Roundtable discussion: Call of the future

Roundtable discussion: Call of the future

MIS New Zealand recently invited a group of IT directors involved in various stages of voice over IP projects. The discussion brought out common concerns - from calculating cost benefits, to mitigating risks - and how they are preparing for the convergence of voice and data on the networks.

April Walker, Southern Cross:
We are at one of the early stages of considering our strategic direction in telecommunications technology for voice over IP. We're in the process of looking at what we've got, where we might be going in the future, and what we're likely to need. Obviously VOIP has cropped up as a potential direction for us so it's something that we're looking at and considering. Previously one of our call centres was operating on VOIP technology but we disestablished it. We moved the call centre. We merged it back into the main call centre. Catherine Rusby, IAG: I'm just reviewing the final paper that's going to be submitted to our board in a couple of weeks to say, 'You won't hear from us again because we're done [with our project].'

VOIP is a very small component of a converged environment and in fact delivers very little on its own. We've gone the whole hog and we're loving it. The business is getting tremendous benefits from it.

Steve Mayo-Smith, Auckland District Health Board: We've just gone through a whole massive reorganisation process where we've consolidated a lot of hospitals. From an IT perspective, we've gone from being very paper centric to more electronic. Interestingly in all of that, when you talk to the clinicians as to what is the critical system they cannot live without, it's the PABX. We run two PABXs on our sites. Therefore, as we move forward, the issue is that there's a DHB [district health board] with significant deficit as we renovate some of the other sites. I don't want to go and spend another million dollars on upgrading PABXs, so therefore where does voice over IP fit?

Warwick Wright, New Zealand Racing Board: We have a big plan to migrate our data network. We've got 600¿retail outlets around the country so we are planning to migrate that to IP in 2005. We have four call centres, we used to have five. We're doing a large number of reviews on options for the call centres and that includes rationalisation, consolidation, outsourcing and a lot of that will drive what we do with the technology.

One scenario I can see is that we end up with two roughly balanced call centres with a big fat pipe in between them and voice over IP connections. We're heavily dependent at the moment on the Telecom 0800 network, and it's not a simple matter of moving off that. It does some things for us that are very hard to replicate with any other mechanism. I think there's a lot of potential with voice over IP for us but not in the short-term.

Vaughn Bosher, SkyCity: We're doing an implementation in Adelaide at the moment, and we're starting an implementation here in Auckland for the new Grand Hotel that Sky City is building across the road.

This is a two-pronged attack. One, doing it small at each location and then downstream, a consolidated effect potentially looking at things like call centre consolidation, with sites in Hamilton and Queenstown, and smaller sites around Auckland with five or six different buildings. So [we're taking] small steps, but looking towards the big picture downstream of a consolidated voice over IP network.

Liz Gosling, AUT: We have been running a pilot for about a year-and a-half-now, with 86¿voice over IP phones within the university. We've reached a stage where we are looking at our options for moving forward. We have a number of things driving that. We have two main new buildings in AUT coming on stream by about 2007, and the effect of that on our user base will be a huge amount of smooth outs and changes across a period of time.

The cost of doing those smooth outs and changes on our existing PABX could be quite significant. If we used voice over IP, then we would be looking at some reduced costs in that area.

We've got five main buildings in the city centre, in the CBD, plus campuses at Te¿Wananga and Technology Park in Penrose, plus some further satellite buildings. The convergence is very attractive to us in that it allows us a lot of flexibility as AUT expands.

A strong business case

Catherine Rusby: We started out with business requirements, and then did a strategy based on our telecommunications because it was kind of out there. IT was fine, but we just really didn't know what to do with the telecommunications aspect. So we put together a strategy that really aligned with our business direction and really clearly identified that convergence was going to deliver an awful lot of flexibility, operational cost savings. At this point the risk had subsided from this leading edge environment, and this fear of providers - there are only Telecom and TelstraClear.

We have re-cabled everything, we have ripped out all of the old and replaced it with a converged data voice network, which then forms the basis of the ability, and really fairly simplistic ability, to do that integration. No longer is infrastructure going to be the barrier to that.

Our business drivers were definitely about cost, particularly after we'd integrated, we had two companies brought together [IAG and NZI]. The benefits that we have achieved almost instantaneously have been in the order of 25 per cent. Also, we really needed the flexibility from our business of being able to re-deploy people anywhere in the country because of floods or insurance claims.

For example, I too came up from Wellington today. I come into my office here, or to any office and log on with my extension number in Wellington. It transports all that intelligence about my line-up to that physical unit on whatever desk I'm sitting on. That will happen for me anywhere in the country, at any one of our sites. For our mobile workers or home workers, we are establishing a capability of a little Cisco modem that you can run across broadband that can link them into our IP network and with a little basic IP phone as if they're on another part of the network anywhere else.

We went for a fairly vanilla implementation to start with so that we will now look to build and leverage the investment even more, but our business case did not even try to quantify any of the flexibility, the productivity benefits, any of those intangibles.

We didn't even attempt it because the business case stood on its own two feet on the 25 per cent benefits of cost savings. It was almost to the point where it was self-funding. Had we not had to extend over a period of time due to other business constraints, we probably could have self-funded the project or pretty close to it.

