With the Olympics taking place in London this year, many local businesses throughout the city braced themselves for the increase in tourists and potential disruption of daily operations. While the actual totals are still being calculated, the total population of London was expected to expand by a third, with approximately an additional million people using the “Tube” or subway each day. What was normally a 10-15 minute commute to work could take 30- 45 minutes; placing a significant burden on employees and corporations alike.

Advanced planning and preparation were needed prior to the Olympic Games to keep corporations and other organizations running smoothly and avoid lost revenue or extended downtime. The Cabinet Office released a guide which addressed many potential obstacles companies might face in areas affected by the Games. Preparing Your Business for the Games suggested continuity plans that could be implemented to minimize the impact of increased traffic, technology failures and supply chain interruptions.

A significant concern was employee availability, as staff wanted to take time off to attend or volunteer at the games, or simply because they did not want to deal with the increased congestion traveling to work. As a result, many organizations allowed more flexible work options; such as working from home or at a different office, or altering work times to off-peak hours. Unified communications (UC) and video conferencing solutions provided an optimal platform for staff to stay engaged at work while avoiding congestion from the Games.

Karen Bond, a Director at the London office of an international consulting firm, said she encouraged most of her employees to work from home during the Olympic Games. “It was just easier than dealing with the traffic and the Tube. We kept in touch using email, phone calls and instant messaging but I did miss the face-to-face interaction with my staff.” says Ms. Bond.

Another concern was a technology failure; according to the Cabinet Office “it is possible that internet services may be slower during the Games or in very severe cases there may be drop outs due to an increased number of people accessing the internet.” Some businesses turned to cloud services to support the collaboration solutions in place by addressing network dysfunction. These services ensure video calls and other systems run over the network go smoothly no matter how much or how little traffic exists at a given time.

As the Olympic Torch has been extinguished and employees return to business as usual; companies can still use the Olympics as a learning experience. Doing things a little differently for a short period of time can offer unexpected rewards. Maybe the increased use of a video conferencing has reacquainted companies with all of the benefits video offers; from reduced travel time and expenses to a highly functional remote workforce. Or, perhaps implementing a business continuity plan prepared organizations for an unexpected power outage, snow storm or other natural disaster.

Social collaboration, a combination of social media, visual collaboration and unified communications, is becoming a significant trend in business today. When used together, these technologies can improve products or processes and ultimately drive true innovation which has a direct impact on a firm’s bottom line. This is the final post in a series discussing the benefits of social collaboration. For part one click here.

Customer needs are changing faster than the weather these days and companies have to find new ways to adapt; otherwise they will simply fade away. Pushing products or services upon customers, à la advertising or herded cattle, is no longer an effective business model. Technological innovations have changed the way consumers think, act and shop; however, they have also made it easier for companies to develop relationships with their customers.

Why should companies care about developing relationships?

Three words: customer lifetime value. The stronger the relationship a customer has with a brand the higher their loyalty, their retention and ultimately their sales. Having conversations with customers over social media and listening to their thoughts, opinions and ideas can help form a solid foundation for a relationship. Similarly, utilizing video technologies for customer service or technical support can help establish trust with consumers as video almost humanizes the company in customer eyes.

Furthermore, strong customer relationships can help drive innovation. The more companies converse with customers and the stronger the relationship is; the more apt customers are to provide honest feedback. This not only helps companies fix product flaws but allows them to stay in tune with market needs and opportunities.

Companies can collaborate with customers to create products and services that are perfectly aligned with market needs. Product development cycles can be sped up through beta versions of a product where customers provide feedback on their likes and dislikes and offer suggestions on how to make the product better. According to Nilofer Merchant in the HBR article Rules for the Social Era, “the social object that most unites people is a shared value or purpose.”

A shared value or purpose can be creating or modifying a product to satisfy a market need. People love to be the first to try something new; even more, they love giving feedback so they can say they helped create a product.  Unified communications solutions have given a new meaning to the word focus group; companies can easily set up forums for customers to give their thoughts on beta versions. This is far more cost effective, and provides better results, than hiring a few engineers and product development specialists to test all aspects of a product before mass-marketing it.

Collaboration with customers allows companies to stay agile and ahead of new trends. It helps ensure they are meeting customer needs by constantly making improvements or trying new ideas to create new niche markets. Collaboration helps companies stay relevant which really is the key to staying in the forefront of customers’ minds.

This post is part of a series covering the benefits of social collaboration within an organization.

Part One: The Rise of Social Collaboration
Part Two: Unified Communications, Unified People
Part Three: The Power of Business Partnerships

“Last year was the worst year we’ve had in the history of disasters.” – Al Berman, Disaster Recovery Institute.

That sounds pretty ominous, but what exactly does it mean?

Organizations have been facing costly downtime and the frustrating task of getting systems back online and operations up and running in the aftermath of earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and more. A disaster can be as simple as a single building power failure or severe and horrific as the Japanese tsunami. Even if the event is isolated, the after effects can permeate throughout an organization, especially if employees are dispersed and required to collaborate remotely.

What’s alarming though is that countless organizations do not have a business continuity plan in place. These plans outline the processes and procedures needed to react quickly in situations and limit the amount of disaster recovery efforts needed in the aftermath.

So what is the best way to go about preparing for a disaster?

Redundancy is Key
A business continuity plan must be defined and agreed upon by all stakeholders and have well-defined IT strategy that includes redundant systems housed in multiple locations. If the organization relies on cloud hosting providers, ensure those data centers are geographically dispersed. For example, if your host is 10 miles up the road and the entire region is hit by a massive hurricane, the redundancy of the cloud will be null and void.

