Experiences with Cloud PBX (Skype for Business Online)

Over my years at Paradyne I had run Lync in a variety of environments – on-premises, in a datacentre, and with a couple of different hosted service providers.

Being acquired by ████████████ just over a year ago allowed us to bring the Paradyne cloud skills together with the ████████████ unified communications skills – specifically with Skype for Business.

For the past year we’ve been running in an on-premises environment, and have held off moving our users to Cloud PBX in Skype for Business Online for a couple of major reasons:

  • No Response Groups (aka Hunt Groups)
  • No PSTN calling

In fact PSTN Conferencing was only made available in Australia on the 1st of September 2016.

When I visited the Hyperfish office in Kirkland WA late last year I was jealous of their use of full Cloud PBX functionality – something we couldn’t have in Australia.

So the only choices available in Australia (and most other parts of the world that aren’t USA, UK or France) for organisations that have Skype for Business on-premises infrastructure is to utilise a hybrid deployment where all calls are still routed via the on-premises infrastructure but users live in Cloud PBX. A simplified version utilises the “Cloud Connector Edition” which requires less on-premises infrastructure. Anyway, I digress.

To get Cloud PBX working with on-premises infrastructure is somewhat straight-forward and available in this article: https://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/mt455217.aspx

The experience

As an end user I haven’t really noticed any difference. The only thing that threw me is that instead of having a localised dial-in conferencing number assigned based on user location policy, in Australia we only have a single number with a Sydney prefix (02). How I was thrown was when I dialled in a customer they asked me if I was Sydney-based (I am actually based in Melbourne).

However you can assign numbers from various capital cities to individual users by following the process on this support page: https://support.office.com/en-us/article/Getting-Skype-for-Business-service-phone-numbers-e434aeb2-af99-40e7-981e-a474f0383734?ui=en-US&rs=en-US&ad=US

(I have since done that for myself and now have an 03 Melbourne prefix for my dial-in number.)

I don’t really do much international conferencing with parties that don’t already have Skype for Business – but if that were to arise I can easily enable PSTN conference dial-in numbers for other countries:

The only loss of functionality is the Unified Messaging functionality. As we were using Exchange Online there was no Australian language pack available which meant we never had voicemail preview (speech to text conversion), so all I’ve lost is the embedded media player:

And now instead receive the voicemail as MP3 file attachment:

Apart from that the experience is no different than on-premises. The call quality both when on a PSTN call or conference call is superb, and we can now see the usage details in the Skype for Business Online admin centre:

As well as the ability to see call quality in the Skype Call Quality Dashboard:

My migration experience: barely noticeable.

My usage experience: same as before.

Too much conversation?

A song that has stuck with me since hearing in 1993 is “Too Much Information” by Duran Duran.

The theme of the song is television pumping content and products at us with Simon Le Bon singing “it’s too much information for me”. The film clip itself is constantly moving with no single shot staying on the screen for more than a second. It’s visually exhausting to watch (albeit very enjoyable to listen to IMHO).

Change in our workplace continues to evolve at an ever-faster pace. In 2002 when RIM introduced the BlackBerry businesses flocked to purchase their products and integrate them with corporate messaging systems to allow mobile access to email. The device became known as the “CrackBerry” due to the fact that people who used them were constantly sending and replying to emails.

Enter the iPhone in 2007 when this functionality was brought to the masses and the corporate world walked into the IT department’s office with their new handset and said “make it work with my email”. This posed a challenge at the start, and would also herald the consumerisation of IT (remember that marketing term?).

For a while the world rested on a number of different communication modalities such as phone calls, text messaging, email, and (back then) disruptive technologies like Skype that provided text/voice/video.

Flash forward to the modern day and look around us at the variation of communication modalities available to us (and please don’t go hard on me as I’m nearing 40 and am not necessarily up to speed with all of the technologies available everywhere).

