IT professionals have long been experts at deploying messaging systems. When email was a new technology, it brought about a huge cultural shift in businesses; now it's a well understood concept that both IT departments and end users have become accustomed to. Although a messaging deployment can touch a wide range of systems within a business, from the directory to the desktop, such a deployment can also be carried out without having a huge effect on day-to-day operations. Unified communications (UC) is a different type of solution, with multiple components that touch all aspects of a business.

Because a true UC platform includes many components, the number of touch points with IT systems, business systems, and users is greater than with other solutions. For example, in IT, UC affects the directory more broadly than an email project does, because of UC's reliance on a wider set of correct identity information (e.g., manager and telephone fields). A UC solution can also combine with video endpoints, telephone lines (and carriers), fax machines, and PBXs. From a business perspective, UC integrates with business applications and processes more widely than email does.

For end users, UC changes the way people work. Although email is now mature and widely adopted, UC brings new technology and a new mentality, providing the ability to truly change the culture and working practices of a business -- which is a much more difficult task than the simple IT project that email has become.

Bringing UC into your business can present many challenges. In this article, I explain how a business might benefit from UC, and I discuss the various aspects of a UC project, including high-level technical components, the project team, different project phases, and common objections. I include resources that are available to help with your rollout. Finally, I cover the concept of cultural change, which in many cases is the most difficult hurdle to overcome but can provide the biggest benefit to your organization.

Benefits of Unified Communications

Most organizations will use several of the communication modalities listed on the left-hand side of Figure 1. Telephony, voicemail, and email are ubiquitous in some form or other; audio conferencing is also quite common. Other modalities such as video conferencing, web conferencing, and IM are becoming more widely used. The challenge for companies is that these technologies have often grown up in their business in very different ways.

Figure 1: UC Technologies
Figure 1: UC Technologies 

For example, telephony and email have typically been implemented centrally, although often by different teams -- but video conferencing might be present in only a small pocket or department. IM might be implemented through a public IM cloud such as Google Talk or Windows Live Messenger, over which a company has limited control. All these siloed communication technologies create overhead, such as the need to authenticate (thus remembering several usernames and passwords), look up names and addresses, and capture and archive business communication and documents for regulatory compliance purposes.

Security is also an important consideration; using a range of products for communication requires you to understand and secure a variety of systems. Implementing a unified platform lets you move toward a standard approach in which all information in transit -- whether email or phone and video calls -- is secured.

The right-hand side of Figure 1 illustrates the simplicity of bringing multiple technologies together into a single UC platform based on Microsoft Lync Server 2010, Exchange Server 2010, and SharePoint Server 2010. Implementing this type of solution gives you a single hardware platform, similar administrative interfaces and skill sets, one source of identity used for authentication and contact information (Active Directory -- AD), and a far more streamlined compliance platform -- even though compliance systems aren't entirely integrated for Lync, Exchange, and SharePoint out of the box. Perhaps most important, you empower users by providing a familiar and integrated user experience across all these technologies. The presence control and contact card lets users easily select the most suitable method for communicating with another person, no matter which device they're using or where they're located.

In business terms, ROI is important. For UC projects, ROI falls into two areas: hard costs, which are easy to quantify, and productivity enhancements, which aren't.

Hard cost reductions result from not having numerous maintenance contracts, not having multiple pieces of hardware and software, and not having several technical team members to manage a large number of unique systems. In addition, bringing conference bridges in-house that otherwise cost money for each minute used can greatly reduce hard costs. Finally, significant cost savings can be achieved through reduced travel expenses and the introduction of a more flexible work environment that makes better use of available real estate. (These last two changes imply the cultural shift that's necessary for a company to truly benefit from UC technology.)