Enable Collaboration
Communication is perhaps the highest priority during disaster situations; therefore, any plan should include how to maintain contact with all employees. Unified communications technology plays a critical role as it keeps employees connected throughout day-to-day operations. In addition, these systems are essential to keeping the lines of communication open during a crisis. It’s far better to have employees doing their jobs during these times than spending the time trying to figure out how to do their jobs.

Harness the Power of Video
Most organizations know the power of video conferencing along with its application during normal business operations. However, video becomes even more powerful in times of duress. It can enable face-to-face collaboration in situations where people cannot meet due to crisis circumstances, such as the volcanic eruption in Iceland that stalled air travel. Keeping people connected and communicating face-to-face will facilitate better operations in addition to relieving some of the stress of the situation.

Don’t Forget the Customer
As always, the customer is paramount. An organization can do a great job keeping the business running but if they forget about the customer their efforts may be useless. Most customers will be sensitive to the situation but they are still going to expect to be served. When defining a continuity plan ensure customer communications and service are a top priority. If customers are communicating to the organization primarily via voice, the phone system must have multiple redundancies. Also, it is critical to be able to redirect voice traffic when employees can’t make it to the office.

With a well-defined business continuity plan in place, organizations can continue to function at the highest level possible while still serving their customers. A plan that takes internal and external communication and collaboration into account will not only benefit the organization but also its employees, customers and ultimately its well-being.

Social collaboration, a combination of social media, visual collaboration and unified communications, is becoming a significant trend in business today. When used together, these technologies can improve products or processes and ultimately drive true innovation which has a direct impact on a firm’s bottom line. This is the third post in a series discussing the benefits of social collaboration. For part one click here.

Today’s global environment is moving at a faster pace than ever. New products and services are continuously being created and modified to adapt to changing consumer and business needs. As a result, organizations need to find renewed effectiveness and efficiency in their business model; a balance between doing the right things and doing things right.

Many organizations are turning to business partnerships to create new avenues for innovation in a variety of different ways. From new products and services to new processes and procedures that can enhance a firm’s productivity while inspiring ingenuity. Wal-Mart, for example, was a pioneer with supplier collaboration by implementing technology that provided real-time, point of sale information to their suppliers. This not only decreased stock-outs but increased sales and customer satisfaction by ensuring products were always available for purchase. Similarly, Apple has created valuable partnerships with manufacturing companies to produce their products; allowing them to focus on their core competencies of technology design and innovation.

The most successful business partnerships are built on a strong foundation of trust which is established through open and honest communications and face-to-face interaction. Two-way data sharing and peer-to-peer collaboration can provide new insights for partners on how to make their relationship more effective and ultimately improve their bottom line.

Vendors, suppliers, joint ventures and other forms of business partners can not only meet face-to-face through video but collaborate through interactive whiteboards. Additionally social networking helps expand an organization’s network providing access to thought leadership, top talent and other potential business partners.

Geographical diversity presents a major challenge in developing meaningful relationships as most business partners located in different countries, if not continents. However, collaboration technologies are continuously evolving to create an effective means of communication. One of the biggest roadblocks for partner or B2B collaboration has been the disparate nature of networks and network providers.

For many organizations that choose to move their video communication to a dedicated network, there can be a “walled garden” created where they are unable to connect to other systems outside of the network. Service providers have been providing so-called B2B exchanges for many years as a way to combat this. Recent trends towards cloud services and carrier interoperability relationships have helped make this type of collaboration easier to achieve.

This post is part of a series covering the benefits of social collaboration within an organization.

Part One: The Rise of Social Collaboration
Part Two: Unified Communications, Unified People
Part Four: Using Collaboration to Increase Customer Lifetime Value

In a recent InfoWorld article, Adopt the Cloud Kill Your IT Career, Paul Vezina makes a handful of arguments. General ideas include adopting the cloud leads to integration issues, causes security concerns and most importantly, leaves organizations susceptible to a monstrous disaster that is waiting in the wings. While some of these arguments hold true in certain situations, many do not apply for visual collaboration and unified communications technologies.

More often than not, integrating the cloud does not produce more problems than it solves. As with anything, a lack of experience or expertise can cause major problems and organizations should do their research when selecting a cloud service provider. While there certainly may be cloud providers that do not have high levels of expertise, many distinguished service providers have highly trained, expertly certified engineering teams.

Of course, this does not lead to infallibility as there are always different challenges or unexpected events that can occur during implementation. It is like completely overhauling your bathroom or kitchen, you never know what to expect until you get behind the walls. However, the chances of a major integration issue, extended downtime or complete disaster is far less when left to specialized professionals.

The experience and expertise distinguished cloud service providers have obtained allows them to not only resolve potential issues quickly, but proactively address problems before they arise. Take major software revisions for example; several organizations will simply upgrade the software on their video conferencing unit or UC client not realizing the potential effects on the rest of their environment. Distinguished service provides will thoroughly test any new updates that are released to ensure compatibility and a seamless transition. Many IT departments within an organization simply do not have the time or resources to do this.

Organizations must find a balance between IT activities to keep in house and IT activities to outsource. For example, issues regarding an employee’s phone, email or computer would be handled by an in-house IT representative and not be directed to a highly specialized engineer. Similarly, point-to-point video conferencing calls can most likely be managed end users or local IT staff. However, multi-platform video bridging and firewall traversal are better left to specialized professionals because of the sheer volume of intricacies required.

Sure, there are some people who will be able to handle these situations but in the long run it’s going to pull them from other, more productive, activities. IT departments should be able to focus on what’s most important to their organization; developing and maintaining the systems to keep the operation running efficiently.

Even if an organization is budgeting video troubleshooting, management and support into their daily agenda they are pulling resources from the areas that they can have the most impact and drive the most effective outcomes.