by Kim S. Nash

Unified Communications Promises Much, But Does It Deliver?

Sep 09, 2009
Data CenterMobileNetworking

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

It’s hard to find anyone who likes audio conferences. Sure, worker bees can put themselves on mute to chat with fellow cube dwellers. Or play Facebook Scrabble and check e-mail until it’s their turn to talk. Yes, for true lows in productivity, the fuzzy, disembodied, dial-in audio conference is hard to beat.

And what about all those mail and messaging systems anyway? Office voice mail, cell phone voice mail, office e-mail, personal e-mail, texting, instant messaging, social media communiques. Make it stop, you cry!

Unified communications won’t do that, but depending on which communications and messaging systems you integrate, UC could make it better. At its most basic, UC makes real-time communication systems, such as instant messaging, share information with non-real-time systems, such as e-mail or voice mail, and runs them over the same network. Ideally, there is one simple interface or dashboard for users to access these systems.

With UC, CIOs aim to speed up communication and collaboration internally and perhaps raise customer satisfaction externally. Using voice over IP to cut the traditional phone bill (the foundation for UC) doesn’t hurt, nor does reducing travel costs as employees meet in video or audio chats rather than fly to faraway hotel conference rooms.

To 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.

About 31 percent of 466 organizations surveyed recently by Forrester have deployed some form of unified communications. Half of those who haven’t say they are investigating or piloting UC, up from 30 percent in 2007.

Yet UC isn’t on fire this year, as the recession continues to batter IT spending. In Forrester’s survey, 42 percent of respondents who said they weren’t investing in UC cited lack of money or the absence of clear business value to justify the investment.

“Certainly it does make sense to connect voice mail, e-mail and mobile systems,” says Jerry Hodge, senior director of information services at appliance distributor Hamilton Beach. “Unfortunately, the current economic situation has limited my aggressiveness in moving forward.” The same is true at movie-rental chain Blockbuster and food and beverage maker Shaklee, their CIOs say.

Still, if you have money and want to move forward with UC, early adopters have advice about planning projects and measuring returns.

The Original Social Networking

UC has evolved from a back-room effort to simplify networking by, for example, running data and voice traffic on the same infrastructure, to applications that let employees share information no matter the device in front of them. Well, almost. We’re not quite at the point yet where a BlackBerry, say, can get you into any corporate system and connect you to any colleague. But it’s coming, predicts Steven John, CIO of manufacturing company H.B. Fuller.

The rise of consumer social networking platforms such as Facebook, Flikr and Twitter reinforce daily the desire among corporate employees to strip the friction from communicating at work, too, John says. He says he feels that heat and is studying potential UC systems, but he hasn’t yet decided on any.

Presence, meanwhile, is moving from a cool, gadgety technology to real corporate tool. That’s when computer devices detect each other and indicate the fastest or preferred way to reach the person on the other end. It’s like instant messaging for every kind of connection you might make to your corporate network or, if configured for it, the public Internet. One simpler UC 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 instant messaging or document sharing during video conferences.

According to Autodesk VP of Strategic Initiatives Billy Hinners, the ultimate in video is telepresence technology. Autodesk went whole hog into Cisco’s TelePresence system, which involves super high-quality video conferencing that can connect up to 48 locations at once, along with on-screen, interactive data sharing. Cisco calls it an “immersive” experience—think Star Trek’s Holodeck.

Of course, the price for such a system is steep. Autodesk spent $350,000 to outfit its first six-person TelePresence room. It runs 15 rooms now, ranging from two-person to 12-person sites, and spends about $10,000 per month on networking costs.

“Cost savings was not a big driver for us,” Hinners says. Rather, the company initially wanted better collaboration between software designers and engineers in the United States and its 1,000-plus software engineers in Shanghai to pump out products faster at an improved quality. Subsequent installations have also been aimed at improving sales communications and efficiency as well as reducing travel and carbon emissions. Employees embraced the technology right away, he says. Time booked in the TelePresence rooms for regular video conferencing has become “a precious commodity.”

In fact, if there is any project for which success depends on users rather than IT guiding the planning and rollout, it’s unified communications. UC projects are some of the most technical ones that CIOs have to contend with today, integrating data and voice in ways that some IT groups have never done before. But communicating is, by nature, a personal act. Foisting upon people unwanted changes to how they talk and type to each other makes people uncomfortable, says Don Lewis, president of consultancy Strategic Intersect. “You think all you’re doing is taking away someone’s phone and giving them another one but you’re not,” says Lewis. “Changing the button they push to forward a call to someone is hugely disruptive.”

Is There a Doctor on the Device?