Productivity enhancements are more difficult to track and more difficult to attach a dollar value to -- but they nevertheless result in noticeable improvements. For example, the ability to communicate efficiently in a variety of ways to suit the situation means that you'll typically be able to reach someone who can solve your problem. Whether your problem is a direct customer issue, an internal query, or even the simple need to get your expenses approved by a manager, taking care of tasks quickly can make a big difference in your productivity. A benefit of presence and integrated directory search is that you don't have to spend time chasing someone who isn't available; in addition, you can quickly find another person to resolve your problem by browsing the directory for someone in the same group (or that person's manager). These advantages, when combined with the empowerment that results from a flexible work environment (and the inherent trust in employees that's necessary in a flexible environment), contribute to increased employee satisfaction -- which results in quicker issue resolution, leading to benefits such as a shortened sales cycle or better customer service. Another positive outcome is that you're more likely to retain the talented people in your organization.

Technical Components

Now that I've discussed the benefits of UC, let's take a look at what's necessary to have a fully integrated UC platform. The necessary elements can be broken down into different areas: Microsoft components, such as AD, Exchange, Lync, SharePoint, and Dynamics CRM; systems that interoperate with Microsoft's UC technology, such as video conferencing systems and PBXs; and internal factors, such as your network team and your security and compliance team.

Active Directory. AD is core to the success of a UC project. It provides a central point of identity, which enables authentication and helps locate users through directory search. AD provides the "single source of truth" that's so important in business. As such, AD should be populated with at least the following information about users:

  • Job title
  • Manager
  • Office location
  • Office and cell phone numbers in E.164 format (which is what Lync uses)

Exchange Server (including unified messaging -- UM). Exchange provides a unified inbox, where all communication data is stored, including, email, voicemail, faxes, historic IMs, and even SMS messages. This approach gives you one place to search for communication information.

Lync. Lync is the glue that binds a UC system together. It provides the real-time communication components and enables significant integration not only into other Microsoft offerings such as SharePoint but also into third-party technologies such as room-based video conferencing systems and contact center systems.

SharePoint. SharePoint is where structured data is stored. In addition, SharePoint enables social communication in the form of My Sites and wikis that let people openly share information and skills, thus fostering community and tighter teamwork within an organization. SharePoint also enables the creation of custom workflows, which when tied into presence information can allow efficient routing of communication related to document submissions.

Dynamics CRM. Although often overlooked, Dynamics CRM can form an integral part of a UC system. Integration of presence information and communications modalities (both audio and IM) can enable efficient and knowledgeable servicing of customer queries.

Video conferencing systems. Systems from companies such as Polycom, Radvision, and LifeSize can all be integrated into Lync. Third-party video conferencing systems let Lync clients participate in meetings hosted on room-based conference bridges (and vice versa in some cases). When a technology such as Lync is fully deployed and integrated with other video platforms, desktop video capabilities give users the ability to fully participate in and feel part of a conversation. In general, room-based systems have typically been reserved for senior executives. Integration with Lync means that users can take advantage of desktop video conferencing to participate in meetings, thus saving money and increasing efficiency. In addition, as video uptake becomes ubiquitous, the use of room-based conferencing systems will likewise increase.

PBXs. Organizations use a wide variety of PBX systems, often of varying ages and with widely different capabilities. Lync can integrate with these systems in a couple of ways: as just another PBX communicating directly via Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) or through a gateway device, or through the use of remote call control or a similar technology. Remote call control allows Lync to be used for many capabilities and lets existing PBXs integrate with presence information and maintain a hold on telephony. Although this solution isn't ideal, it does merit investigation in organizations where there's an extensive or recent investment in PBX technology. At the very least, it allows Lync to become the centerpiece of the UC platform and to gradually take a greater role as existing assets expire.

Network. No matter which communications modality you intend to use, the traffic that's generated will flow across your network. Networks -- and particularly the teams that run them -- are critical to the success of UC adoption. It's important to involve the network team in planning a UC project from the early stages. Doing so can prevent arguments about bandwidth and can allay fears of "clogging up the network with so much rich media." If you can bring the network team up to speed and verify the bandwidth required to implement a UC solution, you can have a discussion about Quality of Service (QoS) and Call Admission Control (CAC) in a rational setting rather than under stress. (For information about QoS and CAC in UC, see the sidebar "QoS and CAC in UnifiedCommunications.") It's likely that additional bandwidth will be necessary to realize the full benefit of your UC solution, which might require creative budgeting. Therefore, it's helpful to have a senior project sponsor who understands the business benefits of UC and can evangelize UC on your behalf.

