Internet telephony cannot deliver on its promise if users remain welded to their mobiles. Winning hearts and minds with training and quality service is the key.
While experts predict that voice over IP usage will double in the next few years, there is enough anecdotal evidence of its limitations to give pause for thought.
One example is the teleconference hosted by a global telecoms carrier that was delayed because a senior technical manager realised he had not logged out of his IP phone. He returned to his desk - several floors away - to perform the task even though VoIP users can log in and out from anywhere on the planet.
The story is recounted by John Waterhouse, managing director of The Network Collective consultancy. He says the lack of training and cultural acceptance of VoIP remain barriers to adoption within many companies.
"Most people continue to use VoIP systems in exactly the same way as they do the PSTN systems. Even a killer app such as having your desk phone follow you everywhere you go is under-utilised because people continue to use their mobile," he says.
The central problem, according to Waterhouse, is that people think of IT as complicated but expect their phone to be simple to use.
If so, the chances of staff getting up to speed on call routing options or more esoteric features, such as calling phone numbers embedded in web pages, are slim.
And if applications are not relevant to an end-user's work routine, there is a danger of VoIP falling into the category of "a technology looking for an application", says Waterhouse.
When the business case for VoIP rests on the economy of scale achieved from maintaining one network instead of two, this need not be too much of a concern.
And, in fact, most implementations that analyst Gartner has observed over the past 12 months have been to harvest cost savings from centralising access points to the local networks and removing local lines.
But end-user take-up becomes a crucial issue when businesses implement expensive and state-of-the-art IP handsets as a way of gaining value from integrating voice and telephony applications.
"One of the biggest disappointments has been the $20bn global spend on flashy handsets that sit on the desk and no one uses," says Steve Blood, vice-president of research at analyst firm Gartner.
According to Blood, "The training piece tends to get forgotten. The perception is that the handset is so easy to use that no training is necessary. It is not true, and it is vital."
The other obstacle is that IT or business managers worry that if they factor in 200 hours of training, it will blow the business case for VoIP.
Blood recommends that companies resist top-end handsets and instead spend the savings on integrating messaging software and the PC.
That way, instead of trying to calculate the value of saving three seconds on every call, people in the organisation can have more intuitive and integrated communication between e-mail, voice and messaging.
The Future Work Forum (FWF), a Henley Management College initiative, believes that multichannel communication could well be one of the more fruitful outcomes of VoIP.
FWF director Peter Thomson says, "In an ideal world, even when you call on voice, the caller should have the option of speaking or leaving a message. However, people need to be reconditioned or trained to use media in different ways.
"I now talk to my son and use a webcam but it needed him to start living in Hong Kong for me to change my habits."
Such a change of mindset will be necessary if employees are to be weaned off their mobiles onto their IP handsets, for example.
Blood cites the case of a Portuguese bank that recently implemented VoIP purely to reduce the heavy cost of branch-to-mobile calls.
"Fixed-to-mobile costs are increasing all over Europe. They are terribly expensive," he says.
The Communications Management Association was an early adopter of VoIP, and John Harrington, CMA leader for regulatory affairs, says training was a vital element, given the various niggles to sort out.
"You expect a converged voice and data network to be all direct dialling in, but unless it is overlaid with interactive voice response,that is not necessarily true," he says.
Harrington says the biggest contribution made by training was to counteract the natural reluctance of staff to believe they could create and handle calls from the PC screen. Timing also proved important.
"It is better to involve staff at the outset and explain the rationale for the system, rather than implement and then impose a training schedule," he says.
Similarly, all the bells and whistles that accompany VoIP can produce learning overload and deter acceptance. Rather than train staff in every feature of the new system, Harrington recommends that businesses identify the important functions first.
"Once users are solidly wedded to their new systems, it is more effective to follow up with the 'nice to haves' in six months' time," he says.
GCap Media, formed last May from the merger of GWR and Capital Radio, discovered an effective approach to IP telephony training almost by accident.
The radio station decided to migrate the technical staff and senior managers onto IP handsets first (see box).
In effect, it was a "top-down and bottom-up approach," says Aidan Hancock, GCap's network manager.
"Having two layers of enthusiasts - the IT specialists and the senior managers - meant the mass in the middle heard it was a good thing."
Getting IT staff on-message is not as straightforward as you might think. The transition to a seamless voice and data network means their specialised skills in different layers of the communication stack are no longer required in the same way.
"There is a training gap. People assessing suppliers do not know the pitfalls or 'gotchas' of the products," says Duane Sword, vice-president of product management for VoIP testing company Empirix.
Plus, there is a lack of hands-on experience, with most technical people learning through trial and error, Sword says. Businesses want to go live at the lowest cost, so there is not a lot of space or money for training IT staff or end-users. The result is that the network is not optimised for voice and end-users are not prepared for - and will not tolerate - poor voice quality or echo.
Sword says, "The worst situation is when end-users pick up the phone, do not hear a dial tone and put it down again."
It is therefore important for the IT staff to be aware of what is important to end-users. This means the IT department should refrain from talking about VoIP in terms of packets and protocols, and instead pose questions about service quality, such as what is an acceptable delay for users?
Large corporations are cottoning on to the advantages of employees communicating in multiple media, and now have the opportunity to do so as they upgrade to IP networks.
But IT usage has never been defined by what suppliers write on the product tin. IP training should focus on the applications that are already indispensable to workers.
"Direct dial and missed calls are the most used applications on mobiles," says Blood. He suggests that there will be more overlap between IP handsets and mobiles, and IP networks and Wi-Fi, than any IP training manual describes.
Case study: High quality sound makes voip a capital solution for radio group
Extending VoIP across the business has been a priority for GCap Media since it was formed from the merger of GWR and Capital Radio last May.
The UK's largest commercial radio company relies on an integrated voice and data network to deliver live broadcasts. Adding voice to the mix made commercial sense.
"GWR had been successfully using IP telephony since 2004 and all employees wanted to know was when they were getting 'the good phones'," recalls Aidan Hancock, GCap's network manager.
This cultural acceptance of VoIP was largely down to the training programme and the way IP handsets were introduced.
"We needed the technical team to embrace the technology. Culturally, radio technicians are conservative with a small 'c', accustomed to previous-generation, manual technology," says Hancock.
Technical teams were therefore prioritised alongside senior management and both tiers became enthusiastic adopters.
Once VoIP was rolled out to everyone else, an internal trainer was sent to the site two weeks before the final switchover.
In this way, employees had a working IP phone as well as the comfort of their PSTN phone and could become properly acclimatised. It helped that the Cisco telephone handsets were "quite nice and intuitive to use," says Hancock.
Acceptance was also helped by the fact that end-users did not suffer any of the delay or voice echo problems that dog some implementations.
This was because GCap over-engineered the bandwidth, given that the networks were the backbone for their live radio broadcasts.
Senior executives and other staff were weaned off their mobile phones by integrating some "nice to have" applications onto the handset.
As well as putting on the phone directory, some top-line data had been abstracted from business systems and could be accessed.
"The sales manager can press a soft key button and see various sales figures," says Hancock.
Another application that proved popular with staff was integrating messaging with telephony so they can see at a glance if someone is on the phone. Programmers wrote a Sip interface between Microsoft's Office Communicator and the Cisco router. Similarly, staff can select a work buddies list to create an on-the-fly voice conference.
"It is a very nice front-end to have for functional teams working across different sites," says Hancock.