Unified Communications Promises Much, But Does It Deliver?

Unified communications can save time, cut costs and improve collaboration, but the tricky part is choosing the right combination of tools.

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The technology lets Woods Bagot work with cream-of-the-crop designers and architects residing anywhere in the world, according to Lazaris, which is a point the firm makes in presentations to potential clients. He says it's gotten the firm work it might not otherwise have won. "This is not follow-the-sun like in outsourcing. We're not handing over projects but collaborating in a live environment," he says. "It's comforting to them."

How UC Helps IT

The mere thought of coordinating a global supply chain project will send many IT managers quivering under their project management software and spreadsheets. Volvo Group wanted a better way to work across time zones with colleagues who don't necessarily respond to e-mail—however red-hot urgent it's marked, says Magnus Holmqvist, director for the IT innovation center at the company. Volvo Group makes Mac trucks and Volvo busses and construction equipment; Ford now makes the famously rectangular cars.

An IT team of 70 people around the world are working on a project to streamline Volvo's spare-parts supply chain, which reaches 60,000 mechanics in 180 countries. Previously, various team members would meet every 12 weeks to test versions of the new SAP and Red Prairie applications they are building.

Early this spring, Volvo started virtual test rooms online, using Microsoft Office Communicator and Hewlett-Packard's TestDirector quality-check tool running over VoIP.

So far, half of the in-person meetings have been eliminated, but plane trips have been reduced by more than half because the technology is so good, Holmqvist says. Even people in the same city sometimes opt to attend meetings virtually rather than trek across town. He declines to say how much money Volvo has saved in travel costs but says the system has cut carbon dioxide emissions by 630 tons—about the equivalent of taking 250 cars off the road for a year.

Don't underestimate the mileage, so to speak, that you may get from promoting the gr een ROI of cutting travel, Homqvist says. "People don't feel too good about flying across the Atlantic when we know we have climate change going on. But people feel much better about eliminating those kinds of meetings," he says. Linking that idea to cost-cutting has helped IT get the new technology more eagerly accepted across the company, he adds. "That is real."

Homqvist predicts work quality and productivity will rise because employees will spend less time planning meeting logistics and traveling. "Our perception is that we're already earlier on these test-suite sessions. Instead of a 12-week cycle, we may reduce the cycle."

Defining the ROI

Some organizations, however, aren't seeing the returns they expected on UC projects. Or rather, they don't know how to tie a dollar figure to them, says Henry Dewing, a principal analyst at Forrester Research.

The softer benefits of smoother collaboration are hard to quantify and therefore, Dewing says, hard to justify. Especially now. Twenty-four percent of the telecommunications and networking managers surveyed by Forrester say they aren't getting all the benefits they expected from UC. Another 11 percent said they didn't know whether they were or not. It's hard to pin down the dollars generated or saved by faster project completion or product launches, Dewing says.

John, the H.B. Fuller CIO, isn't sure yet what mix of tools will produce the best return. As a $1.5 billion company, Fuller's revenues aren't huge but its global footprint is. The adhesives company does business in 100 countries, with offices in 36. The pressure is on John to find technological ways to overcome such geographic diversity, he says. But he doesn't want to jump too quickly. For example, it's easier to unify communications when PCs and laptops are standardized, in part because tweaking the configurations takes less time. But standardizing hardware is something Fuller has only recently started to do.

He doesn't want to buy more products than he needs. Say a Fuller engineer in China views a document created by a U.S. counterpart and can hover over his colleague's name with his mouse to automatically dial that person for a PC-based call. How about accessing your computer calendar by voice, over the phone?

That's the kind of razzle dazzle UC application vendors pitch that isn't available in, say, SharePoint, Microsoft's document sharing and collaboration system. "It's fun, fancy, very sexy but is it needed? Would that be a competitive advantage?" John wonders.

One part of the calculation, he says, will be trying to predict how much bandwidth different combinations of UC technologies would eat and whether the network costs will be worth the UC benefits. He hasn't reached any conclusions yet, but a product like SharePoint might provide enough collaboration for Fuller employees so that a big UC investment isn't necessary. "That's what we're debating."

Loomis, the armored car company, has been installing UC components for two years, expecting to cut telecommunications costs and make some business processes more efficient. But first, the company had to lay some infrastructure.

Wayne Sadin, Loomis' CIO, began contemplating UC a few years ago, when the company was outgrowing its existing phone systems. Loomis had acquired several smaller armored car companies along with their mix of different PBXes. If a branch's voice mail needed reprogramming, they had to call local providers who would drive over to do the work for $100 to $200 an hour, Sadin recalls.

Loomis replaced those PBX systems at headquarters and, so far, a little more than 10 percent of its 200 branches with Cisco VoIP. Now those tasks can be done by Loomis' own IT staff, centrally. "You just call the help desk. It's 10 minutes of work or even one minute of work," he says. Not paying PBX vendors for move, add or change orders is a big part of Loomis' ROI, he adds.

In 2007, Loomis finished putting its Microsoft Exchange e-mail system on VoIP. Meanwhile, Microsoft Office Communicator supplies video conferencing, instant messaging and presence, including a BlackBerry IM client. Employees can forward voice mails as if they were e-mail and they don't have to log in to separate voice mail, e-mail and BlackBerry messaging systems, Sadin says.

A Unified Mind-Set

Melding all of these capabilities takes some forethought and, perhaps, changes to how the IT group works together and with outside vendors. When Pacific Medical Centers put in VoIP to let data and voice traffic run unified on its network, it had to rearrange some job responsibilities, says consultant Lewis, who was the hospital's CIO at the time. Network administrators, for example, had to learn to plan for spikes in traffic during peak application usage times as well as for telecommunications. For many companies, separate vendors supply networking gear, servers and software. But as UC takes root, CIOs and IT staff must make sure those different vendors coordinate their work, he says.

For example, Loomis planned to upgrade Cisco's Call Manager administrative suite last spring, in part to more fully integrate Cisco phone handsets with Microsoft's Office Communications Server.

Loomis' network and server teams planned and tested the upgrade with a local VoIP consultant for two to three months. But the morning of the scheduled upgrade, the teams discovered that the need for a schema change to Microsoft's Active Directory got overlooked. The upgrade was aborted. Loomis tried again in late August, after the Active Directory tweak was tested and rolled out.

"I guess the phone-oriented vendor didn't realize how carefully our server team guards Active Directory from untested changes," he says. "The hardest thing about integrating communications is integrating people's mind-sets."

Senior Editor Kim S. Nash can be reached at knash@cio.com.

Do you Tweet. Follow me on Twitter @knash99. Follow everything from CIO Magazine @CIOMagazine.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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