It's hard to find anyone who likes audio conferences. Sure, worker bees can put themselves on mute to chat with fellow cube \n\ndwellers. Or play Facebook Scrabble and check e-mail until it's their turn to talk. Yes, for true lows in productivity, the \n\nfuzzy, disembodied, dial-in audio conference is hard to beat.\n\nAnd what about all those mail and messaging systems anyway? Office voice mail, cell phone voice mail, office e-mail, personal \n\ne-mail, texting, instant messaging, social media communiques. Make it stop, you cry!\n\nUnified communications won't do that, but depending on which communications and messaging systems you integrate, UC could make \n\nit better. At its most basic, UC makes real-time communication systems, such as instant messaging, share information with \n\nnon-real-time systems, such as e-mail or voice mail, and runs them over the same network. Ideally, there is one simple \n\ninterface or dashboard for users to access these systems. \n\nWith UC, CIOs aim to speed up communication and collaboration internally and perhaps raise customer satisfaction externally. \n\nUsing voice over IP to cut the traditional phone \n\nbill (the foundation for UC) doesn't hurt, nor does reducing travel costs as employees meet in video or audio chats rather \n\nthan fly to faraway hotel conference rooms.\nTo read more on this topic, see: 2009 CIO Unified Communications Survey, How to Get the Most From Unified Communications and Video Conference Software Now Works with Other Apps.\nAbout 31 percent of 466 organizations surveyed recently by Forrester have deployed some form of unified communications. Half \n\nof those who haven't say they are investigating or piloting UC, up from 30 percent in 2007.\n\nYet UC isn't on fire this year, as the recession continues to batter IT spending. In Forrester's survey, 42 percent of \n\nrespondents who said they weren't investing in UC cited lack of money or the absence of clear business value to justify the \n\ninvestment.\n\n"Certainly it does make sense to connect voice mail, e-mail and mobile systems," says Jerry Hodge, senior director of \n\ninformation services at appliance distributor Hamilton Beach. "Unfortunately, the current economic situation has limited my \n\naggressiveness in moving forward." The same is true at movie-rental chain Blockbuster and food and beverage maker Shaklee, \n\ntheir CIOs say.\n\nStill, if you have money and want to move forward with UC, early adopters have advice about planning projects and measuring \n\nreturns.\n\nThe Original Social Networking\n\nUC has evolved from a back-room effort to simplify networking by, for example, running data and voice traffic on the same \n\ninfrastructure, to applications that let employees share information no matter the device in front of them. Well, almost. \n\nWe're not quite at the point yet where a BlackBerry, say, can get you into any corporate system and connect you to any \n\ncolleague. But it's coming, predicts Steven John, CIO of manufacturing company H.B. Fuller.\n\nThe rise of consumer social networking platforms such as Facebook, Flikr and Twitter reinforce daily the desire among \n\ncorporate employees to strip the friction from communicating at work, too, John says. He says he feels that heat and is \n\nstudying potential UC systems, but he hasn't yet decided on any.\n\nPresence, meanwhile, is moving from a cool, gadgety technology to real corporate tool. That's when computer devices detect \n\neach other and indicate the fastest or preferred way to reach the person on the other end. It's like instant messaging for \n\nevery kind of connection you might make to your corporate network or, if configured for it, the public Internet. One simpler \n\nUC move is to integrate voice mail and e-mail so that users can listen to e-mail or read voice mail. Another is to allow \n\ninstant messaging or document sharing during video conferences.\n\nAccording to Autodesk VP of Strategic Initiatives Billy Hinners, the ultimate in video is telepresence technology. Autodesk \n\nwent whole hog into Cisco's \n\nTelePresence system, which involves super high-quality video conferencing that can connect up to 48 locations at once, \n\nalong with on-screen, interactive data sharing. Cisco calls it an "immersive" experience\u2014think Star Trek's Holodeck.\n\nOf course, the price for such a system is steep. Autodesk spent \n\n$350,000 to outfit its first six-person TelePresence room. It runs 15 rooms now, ranging from two-person to 12-person sites, \n\nand spends about $10,000 per month on \nnetworking costs. \n\n"Cost savings was not a big driver for us," Hinners says. Rather, the company initially wanted better collaboration between \n\nsoftware designers and engineers in the United States and its 1,000-plus software engineers in Shanghai to pump out products \n\nfaster at an improved quality. Subsequent installations have also been aimed at improving sales communications and efficiency \n\nas well as reducing travel and carbon emissions. Employees embraced the technology right away, he says. Time booked in the \n\nTelePresence rooms for regular video conferencing has become "a precious commodity."