Unified communications systems haven't caught on as much as expected, and even though IT managers report some solid productivity benefits, rolling out such new technologies may require IT to engage in a bit of salesmanship with end users.
A case in point is a $1 million unified communications and voice-over-IP rollout at Raleigh, N.C.-based Pepsi Bottling Ventures -- an initiative started in 2009 that has affected 3,000 employees at 30 locations.
"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," says Pepsi Bottling's director of technology, Tommy Alexander, who began overseeing the project at its inception in 2009. "A bit of salesmanship is involved for sure" to get full end-user participation, he adds. "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 says 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.
"Generally speaking, UC is still not understood very well by many end users today -- ranging from CEOs on down," notes Rich Costello, an analyst at IDC. "On the positive side, there is obviously more understanding about UC technology and applications among the IT and telecom types who are charged with assessing, implementing and explaining it to the employees, like Mr. Alexander. This situation certainly makes the challenge to educate tough for IT people, both from the 'how to use it' and 'how can we justify it' perspectives."
The particular unified communications technologies that Pepsi Bottling Ventures deployed 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 says.
Click-to-dial benefited the company as a whole because it did away with the need to maintain corporate directories. But Alexander says 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 says. "As we were growing bigger as a company, it allowed us to stay in touch."
Having acquired in recent years four smaller independent Pepsi bottlers in locations as far apart as Idaho, Nevada and New York, the company began looking for ways to centrally manage communications across its 30 sites.
"Support and maintenance were quite challenging as we were continuing to grow," Alexander says.
He says the company wanted to use VoIP technology to connect new sites, partly to reduce long-distance calling fees. It also replaced an older frame-relay network with an MPLS (Multiprotocol Label Switching) cloud to increase bandwidth. But the carriers' long-distance calling prices are already low, so "it was pretty challenging to justify the project on long-distance savings," Alexander notes.
This year, major savings are 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 says.
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 says. "They thought that was awesome, and I hadn't really thought it was going to be a benefit."
Presence information has also proved to be very valuable. "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," Alexander says. "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 demonstrated by the fact that workers who once had to walk the length of a large bottling plant to get answers to questions can now use instant messaging to ask a question, Alexander says. "It's changed the way people make decisions, and that power becomes more powerful with bigger numbers of users."
About 200 employees use videoconferencing, up from 100 a year ago, and videoconferencing systems will continue to be rolled out to additional workers who would benefit from them, he says.
"People like the sense of connectedness," Alexander notes. "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 team.
Most companies find that personal productivity gains are the chief benefit of UC, unless they are saving money on international phone calls with VoIP, Costello says. "We see mostly soft ROI benefits associated with UC, personal productivity gains or enhanced collaboration, which are difficult to measure in hard cost savings," he notes.
Alexander's and Dimension Data's promotion at Pepsi Bottling Ventures is the type of campaign that should be a best practice for any organization planning a UC upgrade. Costello says that such initiatives should include some details about pending changes to help win over employees who might not understand the technology at all.
This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.