How to Build a Successful Unified Communications Strategy

By Jamie Ryan  |  Posted 2009-02-15

How to Build a Successful Unified Communications Strategy

The unified communications planning and implementation process is one that can change course over time to accommodate a maturing strategy. It should include an in-depth review of technologies-such as network investments and integrations to instant messaging and presence engines-to help build a cost-effective UC infrastructure.

At Aspect, we've embarked upon the UC implementation process and have learned a number of best practices. Rolling out a UC deployment successfully must involve four distinct but equally important steps:

Step No. 1: Evaluate and plan

Evaluating the technology necessary for a rollout and developing a timeline are key to the success of any UC strategy. In our case, our legacy and disparate PBX architecture was becoming unwieldy and old, and therefore difficult to support. We initially compared the risks and rewards associated with traditional PBXes versus IP PBXes and decided to move toward IP PBXes.

At the time, Microsoft had just introduced Office Communications Server. We spent a lot of time pondering whether it would make more sense to introduce yet another technology and press forward with unified messaging, or to adopt OCS and develop and implement a true UC strategy.

We ultimately settled on UC and using OCS as a central part of our strategy. This would give us an opportunity for streamlined collaboration internally and externally, and it also would help us down the road with future deployments with software-powered communications as opposed to hardware-based technology.

Once we decided to move from the PBX to OCS, the planning process helped us to identify and address two main challenges. The first was to determine the best way to phase in the new technology so that it could happily coexist with our current technology-a rip and replace just didn't make sense.

The second was to come up with a way to facilitate the monumental cultural shift resulting from the disappearance of the traditional desktop telephone. Our UC strategy encompassed specific plans to address these issues, including detailed timelines for preparing the infrastructure, completing internal beta testing, preparedness and piloting activities prior to organizationwide implementation, educating employees, and completing the actual UC rollout (beginning with our corporate headquarters and largest satellite offices and finishing with our smaller offices).

Step No. 2: Upgrade the infrastructure

Every UC strategy requires certain infrastructure upgrades to enable the voice and data networks to be truly merged. Our strategy involved the purchase of a new SAN (storage area network) that could support Microsoft Exchange in addition to the OCS and voice mail environment. It could also provide more flexibility in our ability to store both voice and e-mail messages.

We upgraded our LAN (local area network) and WAN (wide area network) structures so that our IT department could further support voice and data on one network. We did this also so our employees could place voice calls across the network using SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) technology. We also upgraded our Microsoft OCS client so that we could take advantage of enhanced functionality for chat, IM, presence, peer-to-peer and enterprise calling, and eventually video calling and conferencing.

There are a few other items you should consider when you're thinking about UC-related infrastructure upgrades and costs. As with any software purchase, be sure to budget for the purchase of OCS licenses. Also, be prepared to renegotiate some of your contracts with existing voice and data service providers. If you deploy SIP and begin using SIP trunking, you potentially might no longer need PRI/BRI (Primary Rate Interface/Basic Rate Interface) connections, or two separate connections for voice and data. In addition, you can gain the ability to outsource your PSTN (public switched telephone network) connectivity to a third party.

Utilize Voice and Data Together

Step 3: Utilize voice and data together

The real goal of any UC strategy is to automate and unify all forms of communication-voice, video, IM, conferencing, presence and voice mail-with a common experience. The best way to do that is by enabling voice and data to traverse over one, converged network and implementing a platform that can manage all real-time communications. And, of course, with OCS, you can also gain a consistent and common interface to access every type of communication.

As mentioned earlier, Aspect made a number of infrastructure upgrades that would enable us to realize the benefits of a single voice and data network. We also installed the most current release of Microsoft OCS 2007, Release 2, and ran extensive tests in a lab environment, systematically adding on more and more complexity around features and functionality. It was important to conduct these tests for due diligence purposes as we carry out with any major technology implementations.

When we were confident with its performance in the lab, we brought OCS to 35 employees for further testing in a pilot environment. The employees were selected to include multiple functional areas, a multitude of geographic locations and a varying range of technical expertise. Our goal was to secure true user feedback and to gain a well-rounded understanding of the user experience before initiating a widespread deployment.

During this time, we also upgraded the e-mail server to Exchange 2007 and migrated many employee accounts to a newer version of Microsoft Outlook so that both e-mail and voice mail could be delivered to users for unified messaging. Upon completion of our worldwide UC rollout in the first half of 2009, Aspect will be one of the first companies in the world to have deployed Microsoft OCS 2007 Release 2.

Step 4: Educate and measure the results

As with any major enterprisewide initiative, the success of a UC implementation requires continuous technology evaluation and ongoing employee communications. Each of the 35 employees included in the real-world beta test received an initial training session to learn how to use OCS, as well as a script of functionality to be tested on a regular basis. In addition, our IT staff provided each participant with an online log in which they could record technical issues associated with feature and function stability and usability. We are using the valuable feedback to identify necessary fixes and to improve our educational documentation.

As we continue our rollout, we anticipate that one of our biggest challenges will be teaching employees how to deal with temporary inconsistencies in capabilities across geographic locations. For example, staff at our corporate headquarters may be fully OCS-enabled, while employees in a satellite location may lack OCS capabilities altogether. We plan to counteract these inequities by frequently communicating our progress and plans to employees.

We expect to see a number of benefits from deploying a UC strategy. Initially, we will measure our results based on the rate at which we are able to retire our PBXes and on how aggressively we are able to decrease our telecommunications and conferencing costs.  Additionally, since OCS will be deployed companywide, including our contact centers, we will be able to vastly improve our ability to identify experts to address customer inquiries across our enterprise for improved customer care. Ultimately, we will add measures for productivity and customer satisfaction.

You can see that a UC implementation is an all-encompassing endeavor that touches every part of the enterprise. It requires consideration of cultural ramifications, technical specifications, and the needs and wants of various stakeholders, among other items. But the one overriding lesson I've learned from the UC deployment is that a successful implementation involves an intense focus on planning and testing.

With two decades of IT experience, Jamie Ryan serves as senior vice president of IT and chief information officer at Aspect Software. In this role, Jamie is responsible for developing and executing the worldwide IT strategy to align business applications and infrastructure services in support of Aspect Software's corporate objectives. Jamie leads a team of professionals tasked with delivering mission-critical business applications and infrastructure services to Aspect Software. Jamie plays a key role in the business process and application integration activities surrounding the company's growth through mergers and acquisitions.

Prior to joining Aspect Software in 1997, Jamie was director of IT at Open Market, an e-business application provider. While at Open Market, Jamie developed and deployed information technologies to support the rapid growth and initial public offering of the company. Jamie also held a series of senior positions in information technologies and operations at Digital Equipment Corp. He can be reached at


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