VoIP and the Future of Small Business Collaboration

Posted August 11, 2011

Just a few years ago, the small business tech catch phrase was Voice over IP (VoIP).  By now VoIP is the standard in telephony.  A Computer Economics study shows that by 2009, nearly 60 percent of organizations had adopted VoIP and more than half are investing in VoIP.  The initial draw for small businesses to make the switch to VoIP related to cost savings -- namely, there are no toll charges or long distance fees with VoIP.  Now many IT managers wonder, what’s next for VoIP?

While the technology hasn’t changed, the number, quality and maturity of VoIP applications has grown.  The answer to the "what’s next" question centers not around the technology itself but the unified communications applications businesses can use over the VoIP platform:  immersive telepresence, IM, soft phones and video can now all run over the same IP network as the voice service.  In fact, VoIP will be a key platform to support new business needs and processes as employees’ work methods continue to evolve.  VoIP can become a keystone in a small business’s unified communications suite.

The Future Lies in Collaboration

Video conferencing, made possible by VoIP, is the future of corporate communication.  Video conferencing enables collaboration between employees while they’re working remotely, while simultaneously cutting travel costs.  And at a moment’s notice, you can hold that important face-to-face meeting with a top client, without all of the associated planning and travel costs of an in-person meeting. 

VoIP will also make everyday business processes simpler.  Think about how your organization collaborates on document edits, for example.  Perhaps one employee saves a file and sends it to another for review.  Inevitably, there’s the headache of multiple versions and identifying which one is up-to-date and includes everyone’s edits. 

With communication-enabled business processes run over VoIP, employees can work on a document simultaneously and collaborate over Web, video or IM.  For small businesses with tight budgets and little time, improved business processes can be the difference between completing a project on time and going over budget.

Going Mobile with Wireless VoIP

Mobility is a major competitive advantage for today's small business workforce.  As the number of teleworking and work-at-home employees increases, wireless VoIP is quickly becoming a necessity.  The biggest benefit of wireless VoIP for small businesses is giving employees one phone number where they can be reached no matter where they're located. 

Single-number access is a risk-avoidance measure that’s worth taking.  Previously, when an employee was away from the office he or she would give customers his or her cell phone number to be reached remotely.  This may not seem like a problem, but it means that the customer will have the employee’s cell phone number after said employee leaves the company, which could potentially be harmful to business. 

User-friendly Open Source VoIP

Open source options, for any technology, have always been more affordable from a licensing standpoint, but they can be more difficult to implement.  Though open source offers a lot of room for customization, it can be intimidating for those not intimately familiar with the technology. 

With VoIP, there are some open source options coming out on the market that are more user-friendly.  For instance, businesses can now buy a pre-built appliance that includes traditional applications plus the flexibility inherent in open source options.  This can be a good fit for smaller businesses with a smaller budget. 

It is helpful to think of open source VoIP options in comparison to the operating system world, where most people consider Linux as the main open source platform.  For example, when comparing Linux to Windows, they both have the same inherent feature set, but there is only so much customization possible with Windows. 

While Windows offers a rich, thoroughly-tested feature set, Linux gives users the option to turn on or off many features.  Open source VoIP solutions offer that same functionality, allowing customers to enable or disable many features that they would be locked into with standard solutions. 

Tips When Considering VoIP for Small Business

New uses for VoIP may seem straightforward but, as with any technology, it pays to be prepared and think things through before you dive in. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind.

  • Today’s networks have improved capabilities, but bandwidth is still a commodity.  As technology progresses, network service providers have adapted to new kinds of traffic to deliver faster speeds. One of the keys to running new VoIP applications is that speed – and the capability to prioritize voice traffic over normal data traffic, such as email or downloads. Voice traffic is classified as high-priority so that end users do not experience problems, such as choppy calls.  Network providers achieve this by enabling Quality of Service (QoS), which assigns different priority to different types of network traffic.  Be sure your provider can support the applications you’re moving onto their system.
  • Security is always a concern for small businesses, and IT managers will have to be especially vigilant with new applications of VoIP.  These applications often enable new forms of communication for small businesses, and it is important to capture every piece of communication to ensure both secure connections and compliance to company policies.  For instance, the capability to save IM correspondences will allow you to ensure employees adhere to your company policies 

VoIP has moved beyond being an affordable alternative to traditional telephony to become the standard platform for unified communications.  If your business’s network can support it, VoIP will help your employees collaborate, be more efficient and effectively work remotely.

Brian Kopf is a manager, unified communications, at CDW.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

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