How to Get the Most From Unified Communications

Make no mistake: 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.

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.

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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 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 which can't talk to each other," says Nora Freedman, a senior research analyst at IDC (a sister company to CIO's publisher.) "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, e-mail 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- 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. Facing 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, like iTunes, Virgin needs to run a tight and efficient organization 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 who 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 a Cisco Systems' based IP phone system on its network in 2005. The company initially considered utilizing 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."

Maximizing Time With Customers

For the 140-plus lawyers at Bowman and Brooke, a Minneapolis-based law firm with offices in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Detroit and San Jose, unified communications boils down to customer service. Clients such as General Motors, Toyota and Ecolab demand fast answers to crucial questions, says Michael Cammack, Bowman and Brooke's CIO.

Besides giving clients access to key attorneys at any time, on any device and in any place, the firm's unified communications system provides key support information that helps attorneys be prepared as they accept an incoming call or message.

In the second quarter of 2008, Cammack plans to enable a feature that will mean wwhen an attorney is using a computer, for example, a screen pop will tell him who is calling and to what case the call relates.

Using desktop sharing technology,, attorneys and clients already jointly view, edit and annotate documents in real time.

"It used to take three to five minutes just to get moving," Cammack says. "I send you an e-mail, you download the documents, then you write back to me and so on." With unified communications, information is exchanged in real time, interactively, without wasting time on procedural matters. "The whole system saves time and, ultimately, allows us to provide better service," Cammack says.

Piecing Together the Puzzle

While most CIOs agree that unified communications can streamline and expedite employee and customer interaction, most adopters also say that the technology can create a big ball of 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 dialing, conference call setup and presence status capabilities. The service can also be accessed through laptop computers, Cisco and BlackBerry handsets and other devices.

Like Virgin, Bowman and Brooke also uses Office Communications Server 2007 linked into Office Communicator 2007 clients. The law firm uses Mitel's Live Business Gateway to allow click-to-call capabilities from Microsoft Offiice Communicator and soon from within Office documents. For multimedia conferencing, the firm chose Cisco MeetingPlace. Then there's Mitel's 3300 IP Communications Platform, an IP gateway, to do IP trunking between offices; and Mitel's Teleworker Solution, to extend office phone capabilities to phones located in remote offices, hotel rooms and other locations.

Finally, the Mitel Mobile Extension gives key attorneys a single phone number and mailbox for multiple communication devices. "The presence status of the user is updated no matter which device they are using," notes Cammack.

Given the complexity involved in that many parts, deploying a unified communications environment demands patience, diligence and persistence. Cammack feels that careful product selection is the key to unified communications success, with the CIO and staff making sure that platforms, devices, applications and everything else interoperate seamlessly. "It's essential that everything can talk to each other," he says. "Otherwise, your employees will be the middleware."

It's possible to build a unified communications infrastructure using just a single vendor, one that creates, selects and tests all the key technology itself. "But if you're creating a best-in-breed approach, you really need to make sure the companies you're looking at are going to actively cooperate with the products from the other companies you've chosen," Cammack warns.

Still, Cammack feels that unified communications' case is so compelling that it's worth the effort of juggling and interweaving multiple technologies in order to achieve lasting productivity benefits. "You have to look at the end results," he says.

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 communications technologies. "You start to realize 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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