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Unified communications and the CIO

Unified communications and the CIO

CIOs need to understand this latest IT trend, though scepticism is important when vendors say they have the ‘ultimate’ unified communications product.

Communications convergence is finally here. Within the enterprise, convergence has been tagged with a new IT buzzword: Unified communications (UC). This acroynym reflects the emergence of voice, video, legacy applications and web-centric applications on the corporate data network. UC is a logical evolution beyond Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). Functions such as presence and collaboration are blending with VoIP, allowing geographically separated personnel to function as if they were in the same room. With the advent of UC, CIOs need to reassess IT operations and organisational structure and take the opportunity to realign them along business requirements rather than technologies.

Typically, enterprises organise around common models: Function, product line, market segment, geography and process. Adding voice to the data network is just the first harbinger of change, which leads to video and other types of real-time communication. This impacts not just phone and data network support personnel, but also help-desk staff, storage and server support personnel; the footprint of UC encompasses a variety of technologies.

Assessing UC complexity

Adding voice, videoconferencing and other real-time network traffic adds a level of complexity and support requirements that leads an organisation to completely reassess the traditional organisational model of separate voice and data personnel. This reassessment impacts not only reporting relationships, but personnel training and equipment planning as well. The non-technical issues surrounding the management of UC tend to be difficult; organisations with open and flexible cultures will have the easiest time adapting to the change. UC has the potential to combine traditional technologies of email, voicemail, VoIP, instant messaging and other collaboration tools in new and interesting ways. Business users’ expectations increase dramatically because all the components come together in a “black box”; users have little patience for management or troubleshooting that falls back on component-level explanations or, worse yet, passes the responsibility among multiple IT areas.

The cross-functional nature of UC — crossing server, data, voice and service-desk domains — will escalate the importance of “who owns UC”? Organisations need to assertively transform old-style functional/product structures into responsive, process-based structures. ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) Service Management Practices is a guide for best practices in achieving that transformation. Should an enterprise decide that UC management is not a core competency, this transitional period provides the enterprise the opportunity to outsource UC services. There are detailed roadmaps for assessing whether this is a strategy that fits your company.

Enterprise organisations are in different stages of addressing communications convergence and achieving unified communications. Most organisations have started addressing communications convergence and many are now addressing the organisational implications. CIOs and their staff can rely on best practices and methods that have already been defined to help with the transition; Burton Group’s reference architecture and ITIL are two prime examples.

These changes will help address UC at its most basic level — convergence of voice and data platforms — but what about the future? UC buzz, which has become confusing and not much more than a marketing doorstop, portends a whole new world of integrated business processes that take advantage of instant messaging, email, video and voice. There is a lot of research on it — a nice mix of the next stage of VoIP and “presence-based” applications with spices of IM and videoconferencing. Microsoft and Cisco use the buzzword a lot to push their products, mostly to replace an older PBX with something sexy. Call centres and work-at-home seem fertile ground for UC, whatever UC is.

Managing UC

UC is still a vision and long-term strategy — really the recognition of an overall trend with communications. UC needs to be treated as a programme managed over the long-term.

However, vendors take the UC moniker and run with it (any surprises there?) to sell products that may or may not be ready for prime time. The reality is unified communications will only be real when applications are developed based on the underlying technologies — and so far there has been no “killer app”.

Business groups and end users don’t really care about UC — they care about the productivity value from the tools and applications they interact with every day to get the work done. ROI comes at the project level as different components of the UC framework are implemented, such as VoIP, corporate IM or desktop videoconferencing.

So if it’s a long-term vision and strategy, should a CIO care? Sure, with IP-based telephony, traditional enterprise telephony is under attack; software plays a significant role in delivering voice, and new “UC” products such as those from Microsoft (Office Communications Server) will influence the market. UC application components will be delivered piecemeal and should be part of a long-term understanding of the trends and convergence.

Point decisions made at a project level, such as a PBX upgrade decision, will be viewed as evolutionary, functional replacements of current technology with the latest and greatest solutions. Other leading-edge projects might see the fundamental workflow and integration that UC class technologies bring to the table and make the case — ROI and otherwise — for significant change, but with sound business drivers and sponsorship.