Security and compliance. As with the network team, security and compliance is another area in which you might encounter pushback. It's within a security professional's nature to say no, because it's his job to protect the organization from threats. Instead of springing changes on the security team, enlist their support early on. Again, use senior sponsorship to ensure that the security team understands the benefit that the UC project brings to the business. Although UC does lead to more open sharing of information, that sharing isn't uncontrolled or unmonitored. In fact, when they're implemented correctly, Lync and UC as a whole are extremely secure, with all server-to-server communication and server-to-client communication encrypted by default. In addition, all communication can be centrally monitored and archived for regulatory and compliance purposes -- which is a vast improvement over the unmanaged Skype, Windows Live, and Yahoo Messenger implementations found in many organizations.

Planning Ahead

Now that you're familiar with the technical aspects of a UC system, you need to understand how to engage various technical teams and the business as a whole in adopting a UC solution. Marketing, training and reporting are especially important in implementing a successful UC project.

One of the principal guidelines is to bring people together early. Instead of falling into the trap of having teams work against each other, introduce people to your UC vision and get them working together. Achieving this goal requires some forethought. You need to understand how the project will affect each group, and you should outline the opportunities it brings them. For example, in organizations in which a dedicated team runs the telephone system, the staff might feel threatened by a move to an IT-based system. Paint the move to UC as an opportunity: Voice skills aren't going away, they're being augmented with additional skills that are more relevant to today's businesses.

Because UC projects have such a significant business focus, it would be ridiculous not to include the business in the project. It's crucial that you engage with all areas of an organization, possibly by creating project boards that consist of representatives from each area. You need to ensure that you don't design the project based on what IT thinks the business needs are -- instead, you must seek feedback from a variety of sources within the organization. Pay particular attention to the opinions of administrative assistants, receptionists, and HR staff. These people are the lifeblood of the organization. They interact with a wide variety of people and often have senior connections. If they feel that a project is moving in the right direction, they can help foster good feelings about the project throughout the business. In addition, they can provide valuable feedback to help guide the project.

Part of the role of your chosen champions within each department is to help with internal marketing. Marketing an internal technology rollout to the business as a whole is extremely important. UC has the power to change the way people work -- so the staff must be on board with that change. Creating excitement about upcoming improvements is definitely a marketing task.

User Acceptance Testing (UAT), or piloting, is another important part of successfully implementing UC. The IT department shouldn't undertake this task. Instead, you should use the relationships that you created through the steering groups and project boards to get users involved. Hold demonstration sessions that users can attend to get their hands dirty with the technology. You could set up an informal demo in the lunch room, where users could come by to test the technology and provide feedback. Or you could roll out a more formal testing program, in which you deploy the technology to a particular department and solicit user comments. The key is to use as broad a range of participants as possible and to carefully monitor and address feedback. You need to clearly outline the goals of the test and communicate how the project relates to the overall business strategy. The bigger buzz you create about the project, the more helpful your users will be in testing it.

After the testing phase comes the training phase. Because training can take many forms, it's important to ensure that the correct people get the appropriate amount of support and have access to the necessary resources. Some users will simply need to make and receive phone calls, whereas some will need to manage calls for others, create and lead conference calls, and generally work with a broad range of the modalities provided. The first group might need only some self-training, through walkthroughs or quick tips accessible on the corporate intranet. Power users, however, might need specialty training. Of course, if you've run the project well from the beginning, you already identified those key people early in the process, and they've been involved in training since the testing phase.

In addition to task-based training, you need to train users on etiquette. Over the past 10 or 15 years, people have become accustomed to how email works and have learned the customs associated with it, such as replying to all, using a signature, and creating out-of-office messages. UC in general and Lync in particular provide entirely new ways to communicate. One concept that might be new to many users is that of presence (i.e., availability). Employees need to know how to use presence within their organization. For example, someone might be in a meeting but available to answer a quick IM. You need to let users know that if they're truly unavailable, they should change their presence to Do Not Disturb. In addition, it's important for users to assign their contacts to the appropriate access group level, so that only those who they want to be able to break through the Do Not Disturb state can do so. Finally, users should be trained to start an IM with "Do you have a moment to talk?" rather than immediately barging in with a direct question.

