Preparing for unified comms

The board has signed off the proposal and the supplier's engineers are heading for the door, but how does a business make sure its new unified communications...

The board has signed off the proposal and the supplier's engineers are heading for the door, but how does a business make sure its new unified communications system delivers?

Much of the advice that Computer Weekly has gleaned from industry experts about introducing unified communications is plain commonsense.

"Something as simple as voice mail delivers a lot of benefits," says Gene Reynolds, communications consultant at CC. "But if employees are to use unified communications effectively, you need to prepare in two ways. First, you need a rigid IT policy and processes. Second, the business needs to assert those policies."

Certainly, users with presence dashboards on their desks need to get used to altering their status settings and arranging for calls to be rerouted as they move from one channel or from one location to another. There are other disciplines to be learned such as when and how to use desktop video and collaboration software instead of face-to-face meetings.

The IT department too has to make preparations. "The demands of unified communications applications can be very taxing on ill-prepared IT staff," warns Ian Cummins, vice-president of consultancy Network Instruments. "Organisations may not be prepared for the increased daily monitoring and management required to maintain optimal performance."

Seasoned IT people recommend preparing a user guide for quick reference and drawing up best practice guidelines so there is consistent use of a system. Remote workers in particular need to be shown how to transfer calls, initiate conferences and access user directories.

"The introduction of a unified communications system may require users to change the way they work," points out Dave Paulding of Interactive Intelligence. "For example, traditional telephones might be replaced in favour of soft phone screen-based client applications."

However, many younger end-users are already very familiar with unified communications facilities such as instant messaging, presence and videoconferencing. A recent survey of IT managers by Dimension Data found that nearly half agreed that integration was achieved more quickly with unified communications than with other IT projects because end-users were more comfortable with the technology and so needed less training.

"You are always going to find a different and varied experience when it comes to training," says Gary Bellfield, ICT manager of Tayside Fire and Rescue Service, which covers Perth and Dundee in Scotland. "Younger people are demanding instant messaging, but that also means in our [organisation] there are champions who can help others."

Even so, Tayside has given its 750 staff ample time to adapt to the technology by adopting a phased deployment which began with Microsoft's Unified Messaging module 14 months ago, followed by Office Communications Server 2007 last autumn, which the organisation is part of the way through implementing. So far Bellfield has concentrated on presence and instant messaging with further voice and videoconferencing features to come in a second stage.

Tayside has seen a 30% reduction in e-mail as employees switch to instant messaging. The result is speedier working with less time taken to clear administrative tasks, says Bellfield.

Although the fire and rescue service is separate from Tayside's 999 command and control system, senior officers at a fire can use mobile devices to call for expert help. During a recent fire involving batteries, fire fighters were able to contact a world expert on the topic in Japan using the technology.

Ashford Council was one of the first public-sector users of voice over IP (VoIP) back in 2003. Since then the council, whose rapidly growing population is set to double over the next few years, has added a raft of unified communications features to its Mitel-based network. Facilities include voice recognition, teleworking, instant messaging, fixed/mobile conversion and presence.

Over the past five years, the key issue for Ashford has been ensuring that its investment has an impact on how the organisation operates. "The technology is all well and good, but you need to have a team of people looking at how it can improve business processes," says Rob Neil, Ashford's head of ICT and customer services.

Neil has set up a group that discusses with department heads ways the technology might improve their operations. Ashford has already had some startling wins. Voice recognition in its customer services contact centre allowed incoming callers to be routed directly to the person they wanted to speak to, eliminating the need for agents to reroute calls to colleagues.

"It sounds trivial but it is the fastest return on investment I have ever seen," says Neil. "An investment of £18,000 paid for itself in two-and-a-half weeks. You need to think of return on investment in the round. You don't get a return from converting a PBX to VoIP. You only get a return from value-added services like contact management and presence."

For fleet management company Venson Automotive, £130,000 spent on Cisco's Unified Personal Communicator last year represented its biggest IT investment for some time. The technology went in as Venson moved to a new headquarters building and was prompted in part by a desire for more effective call management.

Venson handles a high volume of enquiries from clients. "A lot of businesses like ours have used Outlook, so with just an additional toolbar end-users picked up it up very quickly," says Anthony Richman, Venson's finance director. "The real benefit was behind the scenes. Before, it was difficult to set up call groups now it is much easier to change call routings and bring on new end-users."

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