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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.

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.

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