\n\nIn fact, if there is any project for which success depends on users rather than IT guiding the planning and rollout, it's \n\nunified communications. UC projects are some of the most technical ones that CIOs have to contend with today, integrating data \n\nand voice in ways that some IT groups have never done before. But communicating is, by nature, a personal act. Foisting upon \n\npeople unwanted changes to how they talk and type to each other makes people uncomfortable, says Don Lewis, president of \n\nconsultancy Strategic Intersect. "You think all you're doing is taking away someone's phone and giving them another one but \n\nyou're not," says Lewis. "Changing the button they push to forward a call to someone is hugely disruptive."\n\nIs There a Doctor on the Device?\n\nWhat you really want are users who push for a UC project, says Michael McTigue, CIO of Saint Barnabas Medical Center.\nThe hospital group\u2014which provides cardiac services, burn treatment and organ transplant among its offerings\u2014wanted \n\nto speed up the time for doctors, nurses and technicians to reach each other. The time-honored pager method was no longer good \n\nenough. Indeed, the archaic process of dialing a beeper, hoping the page goes through, waiting for the recipient to get it and \n\ncall back slowed communications, and therefore reaction time during critical situations, McTigue says.\n\nFifteen minutes might pass before a physician could reach someone in the telemetry group to order machines to monitor a given \n\npatient's heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. "Everyone was looking for a communications vehicle that would give better \n\nturnaround time," he says.\n\nWalkie-talkies, while quick, didn't pan out because the crackly speakers made the hallways noisier and they ran through a lot \n\nof batteries. \n\nIn March 2007, Saint Barnabas launched a pilot of Vocera Communication's badge devices. The 2-ounce rectangles are worn on a lanyard around the neck or clipped to \n\na collar or pocket. They allow hands-free voice communication. A nurse might press the activation button and speak into it the \n\nname of a physician who is needed to check a medication order. Via a wireless network, the device pings a database to look up \n\nthe doctor's name and relay the call. The doctor taps his button and speaks to respond.\n\nSaint Barnabas spent $500,000 for devices and software for 450 concurrent users, starting with the telemetry group. That \n\n15-minute wait time plunged\u2014responses now take nine to 15 seconds, McTigue says. Such dramatic results convinced the \n\nhospital to get as many of its 3,000 employees on the system as quickly as possible. Within nine months, the hospital spent \n\n$250,000 to add another 300 concurrent users, giving 2,700 employees access to the system.\n\nIBM managed the initial training, helping new users enunciate and speak directly into the Vocera device. In the emergency \n\nroom, where there's more noise than in other parts of a hospital, the staff uses headsets rather than dangling the device at \n\nchest level. The training helped get Saint Barnabas to a high rate of calls recognized and completed on the first try: 83 \n\npercent. Seventy percent is more typical, McTigue says proudly.\n\nAlong the way, the hospital worked with IBM, Cisco and Vocera to identify and fix wireless dead spots in stairwells, elevators \n\nand the lead-walled radiology area. They had to fiddle with wireless access point configurations to get all areas hot. "If you \n\ndon't have tight infrastructure, the application will get a bad name," he warns. The system works only on campus but the \n\nhospital is testing a Vocera smart phone with the same capabilities for off-campus use.\n\nYearly operating costs are $75,000 to $85,000, mainly for Vocera software maintenance, he says. The hospital expects to \n\nconnect 1.5 million to 2 million calls through the system, eliminating the need for one full-time switchboard operator, \n\naccording to McTigue. \n\nThe hospital has saved another $70,000 by getting rid of its backup phone system used during power outages. The wireless \n\nVocera system replaces a traditional dedicated circuit for that old emergency system. \n\nPayback from UC projects doesn't typically come from savings on networking equipment because those prices are low already, \n\nsays Lewis of Strategic Intersect. But hard returns can be calculated: Obviously, meeting virtually can cut travel costs. \n\nSetting up call center staff to work from home, but access integrated voice, e-mail and document capabilities frees up \n\nphysical room at the company for other uses.\n\nSofter results, Lewis says, can also be important: By merging voice mail, e-mail and BlackBerry messages, your \n\nsales organization may save 30 minutes every day. How valuable is that in productivity \nand morale?\n\nTry It, They'll Like It\n\nAs the experience at Saint Barnabas shows, unifying the communications for lots of people at a company can be more beneficial \n\nthan unifying communications for only some people. The more people on the system, the faster and more frictionless their \n\ncommunication. In a hospital, that can save lives. At a corporation, that can make money.