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VoIP Helps Branch Offices Get The Respect They Deserve

By Richard N. McLeod


I tell ya...Branch offices can be like the Rodney Dangerfields of the corporate world. They just dont get enough respect.

Branch office workers often feel exiled, cut off from the business tools and the easy flow of communication enjoyed by employees at central locations. Branch office requirements are often overshadowed by the focus on headquarters needs, even though branch offices often drive the business for many industries, such as banking, real estate, and retail. Without local branches, these industries simply could not sell products or deliver services.

It does not have to be this way. With IP communications, applications can be extended to all employees, be they at headquarters, a regional office, or a branch ofice. Data, voice, and video can flow easily between all locations, bossting productivity, efficiency, and customer service. Perhaps as importantly, instant, unfettered communication and common applications can integrate branch offices with headquarters and with one another, allowing an entire organization to operate as a seamless whole.

Integrating the Branch
Today, many organizations function with two incompatible networks: a voice network and a data network. While never efficient or cost-effective, this dual network structure is especially cumbersome and wasteful for branch offices, where approximately 40 percent of all employees work.

Remote office workers are disadvantaged in a wide variety of ways because of non-integrated voice and data networks. For instance, they cant easily access the companys central voice mail system. They cant take advantage of critical applications and tools available to other employees. Theyre cut off from the daily flow of knowledge and communications. In some cases, working in a branch office is almost like working for another company entirely.

This problematic situation certainly does not help the organization either. Costs for operating, administering, and maintaining separate networks for the branches can be high, as can long distance telephone fees. Moreover, companies pay a substantial price in lost productivity and dissatisfied customers when calls cannot be transferred and when information cannot be shared transparently between locations. The threat of isolation also is very real. Branch offices can become cut off from the larger organization and begin to regard headquarters or other branch offices as peripheral or even as an adversary. That, of course, is dangerous for any organization, especially for those that depends on remote workers for critical functions, like sales and customer support.

IP communications goes a long way toward solving these challenges. It integrates voice and data into a single network, allowing branch office staff to readily access the same applications and data as central office workers. Productivity and customer service then can increase significantly, because branch employees are able to respond immediately to customer inquires and offer new services to them. In addition, the companys total networking costs decrease, while availability, resilience, and security all improve.

Perhaps most importantly, remote offices are no longer quite so remote. Convergence means that all employees can work as if located in the same office. Branch workers are privileged to the same real-time communications data, voice, and video as other staff and are able to participate as full team members in projects that require document management, workflow, and even face-to-face meetings, which can be held through videoconferences. Certainly, these improvements boost efficiency and overall quality, but they also imbue a sense of camaraderie and team spirit that is vital for any company to be fully competitive.

A Migration Path
Today, many organizations with a branch office system understand the substantial value inherent in a converged data and voice network. They may, however, balk at changing an existing system to which they are already fully accustomed. What many of them fail to realize is that most companies already have the foundation for upgrading to a fully converged network.

Nearly every organization has an existing data network upon which to build. In fact, adding voice communications is a logical next step in the natural evolution of the network. IT professionals also already understand the technology, since they know how to administer, secure, and support IP. Therefore, the migration can be done incrementally and affordably.

For instance, a company may begin its migration by installing IP-based voice applications at its headquarters location. These applications may include unified messaging, integrated voice mail and rich media collaboration, among others. Connections then can be made from headquarters to branch offices through existing circuitry. This way, branch employees are able to receive many of the benefits of an integrated network quickly.

Eventually, the organization will want to replace its headquarters PBX with a more comprehensive IP communications system, which will deliver the full benefits of convergence companywide. In the meantime, the company can make step-by-step improvements that will enable workers to become accustomed to the technology over time. The companys IT professionals also will have the opportunity to receive additional training, if necessary, and adjust to a new way of working.

Historically, branch office workers have been cut off from the daily pulse of the organization. Theyve often had difficulty communicating and collaborating with other offices, which might have diminished their productivity and the service quality they could provide customers. IP communications evens both sides of the equation, allows remote offices to be firmly integrated into the enterprise and the organization. As a result, these offices are no longer out there, but can operate as if theyre located on the very same floor. IT

Richard N. McLeod is director, IP Communications Solutions, Worldwide Channels at Cisco Systems, Inc. For more information, please visit the company online at (quote - news - alerts).

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