Robert Fort, CIO of music retailer Virgin Entertainment Group, would have liked to wave a magic wand to give key employees the ability to easily transition between voice, instant messaging and video conferencing technologies.
His practical answer: a unified communications (UC) environment. By providing an integrated version of all those services, UC gives selected Virgin staff the ability to reach colleagues wherever they may be, with whatever communications mode is most appropriate. "There are major cultural differences between employees, so it's critical to have good, strong communications across the corporation," Fort says.
Like Fort, a growing number of CIOs are seeking to merge disparate communications modes into one universally accessible service. As communications options proliferate, employees increasingly face the choice of juggling multiple communications devices or potentially missing critical calls and messages. But using IP technology allows vendors such as Microsoft, Cisco Systems and Mitel to keep enterprise employees and customers better connected.
"UC solutions allow enterprises to leverage the vertical communications applications they're already using, such as desktop phones, mobile phones and messaging systems, but which can't talk to each other," says Nora Freedman, a senior research analyst at IDC. "UC is designed to bring all of these disparate technologies into an environment that reduces time and effort."
While the UC concept has been batted about for more than a decade, it's finally becoming practical thanks to the growing adoption of IP telephony, says Mark Cortner, a senior analyst at Burton Group. Companies that have adopted IP telephony are already in the on-ramp to UC, he notes. "Now that your voice communications is in IP, it joins messaging, e-mail and other forms of IP-based communications, all of which can be directed and managed in unison over data networks," he says. "This is what's at the heart of the growing interest in UC."
But as Fort and his peers have found, deploying UC and making all the pieces work together is a time and testing-intensive job for IT.
Virgin Entertainment Group, under the Virgin Megastores USA brand, operates 11 outlets across the US. Facing business challenges posed by big-box music retailers, such as Best Buy and Wal-Mart, as well as the popularity of online music downloading services, like iTunes, Virgin needs to run a tight and efficient organisation that keeps sales high and prices down. UC supports those goals, Fort says, while helping employees in several different ways.
Presence technology, for example, shows whether a person is available to receive a call. "If it's urgent, you might decide to send the individual an IM instead," Fort says. During live meetings or conference calls, participants can get fast answers to questions from colleagues in the same building, or in a store on the opposite coast, by contacting them via IM or voice. Employees can also tap into their computers to share spreadsheets, charts or other relevant data with conference participants.
"You've got the capability of making the best choice on whom to contact and how to contact them," Fort says. "After a while, it just becomes a very seamless, natural way of exchanging information."
Virgin began exploring the possibility of adding unified communications shortly after deploying a Cisco Systems' based IP phone system on its network in 2005. The company initially considered utilising the Cisco Unified Communications environment but ultimately changed course and adopted rival Microsoft technology.
For the 140-plus lawyers at Bowman and Brooke, a law firm with offices in Minneapolis, Lo, UC boils down to customer service. Clients such as General Motors, Toyota and Ecolab demand fast answers to crucial questions, says Michael Cammack, Bowman and Brooke's CIO.
Besides giving clients access to key attorneys at any time, on any device and in any place, the firm's unified communications system provides key support information that helps attorneys be prepared as they accept an incoming call or message.
In the second quarter of 2008, Cammack plans to enable a feature that will mean when an attorney is using a computer, for example, a screen pop will tell him who is calling and to what case the call relates.
Using desktop sharing technology, attorneys and clients already jointly view, edit and annotate documents in real time.
While most CIOs agree that UC can streamline and expedite employee and customer interaction, most adopters also say that the technology can create confusion for IT departments. Since UC involves so many different communication modes, multiple hardware and software platforms and applications, the technology can rapidly snowball into the most complex communications project an enterprise has tackled. "I think the biggest challenge is that there are so many pieces to it," Fort says.
Given the complexity involved, deploying a UC environment demands patience, diligence and persistence. Cammack feels that careful product selection is the key to UC success, with the CIO and staff making sure that platforms, devices, applications and everything else interoperate seamlessly.
It's possible to build a UC infrastructure using just one vendor that creates, selects and tests all the key technology itself. "But if you're creating a best-in-breed approach, the companies you're looking must actively cooperate with the products from the other companies you've chosen," Cammack warns.
On the other hand, convincing employees to use the system isn't particularly difficult, Fort observes, since people are rapidly growing accustomed to IP-based communications technologies. "You start to realise that most of your users are probably already using instant messaging, voice over internet protocol (VoIP) and other technologies at home," Fort says.
"When you take the time to show them that they'll be using the same tools in an integrated fashion for business benefits, they get it."