Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Skype for Business versus the phone

In an effort to save costs, the polytechnic where I lecture decided to axe the phone system and move to Microsoft's Skype for Business. It sounds like a great idea: particularly as business phone systems are expensive - about 4 cents per minute, I seem to recall.

However, it all works swimmingly until you can't log in to the computer system itself, so are unable to access Skype to call for help. I had a problem not so long ago where I got locked out of my institute account. I couldn’t get on the web on either my phone or the PC, so was unable to use Skype to contact the IT Department to sort out the problem. I had come into work especially early to sort out a student problem. There was no one on campus in the IT Department. I needed to contact our overnight external support service. 

When setting up the new communications regime, the IT technicians had listened to lecturers, and had installed phones in each lecture room with a Help Desk programmed dial button. So I poddled off to a classroom to call Help Desk to get my account unlocked. That wasted 10 minutes for something that could once have been done very easily in the office. 

There have been some teething problems in moving from phones to Skype for Business. 

Firstly, we did not have a publicised phone number to call IT in case we can't get into the system at all. I have now saved the number off the phone screen onto my phone, so at least I won't get caught without the magic IT phone number again, and have recommended to IT that everyone be emailed this to save somewhere in hard copy. First problem solved.

Secondly, few people have Skype for Business open on their computers: at least, not the people whom I want to talk to. As a lecturer you automatically close it to avoid incoming messages interrupting a lecture. The software window is annoying to have open on the desktop, as it is quite large and gets in your eye-line... and we hardly ever get calls on it because others have closed it. This is simply a missed training issue: instead of closing the application, we should set 'do not disturb', and we should the Skype window minimised. The second problem can be easily solved by user training.

Thirdly, Skype for Business does not play nicely with 'ordinary' Skype. People who want to call you have to use Skype for Business or you cannot connect without you both accepting the invitation to call from each other. I have no idea what protectionist idiot at Microsoft thought that was a good idea, however, our IT department says that the two Microsoft applications are getting more compatible. This third problem may resolve itself, just not quite yet.  

Fourthly, I did not appear to have a department by department phone number directory, which turned out to be an glitch in my personal profile. I had no idea that my profile was different to the norm until an IT person came over to see Skype in action on my desktop; and the IT Department had no idea until that point that there were staff who had very limited access to the address book. Now that everyone is aware of these issues, there is an investigation to find out why and how incomplete access happens, and to fix it. 

This last issue formed a particularly difficult barrier. In a big institution we often have no idea of exactly who it is that we need to call. We might know what people look like and where they sit, but may not know their names. What I have ended up doing is walking around campus to go and SEE people, because I cannot call them unless I know exactly what their name is. Usually after unsuccessfully trying to find someone on Skype - or having an unanswered call - I would simply walk to see them. As I am only on campus three days a week, having to go and physically talk to people takes up a surprising amount of time. I often got pragmatic about it as I simply didn’t have time to go, so people got left out of the communication loop.

This has clear shown is that what projects are supposed to deliver is not always what we get. It also points out how important it is for suppliers to see users using products in their own space: users may assume that something is rubbish - as I have - because there is an installation errorIt will be interesting to see how many other staff may be in the same position as I am. But at least I know that problem is also likely to be fixable too.

....and is it just a pity that it took me six months to write an email to IT to complain about the problems I found with with Skype for Business. I could have been productively using it months ago, had I flagged these issues earlier.

I have suggested to the IT team that this could form a potential student research project to find out what users are finding and how they are feeling about the system, and whyThey may too have struck the same four problems: all of which are all largely solvable.


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