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Unified communications promises much, but does it deliver?

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.

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 Communicatorfor 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."

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