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Tutorial: Preparing your team for unified communications

Preparing for unified communications (UC) is a lot more than knowing technology -- it's also readying your team. Learn how to prepare your team across the company infrastructure for UC.

By Gary Audin

Enterprises are still struggling with their information and communications technology (ICT) organizational structure. Independent of the size of the enterprise, they are not immune to the challenges as they embrace IP telephony (IPT) and unified communications (UC). It is especially vital to prepare your company's team for UC, or else the organizational structures will not work together properly.

In this guide, we will help you with the tricky step of merging your organizational structure to optimize results with your IPT and UC deployments.

Readying your team for unified communications 
  Existing organizational structures
   The six work clusters
   Global Skills X-change
Getting the ICT staff on the same UC page 
  A fragmented staff
   Managing the staff
   Recommendations and strategies

Readying your team for unified communications

Existing organizational structures may have a common management point in the CIO, but the staff is highly segregated. They operate in technology silos. Telecom/voice personnel have little or no knowledge of data networks, servers or applications. Data network personnel are generally unfamiliar with telecom technology aside from the phones on their desks. The servers and applications running on the data networks are viewed as endpoints, not as part of the data network. Applications personnel have no knowledge of telecom/voice networks and limited knowledge of data networks. There are also the skills requirements and complexity of wireless networks. The security staff must understand all of these technologies.

It is a challenge to manage these segregated groups. Management may not bridge the ignorance gap among these groups but must make business decisions using converged network technologies. Most executives managing ICT are removed from the nuts and bolts of technology. They will have an even harder time making the major decisions and dealing with the changes that will occur with a converged UC environment.

The segregated groups must be knowledgeable in each other's technologies. Management must also step forward and be educated in the deployment of converged networks and applications. Defining the knowledge and skills necessary to fulfill this need requires considerable study and analysis. Personnel must be assessed (tested) with vendor-neutral certification in mind, rather than product-focused certification.

An article, "Rebuilding the IT Organization for Convergence" (find article and hyperlink) by Dave Wilcox of Global Skills Exchange (GSX), which was published in the July 2007 issue of Business Communications Review, took a structured view of the future of ICT organizations. This article was the result of interviewing content experts in many IT organizations, both enterprise and government, to ascertain their views of the limitations of most ICT organizations. The article postulates what the 21st century ICT organization structure should look like to support a converged environment. One of the conclusions is the need to divide the responsibilities into six work clusters, rather than a list of job descriptions.


Applications Services

Core Technologies

User Services

Development Work Clusters

"Application Development"

"Infrastructure Engineering"

"Customer, Relationship, Service and Project Management"

Operations Work Clusters

"System Administration"

"Network and Services Administration"

"Help Desk and Technical Support Services"

You will notice that the six work clusters are not technology or vendor driven. They are divided by function. Once technology is not the driver, the ICT organization can be a lasting structure rather than changing every few years. This work cluster structure also changes the way job descriptions are written. Unfortunately, most job descriptions are used for staff reviews but do not reflect much of the work performed. These work clusters will also foster better job description and knowledge skills management.

Global Skills X-change (GSX) designs and evaluates customized implementation strategies of standards-based tools and protocols that can be used to realize a "national" system of standards and certifications for convergence. GSX, as a successor organization of the National Skill Standards Board (NSSB), is charged with adopting and adapting the work of the NSSB to meet the needs of the knowledge-based economy. A copy of this informative article can be obtained from or from

A major mistake made by many CIOs is combining the IT and telecom groups with the mandate to work together, placing the onus on those groups to find a way to cooperate and deliver a successful UC project. This is not direction or leadership. This will continue to enforce the silo mentality. Eventually, the two groups will coalesce after fits and starts -- with limited success. Creating the work cluster structure will not automatically produce success. It will, however, reduce the chances of cost overruns and failures.

Getting the ICT Staff on the Same UC Page

Confusion about what unified communications (UC) is, fragmented staff, and future-proofing the information communications technology (ICT) environment -- all these amount to change. UC, especially the near-term VoIP/IPT implementations -- the first cultural change -- is not just a new way of creating an ICT environment. The rapid integration of what were separate technologies into a UC environment affects the ICT management and staff. Can you -- how do you -- future-proof the ICT organization? Modified ICT organizations, cross-training and knowledge transfer in multiple UC technologies have become the mandatory answers.

Deployment of UC services is expanding into all enterprises and government agencies. The ICT organization structure and staffing necessary for successful implementation usually does not exist. Although existing organizational structures may have a common management point in the CIO, the staff is often segregated by technology. They operate in silos.