Pilot experiences

Liz Gosling: We had some obviously initial challenges as you do with a pilot, but generally it was very successful, very well accepted. It gave us some good insights into some of the areas, specifically in user training, that we would need to focus more clearly on.

AUT is a very new university. We got university status in the year 2000. Most university CEOs have an enormous challenge in that they work in a very, very un-centralised environment where networks have been built up over the years, which are owned by faculties. There is generally no centralised IT support structure. There might be five or six help desks across a university. AUT has been very fortunate in that we have a very centralised system. We've had a lot of support from the vice chancellor to actually put that in, so it makes it much easier for us to leverage and put in this kind of investments. We also have a very up to-date-network.

Vaughn Bosher: We had a good business driver where the business centre wanted an up-to-date business class hotel. But to have a five star rating, they [Qualmark, New Zealand tourism's official mark of quality] specifically provide you with a list of criteria that you need to make the team. Some of the technologies that you need to have in place to enable you to get that sort of rating, lend themselves quite nicely into voice over IP. That was an ideal opportunity for us to start with voice over IP.

It won't be everywhere and it won't be all. There's still a place for an analogue phone. When you're talking about being stuck in a hallway or in a lift, well, you don't really want nice high-tech technology. It's not just the CEO's phone on his desk, it's the one that's stuck in the fire escape and in the lift well. You've got to have those. So there is a place for the whole breadth of technology.

Quality issues

Liz Gosling: Our experience has been it's very acceptable. It's as good as the conventional analogues around.

Catherine Rusby: For us, there were never any quality issues. Where we had issues were echoes... We definitely were suffering for a couple of months, until we got rid of it all. In the call centres it was mainly because of our headsets and the incompatibility. Once that was identified, that was sorted. We've had no issues since. The quality is fantastic. One of the big barriers for us going integrated convergence network throughout the business was the call centres.

The perceptions were that the call centres are incredibly important, which they are, that you can't have any stuffing around with the voice applications or voice systems. [But] Of all of the people that call me everyday and say thank you, thank you, thank you, it is the call centres.

A great example is we did a crisis simulation recently. We were at 151¿Queen Street [Auckland], which is our head office, and across the road at Shortland Street is where one of our main call centres is located. We all arrived, the executive team arrived, in the CEO's office at 7.55 to hear that a bomb had gone off at Shortland Street and had blown up one of our floors. Aside from all the people issues, we had to do disaster recovery and where do we move people to. We were sitting around thinking, can we move them out to the Takapuna call centre? No, it's way too small, and we hadn't updated our business continuity plans to reflect the new environment.

We suddenly went, 'Hang on, all we need to do is send all those head office people home. Tell all the people from the call centres to go over to 151¿Queen Street, log onto any phone which has PCs, it's all there.' They're there because the system knows. Once they know your DDI and they know where you are physically located, it automatically knows your skill sets, what call centre you're in, and it will re-route to you directly. That just alleviated so much issue for us with having to call Telecom to have call routing changed, etc. It did our heads in how easy that was. It was so simple. It's fantastic.

Vaughn Bosher: We've found it very good. We've got a small pilot running between Auckland and Queenstown and it's better than the cellular network. [You] pick up the phone, ring it. It's fine. It looks and sounds like you're next door.

Warwick Wright: We don't have issues but I guess we've got concerns that it's more open to negative influence than the traditional telephony. I think you probably need to be smarter and more focused on how you're managing your circuits if you're going to put voice across them... I'm talking more hypothetically than practical experience.

Our view is that if we are sharing the same pipe with voice and data, then there's the opportunity to make some configuration changes on that pipe and affect data. You need a higher skill level and greater focus on the management of your network if you're going to put voice across it. It's easier to get it wrong.


Catherine Rusby: The big thing about IP is we're not talking about redundancy any more, which is built-in duplication, and duplication of costs, just in case. We built a tonne of resiliency into the network so any issues that have happened, and they do, it's just re-routed itself and found a new way to get there.

Steve Mayo-Smith: I have no redundancy or DR [disaster recovery] if a PABX goes out. It's a key issue for us. We've got two PABXs we can re-route and so on and so forth, but we don't have the ability like you were just talking about in terms of, 'Whoops, that floor's been taken out, move the people over there.'

Catherine Rusby: So aside from a physical outage like that building we've had, and that was only simulated, any outages that we've had have been totally transparent to the business. It's almost like a mirror network, it just resets itself. It's got several paths it can go through so when one breaks, it goes and finds its way to the other one. We've had to do that a couple of times up here in Auckland and it's just re-routed from our call centre from its normal path over to the Albany data centre and comes through there instead. Absolutely transparent. Business isn't even aware of it.

Well, we've integrated our mobile phone fleet with the network so I can ring up - and I don't think that's necessarily new technology - you can do that in old environments. With a simple code in front, if I'm on a mobile calling a landline, I just put a two nine, which is what it is, and then the extension number and it goes directly to that internal number and vice versa. If I'm on a landline wanting to call a mobile internally, and that's all considered on our network, I don't get any additional charge for this. So there's another cost saving.

