Cloud & Telecoms
How the Cloud and VoIP Have Changed How People Work
VoIP & other IP-enabled, cloud-based collaboration tools play a major role in today's emerging wave of small business innovation
By: Calum MacKinnon
Jun. 7, 2013 02:00 PM
Telecommuting at one time meant little more than working from one's kitchen table, saving files onto a floppy disk, and possibly sending them into the office via dial-up modem. There was no videoconference, no softphones to move your office extension to wherever you were sitting at the moment, and no Google Hangouts, Chatters, or virtual meetings with colleagues.
Under such circumstances, telecommuting was relegated to second-tier employees that were cut out of the water-cooler loop. Because that early telecommuting lacked any semblance of true collaboration, and also because there was no oversight mechanisms built in, companies were reluctant to embrace it in any meaningful way.
Since Yahoo!'s Marissa Mayer made her pronouncement against telecommuting, issues of telepresence, telecommuting and teleworking have been in the news. Mayer is not alone in assuming that a remote worker environment is not conducive to productivity, or that it leaves those remote workers out of the inner circle. The informal and spontaneous discussions that happen in the office halls and break room are indeed vital to the health of the enterprise. The question at hand then is whether VoIP and telepresence technologies have advanced sufficiently to bridge that gap, and bring those home-bound workers back into the informal, more social element of the workplace. The answer is unequivocally "yes."
Something as simple as Salesforce Chatter allows for instant, ad hoc discussions throughout the day. It doesn't stop there. Today's telecommuting environment has succeeded in erasing those physical boundaries, and isn't just "the next best thing to being there," it is the same thing as being there.
When Did This Shift Happen?
The enabling technology started with Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), which allowed for phone conversations to take place using a computer in any location, rather than a standard phone line. While the first VoIP implementations suffered from jitter and packet loss, advances in the technology and more prevalent availability of broadband soon rendered VoIP equivalent in quality to standard telephony. What's more important is that the digital nature of VoIP allowed many more features to be offered along with the phone service, and at low cost. Additional services came to be built on top of VoIP, such as videoconferencing, data sharing, and the like.
At the same time the enabling technology was evolving, business models were changing as well. The "lean" movement has been applied to a wide variety of practices, from software development, to business management. Today's businesses, initially out of economic necessity and then enabled by cloud and VoIP technology, have moved away from vertical structures into a new model of utilizing business process outsourcing, freelancers, teleworkers, and even crowdsourcing to not only accomplish routine day-to-day tasks, but also to manage, make decisions, and accomplish the creative side of the business.
The lean model took hold during the Great Recession. Typically during an economic downturn, companies look for ways to scale back, then when a recovery hits, they revert to their previous practices. Not so with the last Recession. Because of the length of the downturn and the slow recovery, companies were able to look at their refined practices, enabled by new technology, and make "lean" the new status quo.
Modern businesses rely more on external providers, connected via VoIP and other telepresence technologies.
The evolution of VoIP and the evolution of the lean business model were symbiotic. Businesses embraced the lean model precisely when the enabling technology made doing so practical.
From Fuzzy Conversations to "Being There"
The first and second waves of technologies that enabled telecommuting were indeed limited, and criticisms of the practice would be valid when issued against the yardstick of yesterday's technology. The first generation of telecommuters was enabled by basic technologies that allowed for a functional, but not social experience, and that did lead to isolation. Home-based workers were cut off from the herd and unable to participate in the social and group dynamics that make up a business. More recent generations of VoIP, telepresence, private social media, videoconferencing, and other telecommute-enabling technologies bring those workers back into the corporate family.
Meaningful telecommuting requires more than the ability to log onto a computer from home and send files. Real-time collaboration is essential, as are enhanced technologies such as unified communication, private instant messaging and social media platforms, and video collaboration, which are all typically based around Internet Protocol rather than the public switched telephone network.
Opening the Door for SMBs
Most VoIP providers today offer affordable service packages with high-end features that were once available only to richer companies, and typically these services are implemented through a virtual PBX rather than a more costly on-premise one, and delivered via broadband connection from the cloud. Some of these services include:
More sophisticated services include the ability to integrate with desktop CRM apps, to provide call recipients with immediate access to detailed caller information.
Taking VoIP to School
E-learning, like corporate telecommuting, has nurtured an environment in which the physical boundaries of the classroom become irrelevant, and students can interact and participate in real time. In the case of third world or emerging nations with vast rural areas, it has become a major factor in public education. In rural Thailand, for example, the Distance Learning Foundation, led by HM the King's right-hand man and Grand Chamberlain Khun Khwankeo Vajarodaya, links Wang Klaikangwon School in Hua Hin, founded as a school for noblemen's children and still seen as one of the best in the country, via satellite broadcast to remote schools all over the country. The goal - which has been enormously successful - is to bring first-rate education to rural children.
The program is more than just a one-way satellite hookup. Rural students hundreds of miles away participate directly in the session. Each rural classroom has Internet access courtesy of the Telephone Organization of Thailand, so that the remote students can ask and answer questions.
VoIP is bringing education to emerging nations. The technology is certainly not lost on modern universities throughout the world. Unlike the paper-based snail mail correspondence courses of days gone by, modern e-learning, enabled by VoIP technologies, brings several new characteristics to the table:
Office Space Is Expensive. Launch a Virtual Company Instead.
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