Public-sector IT leaders used to have difficulty winning approval for unified communications initiatives, but things are changing rapidly. The fact is, badly aging telecom infrastructures have left many state and local governments with no choice but to overhaul their environments.
Now that infrastructure upgrades have become unavoidable, UC presents an obvious and compelling choice because it enables agencies to reduce telecom spending while improving services.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District in Brooksville, Fla., serves as a prime example of this growing phenomenon. Jim Lewis, manager of enterprise infrastructure, says the agency began exploring convergence as far back as 1997 and put it on a list of technology objectives in 2002. "Despite all the good things we knew Voice over IP and the unified communications concepts could do for us, the project just kept getting deferred," explains Lewis. "Ultimately, it came down to 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' "
Eventually, though, the water district's aging infrastructure hit a wall. By 2008, its PBX had reached the end of its life and was no longer being supported by the original manufacturer. The telecom switches at the agency's four locations were between 19 and 27 years old. Not only was the functionality of the infrastructure inadequate for knowledge workers, but the PBX itself had become impractical to operate.
So Lewis and his team began to evaluate potential UC solutions in earnest. The IT group obtained demonstration units, hit trade shows and spoke to UC users. The process led the district to select Cisco Systems' Unified Communications Manager as its UC platform. Key factors in the decision, Lewis says, included positive reports from Cisco users, the fact that much of the agency's existing network was built on Cisco products and the competitive pricing available under Florida's statewide contract vehicle.
The water district's Cisco solution included 7900 and 6900 series phones, Unified MeetingPlace, Unified Contact Center, Unified Presence and Emergency Responder. The deployment started with a prototype implementation within the IT department, followed by a rollout with comparable functionality to the rest of the organization. More advanced features will be implemented during the third phase of the project.
—EDDIE RAY, IT operations manager
UC has dramatically enhanced the productivity of district workers in many ways. "Users can now set up and change their own call routing rules so that they can be reached in the office, on the road or at home with a single number," says Lewis. "And our staff can answer and redirect calls from their PCs using Cisco's SoftPhone. This technology has the potential to replace the physical handsets on the desks and to allow further cost savings in the future. We can even build and integrate 'click-to-call' features into our applications where it could increase productivity."
The cost savings will be substantial. By integrating voice traffic on its data network, the water district's projected savings in fiscal year 2012 will be approximately $133,000 for telecommunications costs alone. Additionally, the agency's Cisco-certified IT staff can maintain the system themselves. This newfound self-sufficiency eliminates the $50,000 to $60,000 the water protection agency had been spending annually to have its conventional PBX and switches maintained by a third party.
"UC provides us with so much flexibility that we are just starting to scratch the surface of how we can use it to improve services and cut costs," Lewis declares. "This has the potential to be a very high ROI initiative that will continue to grow in value for us into the future as we keep working smarter and driving down ownership costs."
At the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, the issue wasn't just aging hardware; it was also an aging person. The agency's PBX and switching infrastructure was several versions behind what would have been required to meet a third-party support provider's technical requirements. On top of that, the agency's only expert in the proprietary PBX technology was about to retire.
The organization faced a choice: either spend a lot of money updating its conventional telecom environment and find someone with the specific expertise necessary to run and maintain that environment, or migrate to UC.
"The cost to 'true up' our PBX alone would have been about 40 percent of what we spent on our UC platform migration," says Kris Clymans, manager of infrastructure and support for the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency in Harrisburg. "Instead of hiring a dedicated PBX specialist, we were able to add someone with more up-to-date and broadly useful IP networking skills."
Clymans and his team opted for ShoreTel UC products for its 300-person, three-location environment — in large part because of how easy its software was to deploy and use. The flexibility of ShoreTel's software was particularly important to the agency. That's because incoming calls are routed to subject-matter experts across the organization who have other work responsibilities, rather than to dedicated service agents working in a traditional contact center.
With ShoreTel's UC software, administrators of this "virtual contact center" can quickly and easily define call-routing parameters using an intuitive Visio-like interface. Agents can also consult with colleagues about active calls before forwarding them, and even send notes along with a call transfer.
"The people who call us can be in pretty dire straits, possibly even facing foreclosure in a matter of days, so our primary concern is that we accurately answer their questions regardless of how long it takes or who has to get involved," Clymans says. "UC enables us to do this by making it so much easier to bring the right people into the conversation at the right time."
Organizations that are currently planning or deploying unified communications have experienced the following challenges:
41% Securing budget commitment
30% Narrowing the options down to a workable solution
30% Choosing between a single-or multiple-vendor strategy
29% Securing reliable cost projections
25% Convincing management of the return on investment
The Employees' Retirement System of Georgia also faced PBX obsolescence. Its PBX maker had been acquired by another company that had stopped supporting the device. This made it imperative for the system to quickly migrate to a more up-to-date solution.