Following training, it's useful to have some type of accreditation. Many companies give users credit for completing training, and UC training should be no different. You could have users complete an online quiz on a company portal, or you could administer a specific test after training. The method of accreditation you choose will depend on the culture of your company, but it's worthwhile to measure users' capabilities after training and to reward new education.

Regardless of how much marketing, communication, testing, and training you do, some people are simply averse to change and won't embrace it. Proper monitoring can help track general usage to determine areas of the business that aren't fully utilizing the new technology. This knowledge can help you direct another round of communication and training if necessary. In addition, monitoring is helpful to ensure that your solution is performing adequately and to help prove ROI.

If you convince users of the new functionality's relevance to their jobs, you'll have higher acceptance and utilization, which can in turn positively affect the culture of your business. UC training might cost more per employee than a typical IT project's training, but the rewards can also be that much greater.

Culture

For a UC rollout to truly be successful, adoption must occur naturally. You need to create a buzz through marketing and communication that spreads virally throughout the business. The key is to highlight the technology's relevance to all roles within the organization. A simple way to do this is to explain the flexibility of being able to communicate from anywhere that you have an Internet connection. In some cases, explaining the UC solution's importance to the organization requires more insight into the business's goals and processes. More complex examples might include enabling rapid signoff of project documentation through intelligent routing to available managers or integration of Lync to Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems for Help desk agents to let them quickly see who is calling, view the outstanding customer history, and seek backup from available experts while still on the customer call.

These scenarios illustrate the UC technology's benefit to the business, including cost savings that result from travel reduction and increased use of conferencing. Of course that doesn't mean that you shouldn't continue to meet with people personally; however, after your initial face-to-face interaction, you might follow up with an audio or video conference.

Another example of a situation in which UC would be extremely helpful is if certain meeting participants play only a minor role in the discussion and can dial in to the meeting rather than attend in person. This scenario will be familiar to technical folks -- although the salespeople need to build face-to-face relationships with clients, technical staff can dial in to calls, thereby saving travel costs and allowing them to attend other meetings the same day. Keeping your highly trained technical resources in-house as much as possible helps increase your organization's efficiency.

One of the biggest changes that UC brings about is that it can provide a flexible work environment. Although many businesses are reluctant to trust employees, empowering your staff in this way is beneficial to worker morale. UC technology allows employees to work from anywhere, anytime. Workers are empowered when they're trusted to carry out their roles no matter where they are. Some people might argue that this "flexibility" actually results in constant work. I prefer to look at the benefits -- UC can provide flexibility when it's needed, and employees are more in control of their schedules. Of course, giving users this level of trust requires HR support -- and not all roles within an organization are flexible. Performance reviews, regular check-ins with managers, and career development continue to be important.

Understanding the cultural change that UC brings is important in fighting a common misconception that can arise in Lync telephony projects. Although Lync can replace a telephony system or conferencing platform, Lync isn't simply a replacement for whatever was previously in place. Lync can take over many functions previously provided by other communication platforms; however, Lync is much more. It's a unified platform that allows not only communication in its own right but also communication as part of the business process.

It's essential that the highest-level executives in a company have the correct mindset regarding Lync. If your senior personnel think of Lync as "just another phone system" (or IM client), your ability to effectively implement Lync throughout the company will be limited. Use all the resources available from Microsoft and the partner community to demonstrate the wider benefits and uses of Lync. (For information about the resources that are available, see the sidebar "Microsoft Resources for Lync Adoption and Training.")

Embrace Change

Deploying a UC solution is a major undertaking if you do it correctly. You could roll out UC just like any other IT project -- however, you'll get far more from the technology if you fully integrate it into your business. True UC integration requires a cultural shift within the organization. You need to empower users to take advantage of the flexibility that UC offers. The technology gives you the tools; all you (and your employees) need to do is embrace it. And if you change the culture of your business, you just might change your business as well.