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Critical Messaging - It’s not just for the emergency services

11th July, 2013

When you hear the term ‘Critical Communications’, for many people it is the Emergency Services who deal with life or death situations on a regular basis that comes to mind. But at its core critical communications can be an important consideration for any organisation. Every organisation has critical components to what it does, whether it is incoming supplies, internal processes or exportation of its output. These processes are essential to the continued existence of the business as an entity and therefore communications that make these possible are critical. So in actual fact, the vast majority of organisations probably have critical communications needs, but many struggle to recognise this fact and place contingency plans against failure.


Whilst critical communications are not just for the emergency services, they do give an excellent starting point on which to consider the requirements for this essential function. Very often businesses ignore critical messaging because the majority of aspects of their business are, not typically, critical. Emergency services such as hospitals, fire & rescue services and the police all use critical communications because they require the certainty of delivery, and where lives are at risk certainty of delivery is everything - with no message delivery there is no action to save a life. Redundancy in the system is a key aspect that elevates normal communications into critical communications, but this takes resources both financial and practically - which can appear to be a stumbling block for many organisations. However, looking at the wider picture, one needs to take into account the balance between the cost of implementing the system and the potential cost of not having it in place.


There is nothing that says critical messaging need necessarily be a separate system only to be used for life-saving activity. For one thing having a dedicated system for critical communications requires considerable resilience to be introduced so that should a failure occur there is a hot failover to a backup system and an instant alarm to call maintenance staff to rectify the issue. This can be very expensive, but for emergency systems this is a price that must be paid to ensure we all have the emergency systems we may one day need to rely on ourselves.


How businesses can benefit from Critical Communications


Businesses can definitely benefit from the critical messaging systems used by the emergency industries. Technology now provides us with much more choice of device and system with access to information in a fast moving mobile environment.  Critical systems are beginning to embrace smarter technologies, allowing more people to become part of the critical team but also providing greater diversity of features and systems, which inherently provide some stability in the communications mix by not having everyone on the same platform.


This has the added bonus that end users can have the device which suits them. A desk worker can have a standard PSTN (public switched telephone network) phone or a DECT (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications) phone if mobile occasionally throughout the day. Users who are more often mobile, both on site or off site or both may want to carry a smartphone, giving access to applications and data/ messaging which would traditionally be accessed by PC.


So what does this mean for businesses? Firstly what is ‘critical’ to a business may not be critical in the general sense of the word but it may carry extensive costs and implications should a function of a business fail. Take the example of a bakery. If a delivery is missed, if a production machine goes faulty, if a production worker is taken ill, or an oven or fridge stops working, the disruption to food production or storage can have disastrous consequences on deliveries and finances, reducing not only profits but reputation. To ensure operations run smoothly or to combat a problem it may well be necessary to contact various individuals at a moment’s notice. In an emergency this could involve interrupting another call, but with standard communications this may not be that easy. Another example could be a delivery driver who may only have a small window of opportunity to deliver vital perishable goods. Any missed delivery could be disastrous to the business so the right people will need to be informed promptly about the situation to prevent a potentially catastrophic upset in production.


Finding the right communications mix


Using a variety of devices and allowing messaging to be overlaid, means that businesses can use whichever devices suit their needs for the everyday voice and data communications. But when a situation occurs which requires greater awareness or instant action, the ability to receive the message instantly on any of the devices and for the user to then decide on which action to take can mean the difference between a successful month/ year or a difficult one. Critical communications therefore can alleviate the risks of inevitable adverse events causing high levels of disruption or financial losses to any business operation large or small, and need not cost the large amounts we often attribute to fully fledged Critical Communications.


Businesses can, over time, choose to upgrade their communications systems as their budget allows. The choice of devices or technology should be one taken for each user or function so that the performance effectiveness and efficiency of this function is optimised. By choosing carefully and perhaps by diversifying users can have full access to the data and voice communications they require and in addition receive messages over the top of this which keep risk minimised. For example a desk phone with colour screen can be used for normal voice but also data, images etc. can be displayed to the user. Camera images can be streamed to the desk phone, messages displayed etc. Similarly WiFi phones can display messages images etc. as well as the traditional voice. Voice communications can be efficient ways of talking through complex situations but for simple instructions voice can lead to inefficiencies as it causes operators to stop to take a call, whereas a simple message may be read in a second and disruption is minimised. A voice call can often extend, instead of talking about the one issue it is often tempting to role the conversation on and deal with other points rather than the one important one, increasing further the disruption at that time.  


With some devices it is possible to forcibly end a call and force the user to listen to a recorded voice message or read a text message – not something we would want to do every day, but if a first aider is having a chat on the phone and a member of staff needs instant help or a delivery lorry is about to leave without being unloaded due to a hazard or delay in off-loading this may be something we wish to introduce.  Hotel staff being polite to customers may want to receive a task discretely with a simple audio beep or vibrate, thereby continuing with conversation and assistance but also being made aware there is a task to be undertaken. The severity of what we term critical is different in each business, but the ability to choose when such an event is sufficiently critical to warrant either an unobtrusive message to be delivered or a brutal one stopping the current activity is a choice for the management of the business.


Giving users the right tool for the job is a must for any business and so when buying communications equipment it shouldn’t be necessary to adopt a one for all attitude. Changing a whole communication system to WiFi, mobiles or DECT, produces extra costs or inefficiencies in providing users with capabilities they don’t need or providing too little and reducing their access to information or connectivity that would benefit the role.  


Answering business needs as they arise


The important aspect to any business communication system is that it produces a community of secure and flexible communications for staff to use. If we diversify the technology used by our community these all need to be able to communicate with each other so important messages and transfer seamlessly from one device to another. If one system goes down for short period this diversity means only that community using that technology is lost, others can continue unaffected. When our broadband access collapses, or WiFi is disrupted the business can be paralysed, but with smart phones able to use the GSM network devices can continue. DECT phones can still make calls and receive the important messages etc. This is true of any system, we don’t want the whole business to be affected by an adverse event, and we don’t want to create an adverse event with our communications systems which are designed to alleviate them.


Most businesses should be tailoring their communications systems and developing them over time, little by little, keeping progress within budget and adopting those features which assist and improve the business. Having a messaging capability which passes business critical or important messages over this platform of communications is an investment to mitigate against the risks that have the most influential effects on the business success.


See it published in:

Fresh Business Thinking