Unified communications forces IT departments to reorganize

Unified communications (UC) converges voice, video and data onto a single network. This forces IT and telecommunications organizations to converge and reorganize themselves in order to support the new technology. Often, these disparate groups barely speak the same language.

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SAN FRANCISCO - Unified communications (UC) is forcing enterprises to rethink the structure and management of IT organizations.

When enterprises converge voice, video and data onto their IP networks to unify their communications, they also create a lot of panic and confusion within the departments that have historically supported these technologies.

Converged networks and communications mean that data networking and traditional telecommunications organizations will have to be consolidated. And running critical applications like voice and messaging on the data network means that networking teams have to work more closely with application and desktop teams. This trend can lead to some serious cultural clashes, a lot of miscommunication and widespread fear that some people might see their jobs phased out.

"These people have a variety of needs and different roles, and they don't even speak the same language," said E. Bruce Morse, vice president of unified communications software in IBM Lotus Software. "Independent of UC, their roles are already changing. IT itself is changing. It's becoming more of a support organization instead of developing and demonstrating applications. As when networking people's roles changed when we went to IP, no doubt telephony people's roles are going to change. And there are going to be winners and losers in this."

This angst is certainly becoming top of mind in the industry. At VoiceCon San Francisco this week, there was considerably less unified communications hype than at previous conventions and more earnest discussions about tackling these management challenges.

Even Microsoft's general manager of unified communications marketing, Betsy Frost Webb, paused during her keynote speech to invite two of Microsoft's brand-name customers onto the stage. Mike Terrill, Boeing's convergence program manager, and Michael Keithley, CIO of Creative Artists Agency, joined Webb to talk about the challenges of bringing together their IT and telecommunications organizations.

Neither executive had enough time to go into much detail about how he solved the problem. That would be left to other sessions that were dedicated solely to the topic. For instance, two consultants with PlanNet Consulting led a Monday tutorial entitled "Organizing for IP Telephony, UC and Converged Networks." Other sessions on troubleshooting and managing converged networks followed throughout this week.

During a session entitled "Building the New IT Organization: Taking on Converged Networks," several IT executives participated in a round-table discussion on the topic.

Jamie Libow, telecom director for the St. Paul, Minn.-based insurance company Travelers, said 20,000 of his company's employees are using Microsoft Office Communications Server for messaging, presence and desktop-based voice conversations. However, Travelers has not yet converged OCS with its legacy PBX systems. "On the telephony side, we're not really doing anything yet," Libow said. "But eventually maybe we'll use OCS as a PBX; similar on the messaging side. Today, we're a legacy voicemail shop for the most part. If we go to something like Exchange UM, now voicemail becomes simply a checkbox. What happens to those engineers and those administrators? That's not something we have had to deal with yet. But when it [happens], it's one of two things. Either people are excited about new skills and come up to speed, or they'll have to work elsewhere because the organization will change a lot more than it has."

"If you haven't already moved over to Voice over IP, you're going to see that legacy voice teams are going to get very worried," said Steven E. Schaffer, director of global information systems collaboration and network services at Global Crossing, who recently led a UC implementation at his company. "This is a big change, and it's important to give those individuals a sense that they are needed. You need to offer them cross-training to make sure they evolve with the organization. Cross-training is the basis for the next organizational evolution. It's going to benefit not only the group but the company as a whole."

Schaffer said IT leaders should make sure every member of the team is a stakeholder in a UC project and should provide these people with growth opportunities. He said the executive shouldn't do all the talking. Instead, he should make the other members of his organization talk about the direction the UC project should take. "It's important that they understand that their voice is important in the project."

Schaffer said UC project leaders should also maintain strong relationships with the network and security teams. And they should sell the concept of the technology to the company's business units so that end users aren't afraid of the technology when it gets rolled out.

Mark McMath, vice president and CIO of Bloomington Hospital in Indiana, said his organization faced major challenges a few years ago when it converged voice and data with a new IP telephony system. The implementation exposed some organizational silos that needed to be broken down in order to better support the network.

"In the past, if nurses had questions with the nurse call system, they would call clinical engineering. If they had a question with their desktop or mobile PC, they called IS help desk. If they had a question with their phone, they called telecommunications," McMath said. "And regardless of who they called, the person answering the phone in each of those silos was able to answer the question or get a question answered from within the group."

McMath said that all changed once a converged network was introduced.

"First of all, the users didn't know who to call," he said. "Do you call telecoms still? IS help desk? Do you call clinical engineering? And whoever got the call frequently couldn't answer the question themselves or within their silo. So [users] are frequently hopping now from group to group to group to isolate the problem, identify the solution and implement that."

McMath said his organization wrestled with a variety of different organizational models to find the right one to support the hospital. He said the key was to identify current roles in the IT organization and to try to map those roles to comparable ones in the new organization that emerges to support a converged network.

It's also important for management to remember that people in the IT organization are not robots, he said. A major change in technology that changes people's roles can be unnerving and unwelcome. Management must ease people's minds and sell them on the new vision.

"You have to pay attention to people," McMath said. "And you have to be sensitive to the fact that people have strong ties to their managers, their teams, their customers and the technology. So factor that in as you're looking at changes and transitions. Also be mindful of history. If you have a long tenure in an organization, as we do, the history can run deep, and it's hard to rewrite."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

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