\n\nWoods Bagot, an architectural design firm with offices in Dubai, \n\nHong Kong and London, among other cities, has built elaborate buildings worldwide. Recent projects include the oval \n\ndish-shaped campus of the United Arab Emirates \n\nUniversity, a mixed residential and commercial district in Shenzhen, China, and the Cesaria beach resort in \n\nthe Cape Verde islands.\nIn 2007, the board at Woods Bagot decided that it wanted the company to operate like one big studio no matter where its \n\nclients, engineers and architects lived. Exchanging drawings is key for an architecture firm, of course. But the people who \n\nwork at Woods Bagot are visual thinkers, so any new communications tools would have to let them see each other, not just share \n\ndata and documents, says CIO Nectarios Lazaris.\n\n"Being a design firm, we don't sit in a boardroom and look at Excel spreadsheets," he says. "We walk around and interact with \n\npeople." Not to mention swap 3-D visualization files that are a couple of gigabytes unto themselves.\n\nHe tried at least five products, including Microsoft Live Meeting, whose video quality users found poor. Same with Polycom's Web conferencing product, he says. Lazaris chose Microsoft Office Communicator for \n\ndesktop video conferencing and collaboration, products from Tandberg for boardroom video conferencing and Blue Coat's software \n\nfor secure Web connections. He was impressed that Blue Coat sent engineers\u2014not salespeople\u2014to Woods Bagot during \n\nthe decision phase and let them stay as long as needed during and after launch. \n\nThe first test came when a week after the video system went live, the Woods Bagot board opted to try the new toy instead of \n\nmeeting in person. "It was a nervous time for us," he says, noting that Blue Coat had people on-site to troubleshoot should \n\nsomething go wrong during the pivotal meeting. The company saved $450,000 by not flying the 12 board members to Sydney or \n\nproviding their accommodations for that meeting as well as the remaining ones planned that year, Lazaris says. But it was the \n\nexperience that sold the board. "When they see their investment in play, that's a bigger win than trying to show them a \n\nPowerPoint that says, 'I saved you $450,000,'" he says.\n\nThe technology lets Woods Bagot work with cream-of-the-crop designers and architects residing anywhere in the world, according \n\nto Lazaris, which is a point the firm makes in presentations to potential clients. He says it's gotten the firm work it might \n\nnot otherwise have won. "This is not follow-the-sun like in outsourcing. We're not handing over projects but collaborating in \n\na live environment," he says. "It's comforting to them."\n\nHow UC Helps IT\n\nThe mere thought of coordinating a global supply chain project will send many IT managers quivering under their project \n\nmanagement software and spreadsheets. Volvo Group wanted a better way to work across time zones with colleagues who don't \n\nnecessarily respond to e-mail\u2014however red-hot urgent it's marked, says Magnus Holmqvist, director for the IT innovation \n\ncenter at the company. Volvo Group makes Mac trucks and Volvo busses and construction equipment; Ford now makes the famously \n\nrectangular cars.\n\nAn IT team of 70 people around the world are working on a project to streamline Volvo's spare-parts supply chain, which \n\nreaches 60,000 mechanics in 180 countries. Previously, various team members would meet every 12 weeks to test versions of the \n\nnew SAP and Red Prairie applications they are building. \n\nEarly this spring, Volvo started virtual test rooms online, using Microsoft Office Communicator and Hewlett-Packard's \n\nTestDirector quality-check tool running over VoIP.\n\nSo far, half of the in-person meetings have been eliminated, but plane trips have been reduced by more than half because the \n\ntechnology is so good, Holmqvist says. Even people in the same city sometimes opt to attend meetings virtually rather than \n\ntrek across town. He declines to say how much money Volvo has saved in travel costs but says the system has cut carbon dioxide \n\nemissions by 630 tons\u2014about the equivalent of taking 250 cars off the road for a year.\n\nDon't underestimate the mileage, so to speak, that you may get from promoting the gr\n\neen ROI of cutting travel, Homqvist says. "People don't feel too good about flying across the Atlantic when we know we \n\nhave climate change going on. But people feel much better about eliminating those kinds of meetings," he says. Linking that \n\nidea to cost-cutting has helped IT get the new technology more eagerly accepted across the company, he adds. "That is real." \n\nHomqvist predicts work quality and productivity will rise because employees will spend less time planning meeting logistics \n\nand traveling. "Our perception is that we're already earlier on these test-suite sessions. Instead of a 12-week cycle, we may \n\nreduce the cycle."\n\nDefining the ROI\n\nSome organizations, however, aren't seeing the returns they expected on UC projects. Or rather, they don't know how to tie a \n\ndollar figure to them, says Henry Dewing, a principal analyst at Forrester Research.