Like the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, the retirement system was especially concerned about enabling its contact center, which takes 350 to 400 calls per day from members and state employers about various programs and entitlements.
With the Georgia organization's legacy PBX, the management of inbound call traffic was difficult and time-consuming. Only a trained technician could make changes in routing rules — or even modify prerecorded greetings. This unwieldiness handcuffed the contact center staff and limited their ability to effectively serve members.
After evaluating a variety of call center software packages, the Atlanta-based agency chose Cisco's Unified Communications Manager and Unified Contact Center, along with a variety of desktop, conference room and video-enabled phones.
"We saw Cisco as the safest choice because of their large installed base and the fact that we knew their solutions would integrate well with our existing network," says Eddie Ray, IT operations manager for the Employees' Retirement System of Georgia.
The organization relied on CDW•G to spearhead its implementation, which was completed under budget and within a few weeks. According to Ray, the CDW•G team worked closely with his internal staff to make sure that everything proceeded smoothly and that all specifications were met. "They set up a SharePoint site for the project and held regular status meetings where we were able to anticipate and resolve potential implementation issues," Ray recalls. "That kept us on track from start to finish."
The benefits of the new UC-based contact center were immediately apparent. The system's contact center staff could quickly and easily modify routing rules, interactive voice response settings and other aspects of the environment to address their changing needs. Managers also gained full visibility into key performance metrics such as wait times and dropped calls, so they could take action to improve service levels to members.
"We heard nothing but good things from our users about the flexibility of the applications and the quality of the voice calls," Ray says. "Just as important, we have been able to demonstrate to our board that the deployment of UC technology is enabling us to more effectively and efficiently fulfill our mission."
Percentage of organizations surveyed that have fully implemented unified communications in 2011, which is double the 2010 figure
SOURCE: 2011 CDW•G Unified Communications Tracking Poll
Organizational productivity was also a primary concern for the Alaska Legislative Affairs Agency, which deployed a Microsoft Unified Communications software suite integrating e-mail, instant messaging and presence. This combination of applications proved useful for tying together legislative staffs that spend nine months out of the year broadly dispersed across the largest state in the nation.
"We had previously kept the popular Internet IM applications off the network for security reasons and had tried a stand-alone IM solution that turned out to be hard to use," says Shay Wilson, networking/programming supervisor for the agency. "With Microsoft's suite, we've been able to deliver a simpler, more complete experience that improves the work experience of legislators and their staffs while easing the support burden on IT."
The UC environment also reduces the state's telecom costs by carrying voice calls between legislative offices over the IP network.
Rich Costello, senior research analyst for enterprise communications infrastructure at IDC, points out that each of these successes is predicated on a clear understanding of the specific needs of each agency and its users. "With UC, it's very important to clearly identify the compelling use cases in your organization — whether that's a virtual contact center or the collaboration between staffs in geographically dispersed offices," he advises. "You're always going to achieve higher ROI if you can specify the UC components and capabilities you need to address your organization's biggest communications opportunities."
Costello also suggests that state agencies obtain help in planning and deploying UC, and possibly for ongoing management. "It takes a lot of expertise and experience to keep a UC implementation on target, on time and within budget," he says. "Most agencies don't have that expertise or experience, so they need outside help."
In addition to delivering cost savings and increased productivity, unified communications also makes it easier for organizations to quickly respond to changing conditions — including disasters that might otherwise threaten the continuity of day-to-day operations.
That's what Southwest Florida Water Management District's Jim Lewis discovered when the sprinkler system in one of his locations accidentally went off, forcing him to immediately relocate 150 people from the water-damaged office to other district facilities.
Lewis found that it was surprisingly simple to have users from the damaged office relocate to alternate facilities. The phones and PCs were moved and reconnected at their new locations and continued working with minimal configuration modifications required. With a few clicks of the administrative mouse, Lewis was able to route their calls appropriately and keep them productive despite what might have been a serious catastrophe.
"With a conventional PBX, everything is hard-wired to a switch," Lewis explains. "With UC, on the other hand, you can hang everything on your network, so moves, adds and changes become much easier."
The Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency's Kris Clymans agrees. His ShoreTel implementation is provisioned with a pair of redundant servers that ensure ready failover in case of a hardware problem. And, in the event of any kind of catastrophe, he can readily empower staff to work from home or an alternate facility.
"There's no comparison between how quickly you can set up users in a UC environment and what you'd have to do with a conventional PBX," he says. "We are much better prepared now for any contingency that might come our way."