What you really want are users who push for a UC project, says Michael McTigue, CIO of Saint Barnabas Medical Center. The hospital group—which provides cardiac services, burn treatment and organ transplant among its offerings—wanted to speed up the time for doctors, nurses and technicians to reach each other. The time-honored pager method was no longer good enough. Indeed, the archaic process of dialing a beeper, hoping the page goes through, waiting for the recipient to get it and call back slowed communications, and therefore reaction time during critical situations, McTigue says.

Fifteen minutes might pass before a physician could reach someone in the telemetry group to order machines to monitor a given patient’s heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. “Everyone was looking for a communications vehicle that would give better turnaround time,” he says.

Walkie-talkies, while quick, didn’t pan out because the crackly speakers made the hallways noisier and they ran through a lot of batteries.

In 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 a collar or pocket. They allow hands-free voice communication. A nurse might press the activation button and speak into it the name of a physician who is needed to check a medication order. Via a wireless network, the device pings a database to look up the doctor’s name and relay the call. The doctor taps his button and speaks to respond.

Saint Barnabas spent $500,000 for devices and software for 450 concurrent users, starting with the telemetry group. That 15-minute wait time plunged—responses now take nine to 15 seconds, McTigue says. Such dramatic results convinced the hospital to get as many of its 3,000 employees on the system as quickly as possible. Within nine months, the hospital spent $250,000 to add another 300 concurrent users, giving 2,700 employees access to the system.

IBM managed the initial training, helping new users enunciate and speak directly into the Vocera device. In the emergency room, where there’s more noise than in other parts of a hospital, the staff uses headsets rather than dangling the device at chest level. The training helped get Saint Barnabas to a high rate of calls recognized and completed on the first try: 83 percent. Seventy percent is more typical, McTigue says proudly.

Along the way, the hospital worked with IBM, Cisco and Vocera to identify and fix wireless dead spots in stairwells, elevators and the lead-walled radiology area. They had to fiddle with wireless access point configurations to get all areas hot. “If you don’t have tight infrastructure, the application will get a bad name,” he warns. The system works only on campus but the hospital is testing a Vocera smart phone with the same capabilities for off-campus use.

Yearly operating costs are $75,000 to $85,000, mainly for Vocera software maintenance, he says. The hospital expects to connect 1.5 million to 2 million calls through the system, eliminating the need for one full-time switchboard operator, according to McTigue.

The hospital has saved another $70,000 by getting rid of its backup phone system used during power outages. The wireless Vocera system replaces a traditional dedicated circuit for that old emergency system.

Payback from UC projects doesn’t typically come from savings on networking equipment because those prices are low already, says Lewis of Strategic Intersect. But hard returns can be calculated: Obviously, meeting virtually can cut travel costs. Setting up call center staff to work from home, but access integrated voice, e-mail and document capabilities frees up physical room at the company for other uses.

Softer results, Lewis says, can also be important: By merging voice mail, e-mail and BlackBerry messages, your sales organization may save 30 minutes every day. How valuable is that in productivity and morale?

Try It, They’ll Like It

As the experience at Saint Barnabas shows, unifying the communications for lots of people at a company can be more beneficial than unifying communications for only some people. The more people on the system, the faster and more frictionless their communication. In a hospital, that can save lives. At a corporation, that can make money.

Woods Bagot, an architectural design firm with offices in Dubai, Hong Kong and London, among other cities, has built elaborate buildings worldwide. Recent projects include the oval dish-shaped campus of the United Arab Emirates University, a mixed residential and commercial district in Shenzhen, China, and the Cesaria beach resort in the Cape Verde islands. In 2007, the board at Woods Bagot decided that it wanted the company to operate like one big studio no matter where its clients, engineers and architects lived. Exchanging drawings is key for an architecture firm, of course. But the people who work at Woods Bagot are visual thinkers, so any new communications tools would have to let them see each other, not just share data and documents, says CIO Nectarios Lazaris.

“Being a design firm, we don’t sit in a boardroom and look at Excel spreadsheets,” he says. “We walk around and interact with people.” Not to mention swap 3-D visualization files that are a couple of gigabytes unto themselves.

He 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 desktop video conferencing and collaboration, products from Tandberg for boardroom video conferencing and Blue Coat’s software for secure Web connections. He was impressed that Blue Coat sent engineers—not salespeople—to Woods Bagot during the decision phase and let them stay as long as needed during and after launch.

The first test came when a week after the video system went live, the Woods Bagot board opted to try the new toy instead of meeting in person. “It was a nervous time for us,” he says, noting that Blue Coat had people on-site to troubleshoot should something go wrong during the pivotal meeting. The company saved $450,000 by not flying the 12 board members to Sydney or providing their accommodations for that meeting as well as the remaining ones planned that year, Lazaris says. But it was the experience that sold the board. “When they see their investment in play, that’s a bigger win than trying to show them a PowerPoint that says, ‘I saved you $450,000,'” he says.

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

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