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VoIP convergence: Managing staffing issues

Companies making the transition to IP telephony must find a way to converge their voice and data networks -- and the employees who work on them.

As IP telephony becomes increasingly common in the enterprise, companies struggle to determine exactly who will manage their VoIP systems. Traditionally, voice staff has been separate from the IT department staff which manages data networking; converging voice and data onto one IP network requires a parallel staffing convergence, which proves challenging to organizations unprepared to share resources in this brave new world. Despite the fact that converged networks may simplify support structures and staffing, the transition can cause some pain.

The pain of convergence

Mary Allan, manager of telecommunications technologies at Black & Decker, has firsthand experience with the challenge of converging voice and data networks. She has been a key element in guiding the company in its IP telephony deployment.

If I'm sitting in a meeting and hear an acronym I don't understand, I speak up. If I try to act like I know, it will come back to bite me later when I have to act on it.
Mary Allan
Manager of Telecom TechnologyBlack & Decker

The biggest challenge has been getting data staff to "respect the unique requirements voice holds," Allan said. She also found it challenging to understand data networking from the voice side, which could be as much a cultural issue as anything else. "Gearheads like simple requests, updates, answers, whereas voice people tend to be more narrative," she said. "Voice people also tend to panic faster, and when coupled with the fear of the unknown data world, can create [a] tense situation where there doesn't need to be one."

Ken Agress of PlanNet Consulting said organizations make two big mistakes: They allow too much of the voice talent to "walk out the door -- or even push them out" and they ignore the problems of staff integration until late in the process.

Agress said these mistakes may be related to the idea that converged networks are easier to support. He stressed that converged networks are only guaranteed to be easier to support when they are deployed with a focused effort on a wide range of issues. He said that the "people" issues "get lost in the discussion of vendors, technologies, architectures and deployments."

Learning the 'other' side

According to Agress, it may be easier for voice staff to learn about data networking than vice versa -- mainly because of management issues.

"Often, it's the data management that ends up responsible for the converged environment," he said. "That may result in them using kid gloves for the former voice employees, recognizing that they're in a new environment and will require time to grow into their new roles and responsibilities."

Agress pointed out that the data employees might not be given as much time to grow into their new role, either because data managers might underestimate the complexities of voice communications or because they might be overconfident about their staff's abilities to deliver a new technology.

Gary Audin, president of Delphi Inc., a consulting and analysis firm that frequently consults on VoIP implementation, said that to achieve true staffing convergence, employees must be cross-trained in voice applications, infrastructure and applications.

"You're going to have to train voice people on software issues such as patching and upgrades," Audin said. He explained that while the "IT side" can install and maintain patches, the "voice side" has to decide whether those patches are worthy of being installed in the first place.

Allan said that voice professionals have an inherent fear of the data world. "Part of that may be related to how closed-door the whole thing is," she said, adding that voice staff traditionally deal with end users and customers on a daily basis, whereas network or data staff rarely need to interface with end users.

"Coupled with that is the terminology," Allan said. "Voice people know what a switch is in the TDM world but have to abandon that definition when talking in the IPT arena, where a switch is a completely different piece of hardware."

To help build her knowledge of IP telephony, Allan took advantage of publications such as Business Communication Review and The Voice Report, and conferences such as VoiceCom, IPComm and the Avaya Users Group. She has also taken classes and is currently pursuing a CCNA -- just to get a better understanding of the network infrastructure.

Allan also said that she communicates frequently with the network team. "As simple as that sounds, I think a lot of voice people don't reach out to the other side," she said. "If I'm sitting in a meeting and hear an acronym I don't understand, I speak up. If I try to act like I know, it will come back to bite me later when I have to act on it."

Planning for integration success

To successfully get voice and data on the same page -- and the same IP network -- Agress recommends getting involvement from both voice and data staff very early in the planning process.

"As you define features, evaluate solutions and discuss options with manufacturers," he said, "the two teams will gain more and more of an understanding of where each is coming from and [by the nature of the work] the way that each group approaches issues."

This communication, Agress believes, helps the two groups work together more effectively and understand each other.

Agress said he also suspects that most organizations could benefit from re-engineering their business processes in concert with their IP telephony implementations.

However, "That's frequently a much larger effort and engagement that many organizations might be unable to allocate funding for," Agress said. Still, he felt that making process changes -- even those focusing on the support side of the organization -- would be essential to getting the most out of the new system.

Allan believes voice managers could benefit from copying the rigidity of the network team when it comes to upgrades. "The network team has a very formal structure for upgrading their gear and roll out those upgrades on a scheduled basis," she said. "The voice world has always been more reactive; we upgrade something based on a new application or feature request." Regular upgrades and patches, she said, would help bridge the infrastructure of data and voice.

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"My personal goal would be to couple upgrades with the data gear to upgrades with the voice gear so that new patches, revs, etc. can be common across all platforms and tested in the lab against the switch/router upgrades that are also happening," Allan said. "This will be a tough challenge for us because of the different business units Black & Decker has."

She explained that from a data perspective, each business unit is told when the upgrades will occur; they have very little say in preventing that from happening. That's not true in the voice world.

"In order to accomplish this goal, we would have to change the financial model, having the invoices come into the corporate team -- as the data invoices do today -- and then charged back to the business unit/site," Allan said. "Corporate Voice has to centralize the accounting, etc. ... before we mandate a standard roll-out policy. I think the more IP telephony deployments we do, the easier this could become, as the technology will look/feel similar to the network architecture."

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