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.

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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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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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