CIO awareness of UC is important, but what is more important is the scepticism that a CIO needs to have when approached by vendors that have the ultimate unified communications product. UC is not a product, but an approach to implementing technology platforms that recognise the inherent integration of different ways of communicating.

Five things about unified communications

  • Traditional (analogue) PBXs are going the way of the dinosaur. IP-based phone systems bring capabilities for new functions that have not been possible, and will enable “Unified Communications” in the future. You need to know what those features are as part of your selection process for a PBX replacement, especially if your PBX is end-of-life.

  • You need to be ready to address business ROI opportunities for UC technologies once they are identified, or confidently tell technology-enamoured business partners that there is no ROI, at least for now.

  • Consumer phone options are delivering email-enabled voice mail as an option for residential use. This is voice mail that is either delivered as an audio file to email, or as speech-to-text. You need to know that those expectations will come into play for an organisational phone and email system. Other technologies, such as instant messaging, call routing options (follow me), consolidated phone numbers (wireless and wired), wireless IP phones, and conferencing options will drive future innovation. You need to manage innovation and new technology opportunities in a planned, architected approach, using IT governance techniques. Manage user expectations before they get hyped by the vendor.

  • Microsoft and Cisco are in a pitched battle to become heir apparent to the Avayas, Lucents, Nortels and Siemens of the world. You need to be familiar with what is hype and what is real in order to be an informed IT buyer.

  • Most of all, you need to make sure any innovation happening in the phone/telecom space does not impact voice service levels, which in many ways is regarded as the gold standard of reliable technology for most organisations.

Jack Santos is an executive strategist at the Burton Group and has more than 28 years of IT executive leadership, specialising in bridging the gap between business needs and technological opportunity.

Sidebar: How to get the most from UC

It’s a big project to choose and roll out one system for voice, IM and video conferencing. Still, more CIOs are now using unified communications systems, to keep colleagues and customers in constant touch. John Edwards and Darren Greenwood talk to some early adopters.

Robert Fort, CIO of music retailer Virgin Entertainment Group, would have liked to wave a magic wand to give key employees the ability to easily transition between voice, instant messaging and video conferencing technologies. His practical answer: A unified communications environment. By providing an integrated version of all those services, unified communications gives selected Virgin executives, store managers, administrative employees and IT staffers the ability to reach colleagues wherever they may be, with whatever communications mode is most appropriate. “There are major cultural differences between employees, so it’s critical to have good, strong communications across the corporation,” Fort says.

Like Fort, a growing number of CIOs are seeking to merge disparate communications modes into one universally accessible service. As communications options proliferate, employees increasingly face the choice of juggling multiple communications devices or potentially missing critical calls and messages. But through using IP technology, vendors such as Microsoft, Cisco Systems and Mitel promise to keep enterprise employees and customers better connected.

“Unified communications solutions allow enterprises to leverage the vertical communications applications they’re already using, such as desktop phones, mobile phones and messaging systems, but that can’t talk to each other,” says Nora Freedman, a senior research analyst at IDC. “Unified communications is designed to bring all of these disparate technologies into an environment that reduces time and effort.”

While the unified communications concept has been batted about for more than a decade, it’s finally becoming practical thanks to the growing adoption of IP telephony, says Mark Cortner, a senior analyst at Burton Group. Companies that have adopted IP telephony are already in the on-ramp to unified communications, he notes. “Now that your voice communications is in IP, it joins messaging, email and other forms of IP-based communications, all of which can be directed and managed in unison over data networks,” he says. “This is what’s at the heart of the growing interest in unified communications.”

But as Fort and his peers have found, deploying unified communications and making all the pieces work together is a time-intensive and testing-intensive job for IT.

Fewer misses, better meetings

Based in Los Angeles, Virgin Entertainment Group, under the Virgin Megastores USA brand, operates 11 outlets in New York, California, Florida, Colorado and Texas. Faced with business challenges posed by big-box music retailers, such as Best Buy and Wal-Mart, as well as the popularity of online music downloading services, Virgin has to run a tight and efficient organisation that keeps sales high and prices down. Unified communications supports those goals, Fort says, while helping employees in several different ways.

