Blackberry and Email and Videoconferencing. Oh My!

Unified communications promises to integrate your Blackberry, your email and any other tools and devices you use to communicate and collaborate at work. Early adopters share four keys to successful implemenation.

During a video conference in Chicago with 12 employees—half of them in Madrid—Accenture CIO Frank Modruson had a brainstorm.

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He was, at the same time, holding a private video chat on his laptop with Paul, an employee who is based in Minneapolis. Modruson decided to connect Paul to the video conference so Paul could contribute to the discussion. He plugged a VGA cable into the laptop and clicked a button. In a second, Paul was talking to those in Chicago and in Madrid. By turning the laptop's web camera toward the telepresence screen, Paul could see the participants and they could see him. They engaged easily on a complex topic—infrastructure outsourcing—and reached a decision fast.

As a large enterprise with 180,000 employees in 49 countries, Accenture prides itself on responding quickly to clients: Consultants will jump on a plane at seemingly a moment's notice. The exchange between Paul and his colleagues was possible thanks to a unified communications platform that goes well beyond video conferencing and chat to integrate the many communications technologies Accenture's employees use.

Unified communications is primarily a software undertaking that helps unify disparate technologies. At Accenture, the unified communications platform includes presence indicators on the front end which provides a way for employees to tell people where they are (for example, at a meeting or on the phone); on the back end, the platform unifies technology silos, creating a single inbox that handles voice mail, video, IM and e-mail, so people can communicate wherever they happen to be. Accenture employees can switch seamlessly from a video conference to an online collaboration session or, with the click of a button they can elevate an instant messaging chat to a phone conversation—or even send a fax—all using a common platform.

For Modruson, the key benefits are financial: He says Accenture has saved millions in travel costs by using telepresence. In June alone, 425 employees avoided international travel and another 250 avoided domestic travel by using telepresence. "Our management team is fairly distributed around the world, so the vision we have is for better remote collaboration," says Modruson.

Unified communications constitutes the applications and functions that are used to implement fixed mobile convergence (FMC). FMC focuses on bringing the fixed and mobile components of communications together; UC involves giving people the tools to move seamlessly between multiple communication channels, both wired and wireless. It's becoming a trend, according to Bob Hafner, a managing vice president at Gartner, because there are too many silos, too many messaging "cooks in the kitchen." "Unified communications is a way to provide the tools employees really need so they can communicate more effectively," says Hafner.

Yet unifying communications is a project you should not leave to your telecommunications director. Instead, deploying UC successfully requires a CIO to champion it. UC requires the cooperation of various groups within IT such as networking, server administrators and telecommunications managers; among end-user departments inside a large company and with multiple vendors for servers, VoIP, networks and video conferencing. (See our sidebar, "Some Unified Communications Vendors," below.)

Early adopters of UC, including Modruson and CIOs from Groupe Danone (which owns the Dannon brand in the U.S.), United Natural Goods, Gamestop and CNL Financial say you shouldn't invest in UC lightly. UC has an impact on numerous corporate policies and practices, including the mobile devices used by employees, as well as with telecommuting practices and regulatory compliance issues. And, as with any big change, UC presents challenges in getting employees to adopt the technology.

Some Unified Communications Vendors

Ascendant The Voice Mobility Suite ties smartphones into a unified communications implementation.

Avaya Integrated Web Conferencing provides an online collaboration environment that helps employees share documents, chat and show presentations. The company's Video Conferencing product offers a multipoint video- conferencing tool with presence indicators.

Cisco The company's CallConnector component provides unified communications capabilities within Microsoft Office and Salesforce.com. Unified MeetingPlace is an all-in-one voice, video and Web-conferencing tool. Unified Personal Communicator is a client program that allows employees to start IM chats, and hold video and audio conferences. It also provides presence indicators.

Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 unites disparate telecom services such as VoIP, video and audio conferencing and instant messaging. It also enables presence indicators through the Active Directory, so system users can know each other's whereabouts. OCS 2007 works with Office Communicator 2007, the client application that allows employees to start video and audio chats, use IM and indicate presence.

Microsoft's unified communication solution includes Exchange Server 2007, which hosts all e-mail, voice mail, faxes and schedules. Employees can access voice mail and e-mail. The Office 2007 suite includes direct tie-ins to presence indicators. If you work on a Word document, you can let coworkers know you're doing it and see who else is working on a shared document.

-J.B.

Thus, it's important to have a comprehensive plan that starts with a solid business case. You also need to consider the impact on your infrastructure, the approach you wish to take toward deployment and the impact the technology will have on business as usual.

Says Jeff Donaldson, the CIO at video game retailer Gamestop: "We don't want to deliver a product companywide that we are incrementally developing—we want to deliver a feature-rich environment."

1. Identify the Benefits

UC offers potentially big returns. Forrester found using its Total Economic Impact Model that companies could achieve significant productivity improvements and cost savings with UC products. The technology investment includes the "umbrella" system that ties components such as IM and video conferencing together (such as Microsoft's Office Communications Server 2007). A UC initiative may include other elements, such as added bandwidth and storage (to accommodate video conferencing and voice mail). You might also hire consultants who understand the big picture of UC and can help you unify systems.

