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.

Joshua Sigel, vice president of IT operations and applied technologies at UNFI (formerly Unified Natural Foods), is deploying UC to help his company enable workers to be productive anywhere, to reduce travel costs and increase face-to-face communication despite geography. He's using Avaya for IP telephony and phone, and Cisco for networking, along with Polycom and Microsoft Round Tables for video. But he has instructed his IT staff to monitor UC developments: Avaya might not be as strong in video conferencing as another vendor right now, but that could change as its UC offering matures. He's also watching developments in telepresence technology from Microsoft.

"We focus on the best of breed in each category but don't want to be tied down to a particular vendor who has not implemented everything we need," says Sigel.

Analyzing multiple vendors when choosing UC products is all part of the procurement selection process. Hutchinson recounts looking at multiple vendors including Cisco, Tandberg, Microsoft and others. "At that time it was not HD," he notes. The application's "roundtable" to identify participants did a good job of identifying who was speaking. "But we also needed to see who was on the other end of the video link," Hutchinson adds. "In our case, we use projectors or displays on walls, which causes participants at the table to have to turn away from the MS Video solution, and then we didn't get the benefits."

3. Decide on a Deployment Strategy

Given all the variables, experts recommend a measured approach to deploying UC. Forrester's Herrell says most organizations begin by integrating a few applications such as presence (who is where in the organization), messaging and audio conferencing, and then they gradually roll out other applications.

"I suggest organizations begin with pilots and identify employees that could gain from its features such as remote workers, knowledge workers and those who are involved in projects that require ongoing collaboration with teammates," says Herrell. While not all UC technologies can be considered core to running the business, UC helps employees communicate and be more productive. As such, you can't let UC deployment get in the way of mission-critical applications such as ERP, even though the complexity of unifying systems and introducing telepresence on company networks is sure to cause networking complications.

Pilots help CIOs examine exactly how UC will change the infrastructure and determine how to mitigate performance risks. In pilots, Hutchinson advises involving both employees who are knowledgeable about technology (such as those in IT) and those who have limited technology expertise to provide adequate feedback about the impact of new tools, its usability and benefits to the business.

When you hear an IT staff member say, "My video conference tool crashes my instant messenger (IM) client," Hutchinson says, you can address those concerns methodically by approaching vendors and addressing interoperability with them, or by changing network settings and server configurations.

Gamestop's Donaldson began with 150 employees at headquarters, along with another five or so in Europe to test international capabilities. The company is using Microsoft OCS and Microsoft Office SharePoint Services, and is considering other tools as well. "Our primary purpose of the incremental approach is to test-market the solution and ensure value is obtained prior to a full rollout, and to create a feature-rich solution prior to the full rollout companywide."

At Accenture, Modruson is taking a more aggressive approach with 6,000 initial users followed by a mass deployment beginning this fall. In Modruson's view, the more people who can use the technology, the more effectively they can collaborate. When the company installed telepresence to just a couple of locations in early 2008, it wasn't used very much. When they rolled out these features to 13 locations this spring and summer, there was a snowball effect: Many more employees at all sites started using the technology.

4. Focus on People

Given that UC is all about making it easier for employees to communicate, no UC strategy can be complete without a plan for how people can make the switch. Any change, notes Modruson, brings more complexity initially, even if its goal is to simplify and streamline.

"There is a risk of relying on Internet connectivity," he says, noting that remote video conferencing or IM doesn't work if a connection is not available. "And there's a challenge associated with change management—the technology changes the way people communicate and therefore there's a shift in behavior required."

Gartner's Heller says the best strategy to counter some of these risks is to make sure everyone in the organization understands what's happening: Employees should know how far-reaching the UC program will be. You'll need to define for them how the applications and devices they use will change. You'll also need to tell them how to resolve technology-induced problems: Try instant messaging to reach an employee who does not appear to be available by video conference, for example.

Finally, you, along with business leaders, will need to define new expectations for how employees should communicate with each other. The last challenge with UC is harder to quantify, but still important. Accenture's Modruson observes a "human latency" factor: Where IT might envision highly improved communication, employees still find ways to avoid voice-mail messages, do not reply promptly to e-mail or just get overwhelmed with a new approach to communication.

One way Accenture addressed the problem was to make sure communications were truly unified—for example, voice-mail messages were delivered quickly as audio files to an e-mail inbox, so that employees receive all messages in one place and can listen to voice mail on a computer, not just with a phone.

UNFI's Sigel believes UC is inevitable. CIOs should just look around, he says, to see all the ways employees are communicating with one another. Integration will be essential to keeping people in touch and productive. So, it's best to begin the hard work of analysis, building the business case, deploying a solution and working through the challenges that will invariably arise. Modruson agrees that UC is a game-changing exercise.

"Unified communication technologies will significantly enhance the connectedness of our people," he says. "The ability to reach out and communicate with colleagues improves efficiency and productivity and ultimately enhances our ability to better serve our clients."

John Brandon is a freelance writer based in Minnesota.

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