On my phone I have the following communication tools at my disposal:

App/Service Communication Modality Audience Individual/Group Messaging Capabilities Usage Level
Facebook Text (comments) Consumer Individual & Group High
Groups (Outlook) Text (email) Business Group Low
Instagram Text (comments) Consumer Individual Medium
LinkedIn Text Business Individual & Group Low
Messaging Text (SMS) n/a Individual & Group Low
Messenger (Facebook) Text, Voice, Video Consumer Individual & Group High
Microsoft Teams Text, Voice, Video Business Individual & Group Medium
Outlook Text (email) Business Individual & Group High
Skype Text, Voice, Video Consumer Individual & Group Low
Skype for Business Text, Voice, Video Business Individual & Group Medium
Twitter Text (same as SMS) Both Individual & Group Medium
WhatsAp Text, Voice, Video Consumer Individual & Group Low
Yammer Text Business Individual & Group Medium

I use most of those apps on a daily basis on my phone, but I am quite a connected and social person. I also vary and switch between applications for the same people on a regular basis.

For example, I may have a 1:1 conversation with Martina Grom and Darrell Webster (both Office 365 MVPs, friends, and co-contributors to community projects) separately using Facebook Messenger, but then we might also have a group conversation via Twitter group messaging. Why did we use Twitter group messaging instead of Facebook Messenger group messaging? Because Darrell initiated it and was probably using the Twitter app at the time he thought to start the conversation.

Conversely I may have a work conversation with one of my work colleagues via email, and then switch to Skype to talk about something not work-related. Why did we use Skype? Because perhaps that colleague doesn’t use Facebook but does use Skype.

Or I may have a short messaging conversation with a friend using Facebook Messenger but then we switch to text. Why? I don’t know – he started it. It doesn’t really matter as I’m still communicating with the same person.

What about my fellow MVPs and other friends who work at places that use Skype for Business? Do we message each other during the day on a consumer messaging platform, or switch to our Skype for Business work-based instant messaging platform because we know we have it and it’s easier than using something outside of our work context?

There are also a number of apps on the list above that I don’t use either due to platform or because I simply haven’t needed/wanted/gotten around to it – such as iMessage or FaceTime because I don’t use Apple products, Snapchat, Google Hangouts because I don’t use Google services, and I’m sure a whole bunch that I don’t even know of.

The challenge here is that the conversation is fragmented – it exists across a number of services and modalities. There’s no one communication flow and path.

And what happens to those users who are not “digital natives”? For example the conversation this morning with Martina and Darrell we were talking about the potential of using Medium as a publishing platform instead of our existing blog sites. So that prompted some research into why Medium over Tumblr or hosted versions of WordPress instead of our own hosted versions. Looking through the history of Medium we realised we were old and already behind the times. Think about that and the fact that we work with and have to keep current on a cloud platform that changes every day!

So in the workplace what can people expect?

Many IT departments and leadership do not drive the digital innovation that their organisations so desperately need. They leave the users to rely on email and perhaps even an instant messaging or conferencing system, but leave it at that because they believe their users fear or cannot handle change. Now I’m sure that millennials will put my communication app usage to shame, but the reality is that most people are already using more than phone calls and text messages on their phone. So why are IT departments limiting them to the same level of communications in the workplace?

Within Office 365 for many years we primarily had Outlook and Skype for Business (previously known as Lync, and previously before that known as Office Communicator). Back then the concept of instant messaging was disruptive enough, let alone computer-based audio/video calls and conferences. Then a few years ago came along Yammer and introduced enterprise social. In November 2016 Microsoft unveiled the preview of Microsoft Teams – something that brings together most of the previous three communication platforms in one application.

It is important when thinking that we know the best for our users and customers that we actually ask them.

It’s like expecting a marketing professional to work on a PC running Windows – sure they can make it work, but they’d probably be happier with a Mac. Perhaps we should ask them what they want and how they might work best before assuming our corporate standard is acceptable?

The same applies to every single user in an organisation. We don’t necessarily need to survey all staff, but it is important to make sure that their voice is heard and considered before choosing a communication platform for their organisation, department, or team.

A key point of the new communication world within Microsoft when we consider Outlook, Skype for Business, Yammer and Teams is that there is no “one size fits all” and that everybody works in different ways. I am more connected than a number of people I know, but then there are also a lot of people I know who are more connected than me. We need to make sure that we offer choice to people of all ages and levels.

My wife and I are both Generation-X and only two years apart (she is the younger one), yet I am the more technologically adept and social user. So straight away we have different communication modalities, speeds and preferences.

Let’s not be afraid of Teams or Yammer and the change they bring. Because if we do our users will use things like Slack and Facebook for Work that are beyond our control, security, identity management, and governance.

Let’s start a conversation about how people want to have a conversation, and go from there.