VoiceCon: Key Implementers Cite Hurdles To Unifying Communications

CIOs and industry panelists outline how separating telephony and VoIP pushes together groups that haven't worked together in the past and may not really want to do so now.

Charles Babcock

November 12, 2008

4 Min Read
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Bringing unified communications to the enterprise, where the separation of telephony and digital processing is replaced with voice over IP and other jointly managed technologies, has several advantages. But it also pushes together groups that haven't worked together in the past and may not really want to do so now.

IT representatives of a southern Indiana hospital, Travelers, and Global Crossing addressed some of those issues as they spoke at VoiceCon on Tuesday in San Francisco. Their session was titled, "Building The New IT Organization: Taking On Converged Networks."

Jamie Libow, a communications engineering director, initially formed a unified communications group of one, just himself, at Travelers, when the CIO asked him to tackle unified communications at the Hartford, Conn., insurance company. Travelers adopted Avaya IP telephony in 2003 built on Cisco routers, and five years later adopted Microsoft's Office Communications Server. "OCS was very complex to implement. This was the most complex application that I have put into production," Libow warned. Part of the complexity was the many different technical groups that it cut across, including e-mail, instant messaging, audio-video conferencing and Web conferencing.

OCS also has a "presence" feature that lets the various communication systems know whether another employee is available to talk, busy, or out to lunch. This and other features must be integrated with Microsoft Exchange e-mail and Active Directory identity manager, as well as VoIP telephony. Libow found the Exchange e-mail team was willing to take the lead on implementing OCS.

"Implementing a unified communications system is orders of magnitude more complex than implementing a legacy PBX or VoIP system," he said.

But the rewards of doing so are great, also. Travelers found the improved videoconferencing and Web conferencing reduced travel needs by 20%, saving $250,000. It also lead to a 30% reduction in long-distance phone charges, a 37% reduction in third-party collaboration costs, and a 15% to 25% reduction in "exceptions," or the e-mail, instant messaging, and videoconferencing problems that the IT/communications staff must troubleshoot.

Mark McMath, VP and CIO of Bloomington Hospital in Orange County, Ind., said the benefits in his case lead to "improved patient care and the hospital being named one of the 25 most technically improved hospitals, according to the American Hospital Association."Patient care improved when the voice communication between patient rooms and the nursing station could be extended to the regular phone system, allowing "patients to talk directly with caregivers" or nurses to page a doctor at home at night and take his answering call in the patient's room rather than having to get back to the nursing station from wherever she might have been.

The system is based on a combination of Cisco routers and Nortel telephone equipment, he said.

To converge voice and data networks, "you have to pay attention to people. They have very strong ties to their existing manager and their existing fellow employees," he warned. Implementing new systems in such a way that disrupts those ties breeds opposition, while heeding them wins acceptance.

"All organizations are going to find it difficult to meet end user expectations" as they implement convergence. If they can meet some concrete expectations early, end users are likely to stay engaged in the process "and new organizations will emerge out of the united communications project," he predicted.

Steve Schaffer, director of global information services for Global Crossing, said convergence came more easily to the international computer networking and telecommunications services firm. It is a convergence vendor, so getting its own systems to converge "is just out there. People say, 'If we can do this, why can't we do this and this,'" he recounted. Getting "early wins" is essential to keeping a united communications effort moving, he added.

Like Travelers, Global Crossing has opted to implement Microsoft Office Communications Server, integrated with Active Directory and SharePoint. It implemented voice over IP in 2003 and OCS in 2007. The company now coordinates voice, video, and data in various systems. When a visitor shows up at the front desk of Global Crossing's Rochester, N.Y., data center, the employee being visited can view video of the visitor and confirm it is someone with whom he has an appointment.

"One of the biggest pieces of unified communications is managing identity," Schaffer said. As you try to implement it, you need to build "close ties to security and network services managers or it won't get done."

All three agreed that cross training technical support teams in each other's disciplines leads to more understanding among the groups and a smoother unified communications implementation. But as Libow noted, such work has been under way for five years at Travelers and he estimates his organization is 50% of the way to the goal.

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