Telecom/voice personnel know little about data networks, servers or applications. Aside from the phones on their desks, data network personnel are generally unfamiliar with telecom technology. They also have little knowledge of the servers and applications running on their data networks. Applications personnel have limited knowledge of data networks and no knowledge of telecom/voice networks. Wireless networks add to the complexity and skills requirements. Web and video conferencing are usually separate services. Where should IM and chat be supported? Those responsible for security must understand all of these technologies.

Managing these as segregated groups presents a challenge. ICT management is not required to bridge the ignorance gap among these groups but must make business decisions employing UC technologies. Since most people in ICT management are removed from the nuts and bolts of technology, they will have an even harder time adjusting to the major decisions and changes that will occur with a UC environment.

In order to operate effectively, the segregated groups must be knowledgeable in each other's technologies, and ICT management must step forward and be educated in the deployment of unified communications. Defining the knowledge and skills necessary to fulfill this need requires considerable study and analysis.

A plan must be developed and implemented to help both management and technologists obtain the knowledge needed to make UC functions operate optimally. This plan should include organizational restructuring, training and certification programs. Cross-training in the multiple UC technologies will reduce risk, speed up implementation and deliver success. It will also reduce real costs through the ability to make good choices and avoid mistakes. There will be financial as well as intrinsic value to a properly structured ICT organization. Here are some recommendations collected from those that approached UC with foresight:

  • All staff members must appreciate and understand each UC technology.
  • All staff members must talk the same UC language.
  • Keep in mind there will be different responsibilities as UC is implemented and operated.
  • Remember the customer/user.
  • One area must lead the UC implementation. Do not have multiple equal managers of the project.
  • Set expectations right at the beginning of the project.
  • Provide incentives, recognition and rewards.

If cabling, power and cooling system changes are required, involve the facilities staff, especially if they are unionized:

  • Treat the facilities staff with respect.
  • Involve them throughout the project.
  • Ensure that they hear the UC facts and industry trends from others.
  • Ensure that job security is not threatened.

The following recommendations can help avoid failure and build a team that works well together as you move into the future:

  1. Form a blended team early, with voice, data, applications developers, users and consultants. Create an interdependent team.
  2. Retain an independent consultant for the term of the project to provide knowledge and guidance for the staff.
  3. Admit that the data network does not match voice quality or reliability.
  4. Use a formal systems acquisition process for the needs analysis, RFP preparation and vendor-scoring methodology.
  5. Focus on business needs.
  6. Redefine IP as "infinitely personal" for UC.
  7. Arrange informal education and unstructured time for the staff and ideas to converge:
    • Attend a conference as a team
    • Go to other customer sites together
    • Attend lengthy vendor briefings
    • Invest in formal education
  8. Include testing and network assessment in the project.
  9. Select an implementation firm with voice, data and UC skills.
  10. Appoint a project manager with telecom and networking skills and knowledge.
  11. Move the MAC function from facilities to IT.
  12. Upgrade the data network for all UC traffic.
  13. Keep the team well fed (and happy).

Here are eight key strategies to follow:

  1. Focus on UC service orientation and functional boundaries, as opposed to device affinities. This creates a model that is sustainable and extensible. The strategy can be applied to both UC development and operations.
  2. Leverage existing technical and soft skills whenever possible instead of replacing them elsewhere in the organization.
  3. Acknowledge the existence of different mindsets -- for example, system orientation vs. device orientation. Skills can be taught and changed. Mindsets are harder to change because they are often ingrained.
  4. Communicate and socialize the potential of applications and UC integration early and often, particularly with the applications development group. Start with a small proof-of-concept pilot implementation that will help people understand the potential of UC.
  5. Consider the comparative value of in-house vs. outsourced services. Be careful not to tie your hands with regard to potential changes. Managed services are becoming more viable, but be careful of "bundled" solutions that prevent functions from being returned to in-house operation.
  6. No single vendor will have the entire UC suite of services. Ensure that the staff does not select a single vendor but can combine and integrate multiple vendor solutions to deliver the appropriate UC menu.
  7. Do not neglect the UC training function, otherwise the UC features will not be fully utilized.
  8. Ensure that those who are part of the help desk become part of the implementation and cutover team.

Each ICT organization has its own history and evolution. All the recommendations and suggestions must be evaluated against the existing organizational structure and staff personalities. Change is disruptive and can be intimidating. Change will be required, however, in order to meet the new demands of unified communications implementation and operation.

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We've managed to make this work with a patchwork of tools. Our application is our main collaboration platform, supplemented with Slack for chat, GoToMeeting for dealing with conference calls, and X-Lite as a VOIP phone on every desktop. The rationale for having Slack separate is that, if our main system goes down, we have another environment to keep going. I think for many that's been the reason to not unify everything under one platform. Great for convenience, terrible if the system goes down and there's no alternative. Ultimately, though, teams will use what works and keeps them productive and effective.