a lot more about UC in the coming months as recognised proponents such as Cisco and Microsoft ramp up their marketing efforts. Both have been committed to adding features that compete and technologies that allow the user to unify the disparate forms of communications available in the market. Given their backgrounds and positions of strength, it once looked like a battle that would be fought between the ‘network’ and the ‘desktop’, but recent moves show that both companies also aim to move their offerings to the ‘cloud’ and are committed to providing services on a pay-per-use basis, which customers will access via the internet.

However, this is still some way off and many customers will reach a point over the next few years where they have UC technologies from different suppliers at their core. Reluctant to put all their eggs in one basket and move to a single supplier, customers will expect to see interoperability between the main players.

There is a stated commitment between manufacturers to guarantee interoperability. However, some sections of the market remain sceptical. Early indicators suggest that customers will look to their carriers to make these communication technologies work together. BT’s manufacturing practice is already engaged in a number of initiatives with these manufacturers to ensure that UC makes the difference it promises.

Gerard O’Neill is manufacturing practice director for BT Global Services. Frank Saad is an independent IT consultant.

A White Paper on UC in the manufacturing sector can be found at www.theengineer.co.uk/manufacturing