Presence technology, for example, shows whether a person is available to receive a call. “If it’s urgent, you might decide to send the individual an IM instead,” Fort says. During live meetings or conference calls, participants can get fast answers to questions from colleagues in the same building, or in a store on the opposite coast, by contacting them via IM or voice. Employees can also tap into their computers to share spreadsheets, charts or other relevant data with conference participants. “You’ve got the capability of making the best choice on whom to contact and how to contact them,” Fort says. “After a while, it just becomes a very seamless, natural way of exchanging information.”

Virgin began exploring the possibility of adding unified communications shortly after deploying an IP phone system based on Cisco Systems on its network in 2005. The company initially considered utilising the Cisco Unified Communications environment, but ultimately changed course and adopted rival Microsoft technology. “The thing that gave me more comfort with the Microsoft approach is that I looked at it from the desktop use [angle] and I found that the Microsoft solution is so deeply embedded and integrated with all the rest of our enterprise software,” Fort says. “There were also cost factors in our case — the Microsoft solution was cheaper for us.”

A key business driver

The concept of ‘presence’— knowing where people are — is driving the demand for unified communications, notes Anne Taylor, New Zealand product manager for Microsoft Office Systems.

“I can go into [Microsoft Office] Communicator, see where they are in the system. I can use instant messenger and answer my messages [and] see if a conversation needs to be converted into a phone call. A quick click on the computer means I can ring them without dialling. It leads to a huge productivity improvement,” Taylor says.

‘Presence’ is a driver utilised by Queenstown-Lakes District Council, which adopted Zeacom’s “Corus” platform a year ago, when integrating its call centre software into Microsoft Outlook as part of a switch to IP-telephony.

“From a user perspective, when someone calls, a message pops up with their name and contact number. With the presence page, it tells you where people in the organisation are; whether they are on the phone, in meetings or on holiday,” says CIO Kirsty Martin.

“There is also one-touch dialling. You just click on an icon.”

Previously, council staff had to go through several applications to say they were out of the office, so they tended not to bother.

“We were getting complaints from customers saying they could not get hold of people. Being able to streamline all of the messages means a better, more professional response. Now, we get messages saying whether people are in or not,” explains Martin.

Queenstown Lakes worked with Cogent as project manager for the project that went live in February 2007.

Martin says there have been no issues or criticism of the new platform. As managers increasingly use Blackberry smart phones, they are better able to respond to questioning. “Voicemail turns up as email in the inbox. Everything can follow you around.”

Her advice to potential users is simply: “Just go for it!”

Presence and availability

Waikato Institute of Technology (Wintec) wanted a system that could handle video conferencing and instant messaging, which were critical for university staff and potential students from overseas.

Wintec adopted Office Communications Server and piloted Exchange Unified Messaging, coupled with Office 2007, Exchange 2007 and Live Meeting.

“We had no existing desktop video conference ability, so the business case was driven by a need for us to implement a solution,” says Wintec IT manager Ramon Scurrah.

“From an IT standpoint, the product must meet criteria such as secure, manageable, scalable, enterprise standard, which was compatible with our existing infrastructure.”

Wintec was already a Microsoft-based organisation, so Microsoft Unified Communications promised a natural progression and an easy integration with existing systems.

Scurrah recalls some integration issues between the Unified Messaging software and the older PABX, as it was not IP-compliant. This was overcome by purchasing a Gateway device to manage the data conversion.

There have been “rave reviews” from staff at its overseas office and also more flexible communications for mobile users.

“Unified Messaging allows access from any phone, anywhere, at any time,” he says.

Scurrah advises IT bosses looking at unified communications to run information sessions for end-users and have training material available.

Live demonstrations will also get people excited, he says. Organisations should also seek to standardise their video conferencing cameras and microphones, as well as assess whether face-to-face video conferencing, instant messaging and presence is needed.