There must be a tonne of things with your 0800 that are connected to the services, but we took all our 0800 numbers with us. All our DDIs, we did make the hard call to move numbers, but we're very happy that we have and it's been fairly painless. You know you just get a redirect for a little while. Our 0800 migration was a fantastic thing because it routed out probably 25 per cent of the 0800 numbers that we had that we were never using, and the costs that we were paying for that.

Warwick Wright: Our business has got some very strange profiles. For example, people betting on races want to bet right up to the last minute. We've analysed our traffic pattern and we only use, on average, 30¿ports. But one minute before race close or finish of race close we need 300¿ports and even that's probably not enough.

So traffic management has been quite a problem for telcos with us because it doesn't conform to any normal pattern of usage. It's very, very spiky, and what we do with our call centres with the 0800 system, is we use the intelligence of the network. When a person calls, say they call the Auckland call centre, they call the 0800 number and it goes to the Auckland call centre and Auckland is all busy, it says, 'I'll bounce this off to, 20 per cent of the calls will go to Wellington, Palmerston North.' So it's more a load balancing mechanism now.

Vendor management

Catherine Rusby: One of the things we did when we were in our RFP process was we didn't do the big 'here are the requirements and now don't call us until you're done'. We worked alongside both of them very closely and interactively to make sure they understood our requirements and our peaks are different. Basically we wanted bandwidth on demand. That's cheap commodity stuff now too, so we've got as much as we want.

We spent a lot of time trying to educate them on the profiles of the business and constantly challenged them on the engineering design that they kept coming up with, so that we were comfortable and really believed that they could do what they said. Anyway, we got a very high level of confidence during that process that they understood what our needs were, and therefore what they were proposing would address those needs. You have to have some sort of faith in them that they are technically capable, so the most important thing is making sure that they understand what your needs are.

Initial concerns

Liz Gosling: My primary concern was the service to the users and reliability type aspects. It was this kind of '[putting] all your eggs in your one basket syndrome' I think [that] naturally makes people quite nervous. So we've had to look at what we need to do in the way of making sure we've got a nicely reliable network.

Steve Mayo-Smith: One of the key things is redundancy with the PABXs which we don't have, and secondly, cost reduction. As we renovate the two campuses, it's got to be absolutely reliable and it comes back to mobile computing. We've gone from a very paper-based environment where people could carry their paper around. We've now computerised them unfortunately we've always tied them to the wall with cable, which is why we've got God knows how many thousands of PCs now.

So what we need to be able to do is to be able to get back to free up both the clinicians in terms of the information they carry and the communications they have. That's where it comes into the voice over IP versus mobility and the combination of the two.

Mitigating risks

Catherine Rusby: Tell me, what it is that we do that doesn't introduce risk? What is it that we do to be successful in our role? We understand the risks and we put actions in place to mitigate those risks. That is why I can categorically say that our implementation was virtually flawless.

We had so many people telling us we were going to fail, do not underestimate how important it is [that] if we lose the call centres, our business was in jeopardy. That was foremost in our minds. All of the implementation strategy was based around, let's understand all the risks, and get the risk mitigations, even to the point where you know our testing included a full implementation of a call centre and a rollback to demonstrate that we could, because we had to have Telecom sitting at the table. I have to say they played very well despite being very sore to lose the account.

They did play well in this situation, because we had to have them involved to say, 'Okay scenario: We roll over and it all goes to custard. How quickly can we roll back?' We had to demonstrate that we could [roll back] in an appropriate amount of time, and we did. We had to do that a couple of times just to make sure that we had it all sussed, but that is about mitigating the risk. The risk is there. Understand it, put actions in place and get the right people helping you. That was a big deal for us - getting the right people helping us.

Change management is a very big part of it, and we had an excellent woman leading this. She would have the right amount of people around on site, and people are an issue. That's just the way humans are, they don't like change, but they really appreciate and warm to immediate attention.

So we didn't bring our help desk on call until a week after we went live. We had people on-site, every day, all day, doing the stroking, dealing with it, [saying]'It's okay, this is what you need to do.' They bought into it right away because the benefits are immediately evident.

Pointers for success

Catherine Rusby: I would put 85 per cent or 90 per cent of our success was due to having had really good expertise and advice on how to go forward, all the way through. I've got great people working for me and they've learned heaps, and loving it.

My biggest advice is make sure you've got the right knowledge and the right information, because in all of your arguments, whether political or management and staff, if you've got credible, exact information, experience-based, it will win the day every time.

Alcatel kindly sponsored the roundtable.

IT executives at the MIS roundtable:

Vaughn Bosher, technical solutions manager services, SkyCity

Liz Gosling, acting director, IT services, Auckland University of Technology

Paul Knight, chief information officer, Fletcher Building

Steve Mayo-Smith, chief information officer, Auckland District Health Board

Catherine Rusby, chief information officer, IAG NZ

April Walker, general manager information, Southern Cross

Warwick Wright, general manager technical services, NZ Racing Board

The next in the series of MIS roundtable discussions with chief information officers will tackle the challenges of aligning IT with delivery of health.

Please email the editor at if you wish to suggest topics for future discussions.

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