Reaping Rewards

By Dennis McCafferty  |  Posted 2009-05-18

Langdon & Emison, a law firm based in Lexington, Mo., serves individuals who suffer serious injuries due to accidents or defective products, as well as families who have lost loved ones under those circumstances. The work requires teams of lawyers and support staff—as many as a dozen on a complex class-action case—to travel to remote locations and set up virtual offices in hotels. Sometimes, they will take up an entire hotel floor, dispatching portable hard drives, setting up dedicated servers and stringing cable wire from room to room.

Even with the best IT equipment and support, however, the firm has faced complications. Urgent faxes have had to be resent from the home office to a hotel front desk, potentially creating delivery delays. Conference calls with a large number of attendees have run into logistical hurdles in a small lodging room with just one phone line. If staffers have needed to access their home-office voice mail, they have had to call the headquarters’ receptionist and get dispatched into the system—a time-waster that took lawyers away from compiling billable hours.

However, thanks to a unified communications overhaul from IT solutions provider CDW, Langdon & Emison’s employees no longer struggle with these challenges. All communications services—phone, voice mail, e-mail, fax and conferencing—are now streamlined into one Web-based platform. If lawyers need a conference, they plug in their laptops and get audio access online. When the meeting is over and they need voice mail, they just click on a button, and all of their called-in messages appear as text in their Microsoft Exchange in-box.

“It isn’t just a matter of increasing convenience and improving efficiency for our lawyers and staff,” says Shaun Bender, the company’s IT director. “The ROI on this project was realized on the very first day.

“For example, we’re 45 minutes away from Kansas City. Most of our lawyers live in the city or in one of its suburbs, which allows more of them to work from home. They can now access documents, make calls and send e-mail just as they would do if they were in the office. If they do this from home, it saves them up to two hours spent driving to and from our office in Lexington. In many cases, that’s two hours of billable time.”

Discovering Value

More and more IT decision makers at large enterprises are discovering the same benefits, tapping into the concept of unified communications—commonly dubbed UC. Essentially, UC moves land-line and mobile phones, voice mail, e-mail, Web-based interactions, instant messaging, audio/video conferencing and other communications applications onto a single platform. Employee “presence” tools, which allow members of the same work team to know whether their co-workers are at their computers or on the phone, are also closely tied to UC solutions.

The transition to UC requires a complete mind-set makeover from the CEO on down—a cultural shift that is expected to sharply increase the demand for unified communications technology.

In a CDW poll of more than 750 IT professionals, 53 percent said they were either actively implementing or planning to implement UC solutions. Despite the weak economy, 70 percent of those in the planning and implementation stages said they will complete their UC projects within two years.

Increasing productivity and decreasing operating costs were cited by the survey participants as the prime motivating factors for the push toward UC. Media conferencing (cited by 39 percent of respondents) emerged as the most in-demand UC need, followed by telephone-based improvements (32 percent), e-mail (18 percent) and IM/employee presence upgrades (11 percent).

In North America, Europe and Asia Pacific, the overall unified communications market segment will grow from about $1.2 billion this year to $14.5 billion by 2015, according to Forrester Research, a Cambridge, Mass.-based research company. However, even though 86 percent of IT managers surveyed said they could make a strong case for implementing UC, 55 percent said there was confusion about the concept within their companies. Much of the problem stems from vendors’ complex pricing structures and the lack of clear dollar-based benefits.

“Other challenges include the interoperability of these solutions on one platform,” says Henry Dewing, a principal analyst for Forrester. “It gives decision makers pause when they question whether this audio-video product from Microsoft will work with this system from Cisco.

“Also, when it comes to training, you’ll find IT managers getting very high on unified communications systems and deploying it, but the employees don’t use it because they don’t know how it works and how it’s supposed to fit in with what they do. Managers need to take a close look at what employees do and how unified communications can help them work better. Then they have to build the system around employees’ needs—and train them on it properly.”

There are also some barriers at the front end. Though UC is high on the radar of enterprise managers who understand the benefits of operating so many applications within one platform, says Mark Cortner, a senior analyst at Burton Group, a Midvale, Utah-based research company, some organizations are reluctant to invest heavily in a relatively new concept—especially in this economic climate.

“Large enterprises are most often still set up to manage applications on a silo basis,” Cortner explains, “and now they’re being told to look at a unified communications platform. This is the kind of ambitious undertaking that requires a lot of expertise. Plus, who oversees it? The telephony team? The desktop team? The conferencing team? All this causes the decision-making process to get more drawn out, because there are many people within the company who need to buy in.”