Before going ahead with a project, they also need to consider issues of PABX compatibility, robustness of the LAN/WAN network for the amount of voice/video and WAN link capacity for remote sites. He says it is also important to check whether existing mobile devices can cope with Office Communications Server.

At present, more than 100 Wintec staff are using Office Communications Server, with the system set to be deployed across the organisation by mid-year. The three-month-old Unified Messenger pilot is also being extended.

Financial software company SunGard adopted Microsoft Office Communications Server in its New Zealand office in a global pilot, due for rollout from Sydney this year.

It says bringing email, messaging and telephony together makes contact between its global offices that much easier.

SunGard New Zealand IT director Steve Kennedy says Microsoft hardware and software combined with Nortel Communication Server 1000 PBX hardware, has created a seamless collaboration environment for the company resulting in faster communication and decision-making, as well as cost savings.

SunGard worked with Gen-i in the project to merge the communications facilities of its three offices. This project reduced the cabling count from 800 to 600 and desk phone numbers from 150 to 50.

Traffic peaks and troughs

The NZ Automobile Association and broadband provider Woosh Wireless both utilised Avaya Communications Manager for their unified communications deployments.

AA telecommunications manager David Francis says the Avaya platform helps the organisation communicate with staff in all locations.

The platform provides call management capabilities such as call re-direction, priority queuing, back-up alerts and timed reminders. In-built teleconferencing and group paging also enhances staff collaboration.

Avaya Contact Centre Express combines and queues phone, email, fax and voicemail queries for orderly response by call centre operators. The Avaya call management system lets AA call centre managers undertake real-time and historical reporting across all agents and queries, so they can respond quickly to urgent issues and assess performance over time.

This also combines with an interactive voice response system and a voice portal letting customers automatically make bookings from home.

The technology also lets the AA better manage the peaks and troughs of call centre traffic. Woosh Wireless reports similar productivity gains from Avaya Communications Manager.

Last year Woosh replaced its whole call centre infrastructure for its 70 call centre staff, using Communications Manager and related call centre software and hardware.

Woosh enterprise and infrastructure manager Sri Gazula says this allows other contact technologies to be used, such as multimedia, integration with the CRM system and new workforce management tools.

The Avaya implementation was phased to simplify the project and minimise risks, says Gazula, with partner Agile also providing training.

Whoosh claims the initial rollout increased productivity and customer satisfaction, with call centre staff having a better view of customer profiles, allowing an improved and targeted service. Whoosh can also analyse customer interactions for sales and marketing purposes.

Piecing together the puzzle

While most CIOs agree that unified communications can streamline and expedite employee and customer interaction, most adopters also say the technology can create confusion for IT departments. Since unified communications involves so many different communication modes, as well as multiple hardware and software platforms and applications, the technology can rapidly snowball into the most complex communications project an enterprise has tackled. “I think the biggest challenge is that there are so many pieces to it,” Fort says.

Virgin’s deployment required a boxcar’s worth of technologies, all of which had to be painstakingly tested for interoperability under a variety of scenarios. The system’s products include Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007, the Microsoft Office Communicator 2007 unified communications client and Microsoft RoundTable conferencing and collaboration software. Call routing is handled by the Cisco CallManager system, which Virgin installed before adopting unified communications.

At Virgin, the service’s presence and instant messaging and document sharing functions required links to Office Outlook 2007, Office SharePoint Portal Server and the Microsoft Active Directory Service. The company equipped selected users with the LG Nortel IP Phone 8540, which supports features such as name-based dialling, conference call setup and presence-status capabilities. The service can also be accessed through laptop computers, Cisco and BlackBerry handsets and other devices.

Like many unified communications adopters, Virgin conducted an extended pilot project that involved a staged deployment to IT workers, administrative staffers and, finally, to company executives. “It’s certainly not the sort of thing you rush into,” Fort says.

On the other hand, convincing employees to use the system isn’t particularly difficult, Fort observes, since people are rapidly growing accustomed to IP-based communication technologies. “You start to realise that most of your users are probably already using instant messaging, VoIP and other technologies at home,” Fort says. “When you take the time to show them that they’ll be using the same tools in an integrated fashion for business benefits, they get it.”

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