\n\nThe softer benefits of smoother collaboration are hard to quantify and therefore, Dewing says, hard to justify. Especially \n\nnow. Twenty-four percent of the telecommunications and networking managers surveyed by Forrester say they aren't getting all \n\nthe benefits they expected from UC. Another 11 percent said they didn't know whether they were or not. It's hard to pin down \n\nthe dollars generated or saved by faster project completion or product launches, Dewing says.\n\nJohn, 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 \n\nrevenues aren't huge but its global footprint is. \n\nThe adhesives company does business in 100 countries, with offices in 36. \nThe pressure is on John to find technological ways to overcome such geographic diversity, he says. But he doesn't want to jump \n\ntoo quickly. For example, it's easier to unify communications when PCs and laptops are standardized, in part because tweaking \n\nthe configurations takes less time. But standardizing hardware is something Fuller has only recently started to do. \n\nHe doesn't want to buy more products than he needs. Say a Fuller engineer in China views a document created by a U.S. \n\ncounterpart and can hover over his colleague's name with his mouse to automatically dial that person for a PC-based call. How \n\nabout accessing your computer calendar by voice, over the phone?\n\nThat's the kind of razzle dazzle UC application vendors pitch that isn't available in, say, SharePoint, Microsoft's document \n\nsharing and collaboration system. "It's fun, fancy, very sexy but is it needed? Would that be a competitive advantage?" John \n\nwonders.\n\nOne part of the calculation, he says, will be trying to predict how much bandwidth different combinations of UC technologies \n\nwould eat and whether the network costs will be worth the UC benefits. He hasn't reached any conclusions yet, but a product \n\nlike SharePoint might provide enough collaboration for Fuller employees so that a big UC investment isn't necessary. "That's what we're debating."\n\nLoomis, the armored car company, has been installing UC components for two years, expecting to cut telecommunications costs \n\nand make some business processes more efficient. But first, the company had to lay some infrastructure. \n\nWayne Sadin, Loomis' CIO, began contemplating UC a few years ago, when the company was outgrowing its existing phone systems. \n\nLoomis had acquired several smaller armored car companies along with their mix of different PBXes. If a branch's voice mail \n\nneeded reprogramming, they had to call local providers who would drive over to do the work for $100 to $200 an hour, Sadin \n\nrecalls.\n\nLoomis 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 \n\nIT staff, centrally. "You just call the help desk. It's 10 minutes of work or even one minute of work," he says. Not paying \n\nPBX vendors for move, add or change orders is a big part of Loomis' ROI, he adds.\n\nIn 2007, Loomis finished putting its Microsoft Exchange e-mail system on VoIP. Meanwhile, Microsoft Office Communicator \n\nsupplies video conferencing, instant messaging and presence, including a BlackBerry IM client. Employees can forward voice \n\nmails as if they were e-mail and they don't have to log in to separate voice mail, e-mail and BlackBerry messaging systems, \n\nSadin says.\n\nA Unified Mind-Set\n\nMelding all of these capabilities takes some forethought and, perhaps, changes to how the IT group works together and with \n\noutside vendors. When Pacific \nMedical Centers put in VoIP to let data and voice traffic run unified on its network, it had to \n\nrearrange some job responsibilities, says consultant Lewis, who was the \nhospital's CIO at the time. Network administrators, \n\nfor example, had to learn to plan for spikes in traffic during peak application usage times as well as for telecommunications.\nFor many companies, separate vendors supply networking gear, servers and software. But as UC takes root, CIOs and IT staff \n\nmust make sure those different vendors coordinate their work, he says. \n\nFor example, Loomis planned to upgrade Cisco's Call Manager administrative suite last spring, in part to more fully integrate \n\nCisco phone handsets with Microsoft's Office Communications Server. \n\nLoomis' network and server teams planned and tested the upgrade with a local VoIP consultant for two to three months. But the \n\nmorning of the scheduled upgrade, the teams discovered that the need for a schema change to Microsoft's Active Directory got \n\noverlooked. The upgrade was aborted. Loomis tried again in late August, after the Active Directory tweak was tested and rolled \n\nout. \n\n"I guess the phone-oriented vendor didn't realize how carefully our server team guards Active Directory from untested \n\nchanges," he says. "The hardest thing about integrating communications is integrating people's mind-sets."\n\nSenior Editor Kim S. Nash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. \n\nDo you Tweet. Follow me on Twitter @knash99. Follow everything from CIO Magazine @CIOMagazine.