For companies that do buy in to the UC concept, the benefits include eliminating inefficiencies, improving productivity, increasing potential sales and reducing costs. “Reduced travel is just one outcome,” Forrester’s Dewing says. “And when more workers are mobile or working remotely, you can use unified communications tools to enhance your e-mail, voice, Web and video to make it seem more like the remote employee is right there in the office.”

Langdon & Emison senior executives are discovering many bottom-line advantages. For one thing, switching the phone system has resulted in a conversion from analog to digital lines, so the firm is saving thousands of dollars on long-distance costs.

“Also, we can track every call that goes out and comes in,” Bender explains. “This means that when we have three lawyers on a conference call with a client, we can bill all that time and provide the proper documentation to support that bill.”

Many companies prefer to adapt only certain aspects of UC technologies. Take the case of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based HelmsBriscoe, which employs more than 1,000 associates in 38 countries who negotiate the best deals for corporate clients booking an event at a conference center, hotel, resort or other venue. Working with IT solution provider StreetSmarts, HelmsBriscoe has migrated e-mail, company blogs, RSS feeds, video and archival corporate research onto one portal-like platform for all associates—and even clients—to access.

“This has replaced our intranet,” says Greg Malark, chief operating officer of HelmsBriscoe. “Our greatest asset is the collective knowledge of our agents. Previously, if two agents were working on one venue, they’d have numerous phone conversations and e-mails about various venue details and prior negotiations. Now, they simply go to this resource and any e-mail, PowerPoint, archival and related file on the venue is right there, so the dialogue continues from that point.”

Government agencies are also investing in UC tools. NASA is partnering with Verizon Business to launch the federal Networx program, which will integrate audio, video and Web conferencing services. The total effort, which could amount to more than $108 million in IT spending, will allow the agency to provide high-definition, Internet-based video conferencing capabilities to its employees. Today, participants at NASA’s bases nationwide can take part in a call.

“Our teams need to coordinate on a regular basis,” says Kathy Hatley, the NASA conferencing service manager overseeing the agency’s Networx launch. “Before a shuttle launch, for example, we’ll have a walk-through via conference to review flight readiness with respect to designs and engineering. We can have up to 20 people at each of our 10 bases taking part in this call. This technology allows us to have as many people as a room will fit sitting in on a call, as well as people who call in remotely.”

Reaping Rewards

Large enterprises that scale the globe are also getting more interested in unified communications. Beckman Coulter, a Fullerton, Calif.-based biomedical equipment manufacturer, had nearly three dozen legacy systems for phone and voice mail communications used by more than 10,000 employees working in 70 offices worldwide. There was no single common dialing plan or network voice mail standard.

“Every site had its own phone system,” recalls Steve Campbell, the company’s director of network services, messaging and collaboration. “If someone was trying to contact an employee in another location, sometimes they’d get an operator, other times they’d get a menu and sometimes they’d need a dial-access number.

“We need to fly our staff across the country and often throughout the world, and they’d often need a tutorial just to figure out how to make a phone call, make themselves available on the phone or even figure out how to access their voice mail.”

Initially, Beckman Coulter sought a UC system overhaul that would replace the aging legacy phone systems. The company made that transition with the launch of a HiPath 4000 system from Siemens Communications. That worked out well, so it is now launching an expansion of the HiPath system to combine voice, fax and e-mail messages on a Windows server that relies on voice over IP technology.

“From a productivity standpoint, this will remove barriers and enhance the flow of communications,” Campbell says. “But there’s more to it than that: It’s about how a company sees itself. When everyone is tied into the same platform and everyone has the same system for e-mailing and calling people, you start to feel like you’re all working together for one company, instead of a collection of disparate parts.”

Eventually, Beckman Coulter expects to have its employees accessing e-mail, voice mail, faxes and IMs on the same platform. An employee presence feature will also be part of the package, so staffers who are tied together on a project will be able to see in real time whether a team member is at his or her desk, online or on the phone.

Clearly, such a project—which Beckman Coulter has dubbed TIGER (Telecommunications Infrastructure Global Equipment Rebuild)—presents many challenges, including training. But the company expects that this, too, will be a relatively simple, streamlined process before too long.

“The interface is always a big part of the equation,” Campbell says. “But we’ve found that this comes out of the box in a pretty intuitive, user-friendly way. With respect to training, we’ll probably have some group sessions at first for our pilot-phase staff. But after that, we expect to put everything into an online presentation that employees can take when they’re ready. I think we could train them on this system in just 15 minutes, at their convenience.”