"The business case is primarily built on business process improvements," says Elizabeth Herrell, a vice president at Forrester. These include reducing delays in decision making, rapid problem resolution and accelerating the sales cycle, she says. UC improves collaboration among work teams, helping companies improve time to market and reduce travel and training expenses, Herrell adds.

E. Jeffrey Hutchinson is the CIO for North America of Groupe Danone. He describes unified communications as a kind of "Brady Bunch" process (a reference to the opening of the classic show, where viewers are introduced to the combined family) that integrates text, audio, video, VoIP and messaging.

Some of the components, such as phones and network switches from Cisco and messaging tools from IBM, were already installed. Now Groupe Danone is working on upgrading laptops; Hutchinson's team is evaluating built-in webcams, for example, to see if the current generation supports the video resolution they're looking for.

Like Modruson, Hutchinson sees reduced travel as a major benefit. He has direct reports, working in seven different locations. Yet he can hold regular meetings using high-definition video over VoIP. The hard-dollar returns can be hard to pinpoint initially. "But we look at it from two perspectives: How well does it increase sales and enable profitability? And, how well does it increase productivity?" UC also figures into Groupe Danone's sustainability initiatives, helping reduce carbon emissions.

Gas prices put the benefits of reducing travel front and center. "The gas crisis was not apparent when we started the effort," Hutchinson says, "However, as we all know, it is now. So we adjusted our focus and increased the speed of deployment of office-based HD video gear in local conference rooms."

The company's goal was to reduce (or eliminate) travel cost and downtime for one-day internal meetings. "Based on the requests from the user community, we reprioritized our focus around external "gateway" connections for the same reason," Hutchinson adds.

(For more about Hutchinson's process for rolling out UC and other emerging technologies, see "Early Adopters' Secrets for Success with New Technology.")

2. Understand Infrastructure and Software Needs

The return you get from UC depends, of course, on the infrastructure investment you need to make it work. Assuming you have already deployed an IP network (necessary for integrating IP-based communications), UC applications can still have a dramatic effect on network traffic. You may have to invest in extra bandwidth to handle the new burden of hosting large-scale video conferences or mixing and matching IM chats, video conferencing and IP phone calls at the same time.

Meanwhile, legacy e-mail, voice mail and IM platforms may not support integration and can create headaches for IT staff in different areas of the department (a UC initiative often forces a decision about whether data networking and telecommunications teams should be combined).

"Your network has to be ready to support it, your messaging platform needs to be ready and fully capable, and you may need to expand storage," says Joel Schwalbe, the CIO and a senior vice president at CNL Financial.

When Schwalbe's team began to investigate UC, it uncovered two potential obstacles: First of all, says Schwalbe, he learned that CNL's document retention program, required for government compliance, did not necessarily address voice mail. Under UC, voice mail would become part of the e-mail system, which is subject to retention. Voice-mail files are potentially much larger than e-mail, requiring more storage or changes to the data archiving process.

"We had started down the path and then realized we've got to get our compliance folks involved and made sure everybody was weighing in on what we're doing," says Schwalbe. "Our current policy indicates that we must maintain 100 percent of all e-mails for our FINRA [Financial Industry Regulatory Authority]-licensed associates. However, when voice mails are introduced to the e-mail system—which are not subject to the same regulatory compliance—then we need to adapt the policy to consider the content of the e-mail, not just the e-mail itself."

Meanwhile, the unification of voice, fax and e-mail on the same servers created a requirement for more centralized storage, he says, especially as it relates to data deduplication for each medium.

Not only that, but Schwalbe determined that CNL's Microsoft Exchange 2003 messaging platform wouldn't support integration with Office Communications Server 2007, the platform with which he chose to integrate the company's communications technologies. "We really feel that to derive the value, we need to upgrade to Exchange 2007 before we will go full-on with unified communications," he says. "We really want to take advantage of the collaboration capabilities with the Office 2007 suite Exchange 2007, OCS 2007, as well as our VoIP communications servers."

Another infrastructure consideration is that, when unifying communication components, the individual components might not be designed to work together. Omnicom Media Group made its first foray into UC with a project to standardize on a federated instant messaging platform. Employees were running three main IM clients: AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo Messenger and Windows Live Messenger.) "Our branding was being compromised because people were using their personal IMs," says CIO Kenneth Corriveau. There were security issues, too, because employees were using three public IM clients. "There was no way at the time to protect our environment from viruses or P2P file transfers. Moving to a corporate solution gave us all this capability," he says.

But that took two years due to the lack of messaging standards between clients and a wish to not disrupt end users, according to Corriveau. "There were many components involved, and the technology was maturing from a variety of perspectives," Corriveau notes. They even had trouble getting Microsoft Communicator (the predecessor to OCS) to work with MSN Messenger, although both are Microsoft products.

Omnicom eventually chose OCS and Cisco's IP telephony platform as core UC components, then hired AT&T to integrate all the pieces, including fax-to-e-mail services from Interstar Technologies and a tool from Ascendant Systems that provides mobile device users with a single phone number.

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