Corporate IT, telecom workers cross wires over unified communications

It's not as simple as just ripping out that PBX

Any large technology rollout first requires consideration of the people issues, as well as the technical. That goes double for unified communications.

Users and analysts say that companies adopting unified communications, especially those replacing conventional PBX boxes with server-based software, run the risk of igniting open warfare between telecom and IT departments that are already jostling over pecking order and job security in the new world order.

"This is going to be a wonderful battle," says Barry Marks, an analyst at IntelliCom Analytics LLC in Union, N.J. "In the long term, the voice guys will always have a place, because voice is still a mission-critical function. But will voice guys rule the day on business decisions? No, because those decisions are moving up the value chain to the CIO or COO."

"We hear lots of discussion at conferences (video link, free registration required) from customers wondering which way to go," said Kim Akers, general manager for unified communications at Microsoft Corp., which rolls out its Office Communications Server 2007 on Tuesday.

Telecommunications teams whose job has been to ensure that telephones and related systems such as voice mail and fax remain running 100% of the time have traditionally operated autonomously from IT. That's partly because of history. At corporations older than 50 years old, telecom departments often predate IT ones.

While most telecom departments have long ago been outnumbered by their IT peers, they have been able to maintain independence or, by being swallowed by administrative or HR departments, semiautonomy.

Hands-off IT gets the back of the hand

That was true for the California Association of Realtors.

"Telecom has traditionally resided in administrative services," says Rick Kinzel, a vice president at the Los Angeles group. "I was asked to take it over, despite having no telecom experience."

The association was struggling with "an old and somewhat outdated system" based around a 9-year-old NEC switch that Kinzel says offered "very little in the way of applications."

In particular, employees in the association's small call center picked up the phone without any computer-based information on callers to prep them.

While Kinzel sought a solution, the IT department offered little help.

"They were a little bit hands-off, as they'd never been responsible for our phone system," he says.

So two years ago, Kinzel chose a "turnkey" unified communications system from Siemens Communication Inc. For $500,000, the association rolled out a Siemens HiPath 4000 VoIP-based PBX, Agile software for answering calls, Verant software to record them, Microsoft CRM software to bring up data for call center workers and OpenScape software to unify it all together.

Part of that price tag paid for technical support from Siemens, which allowed Kinzel to outsource and thus avoid any "real involvement from our IT folks."

The joy of phasing out PBXes

For every organization like CAR that maintained a status quo separation, there appear to be many more like Lionbridge Technologies Inc., a 4,300-employee software localization company in Waltham, Mass.

Lionbridge has 50 offices around the world, many of which were acquired firms, according to Oyvind Kaldestad, director of IT.

As a result, "we have pretty much every brand [of PBX] out there," he says, with some of them about 15 years old.

Those were mostly managed by a range of individuals at each local office, with very little central oversight.

Lionbridge first began to unify its communications infrastructure in early 2006 with its deployment of Microsoft's Live Communications Server 2005. It added VoIP at the beginning of this year after rolling out the beta version of OCS 2007 to all 4,300 employees.

While maintaining its existing PBX-based phone system, Lionbridge is encouraging employees to make calls via their softphones or headsets connected to their PCs, Kaldestad says. Today, its employees make 400,000 minutes worth of VoIP calls, which is saving Lionbridge lots of money, he says.

Kaldestad's team has also taken over management of the PBXes, a move that he says was welcomed with little conflict.

The employees running the PBXes were mostly nontechnical administrative staff who "were more than happy not have to work on them," he says, adding that the company plans to slowly phase out PBXes over the next several years.

Room for peaceful coexistence?

Some argue that running voice applications and ensuring voice uptime is enough of a mission-critical job that telecommunications specialists will always run them.

"The networking guys are more technical, while the voice guys are application-oriented," says Mark Straton, senior vice president of global marketing at Siemens. "I believe voice will stay with the application guys, to ensure quality of service and avoid latency and jitter."

But others say that voice's transformation via VoIP into just another data center-based application means that in most cases, IT will win out.

"Who wins is very personality-dependent and on who is willing to cross-train," Microsoft's Akers says. "But the end goal is definitely more software-centric."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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