Unified communications technologies haven't caught on as expected, and even though IT managers report some solid productivity benefits, rolling out such new technologies can take some salesmanship at the IT level with end users.
A case in point is a recent $1 million unified communications and voice over IP rollout at Raleigh, N.C.-based Pepsi Bottling Ventures -- an initiative that affected 3,000 employees at 30 locations as far away as Nevada and New York.
"In a project like this, you implement the UC technology pieces of course, but you have to put on the marketing hat and drum up excitement. A bit of salesmanship is involved for sure" to get full end user participation, said Pepsi Bottling's director of technology, Tommy Alexander, who has overseen a unified communications and VoIP rollout over the past year. "To get the benefit out of a UC system requires full participation."
The bottler and its systems integrator, Dimension Data, even created a marketing campaign to let end users know that something big was coming. The campaign used the slogan, "A new flavor of communication,'' which Alexander said helped "build up some suspense" for the unified communications rollout.
Most end users don't understand what unified communications systems are, much less the benefits they offer, which is why some marketing from IT was needed. For Pepsi Bottling Ventures, Dimension Data implemented VoIP technologies from Cisco Systems Inc. along with Microsoft Corp.'s Office Communications Server.
The particular unified communications technologies that Pepsi Bottling Ventures implemented include instant messaging, a click-to-dial system, desktop videoconferencing and unified voice mail capabilities. The new tools are winning praise from end users for improving worker efficiency, Alexander said.
Click-to-dial benefited the company as a whole because it did away with the need to maintain corporate directories, but Alexander said the IM system has probably been the biggest hit among end users because it offers "presence" information about colleagues.
"Being able to see now whether a colleague in Idaho is actively online or is away from his desk and plans on being back in two hours is a big thing," he said. "As we were growing bigger as a company, it allowed us to stay in touch."
Having acquired four smaller independent Pepsi bottlers in locations as far apart as Idaho, Nevada and New York in recent years, the company began looking for ways to centrally manage communications across its 30 locations in 2008. "Support and maintenance was quite challenging as we were continuing to grow," Alexander said.
He said the company wanted to use VoIP technology to connect new sites, partly to reduce long-distance calling fees. The company also deployed an MPLS (Multiprotocol Label Switching) cloud to increase bandwidth, replacing an older frame relay network. But the carriers' long-distance calling prices are already low, so "it was pretty challenging to justify the project on long-distance savings," he noted.
In 2011, major savings is expected from installing SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) trunking at all 30 locations, but in the meantime, the various unified communications applications have been deployed to improve worker productivity.
"Implementing UC allowed us to put something in front of end users with real pull," Alexander said.
For example, the company's mobile salespeople appreciate the fact that they can now get voice mail messages from their office phones on their BlackBerry devices. "A little thing like that was perceived as a big win," Alexander said. "They thought that was awesome, and I hadn't really thought it was going to be a benefit."
Presence information has proved to be very valuable at Pepsi Bottling Ventures, just as it has at many organizations. "When I was training end users and demonstrating IM for those who never had it, one person asked how IM is different from e-mail. I spent time thinking about that question and what strikes me is that if I send an e-mail, I don't know if a colleague would get back to me in two minutes or tomorrow, but with IM, you have real-time feedback and the intelligence to make decisions."
The value of that real-time feedback is shown in the way workers who once had to walk the length of a large bottling plant to get answers to questions can now use IM to ask a question, Alexander said. "It's changed the way people make decisions, and that power becomes more powerful with bigger numbers of users."
Videoconferencing has been used by about 100 employees, and it will be rolled out where workers find it valuable, he said.
"People like the sense of connectedness," Alexander noted. "Connectedness with some of these features has helped drive adoption. I call those features whiz-bang, and maybe [a feature doesn't have] fundamental practical value, but whiz-bang features create a draw and user adoption."
In other words, IT is acting like a marketing department.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed .