Constant Contact

Constant Contact

More and more CIOs are using unified communications systems to keep colleagues and customers in constant touch

Robert Fort, CIO of music retailer Virgin Entertainment Group, would have liked to wave a magic wand to give key employees the ability to easily transition between voice, instant messaging and videoconferencing technologies. His practical answer: a unified communications environment. By providing an integrated version of all those services, unified communications gives selected Virgin executives, store managers, administrative employees and IT staffers the ability to reach colleagues wherever they may be, with whatever communications mode is most appropriate. "There are major cultural differences between employees, so it's critical to have good, strong communications across the corporation," Fort says.

Like Fort, a growing number of CIOs are seeking to merge disparate communications modes into one universally accessible service. As communications options proliferate, employees increasingly face the choice of juggling multiple communications devices or potentially missing critical calls and messages.

"Unified communications solutions allow enterprises to leverage the vertical communications applications they're already using, such as desktop phones, mobile phones and messaging systems, but which can't talk to each other," says Nora Freedman, a senior research analyst at IDC. "Unified communications is designed to bring all of these disparate technologies into an environment that reduces time and effort."

While the unified communications concept has been batted about for more than a decade, it's finally becoming practical thanks to the growing adoption of IP telephony, says Mark Cortner, a senior analyst at Burton Group. Companies that have adopted IP telephony are already in the on-ramp to unified communications, he notes. "Now that your voice communications is in IP, it joins messaging, e-mail and other forms of IP-based communications, all of which can be directed and managed in unison over data networks," he says. "This is what's at the heart of the growing interest in unified communications."

But as Fort and his peers have found, deploying unified communications and making all the pieces work together is a time- and testing-intensive job for IT.

Fewer Misses, Better Meetings

Based in Los Angeles, Virgin Entertainment Group, under the Virgin Megastores USA brand, operates 11 outlets in New York, California, Florida, Colorado and Texas. Facing business challenges posed by big-box music retailers, such as Best Buy and Wal-Mart, as well as the popularity of online music downloading services, like iTunes, Virgin needs to run a tight and efficient organization that keeps sales high and prices down. Unified communications supports those goals, Fort says, while helping employees in several different ways.

Presence technology, for example, shows whether a person is available to receive a call. "If it's urgent, you might decide to send the individual an IM instead," Fort says. During live meetings or conference calls, participants can get fast answers to questions from colleagues in the same building, or in a store on the opposite coast, by contacting them via IM or voice. Employees can also tap into their computers to share spreadsheets, charts or other relevant data with conference participants. "You've got the capability of making the best choice on who to contact and how to contact them," Fort says. "After a while, it just becomes a very seamless, natural way of exchanging information."

Virgin began exploring the possibility of adding unified communications shortly after deploying a Cisco Systems-based IP phone system on its network in 2005. The company initially considered utilizing the Cisco Unified Communications environment but ultimately changed course and adopted rival Microsoft technology. "The thing that gave me more comfort with the Microsoft approach is that I looked at it from the desktop use [angle] and I found that the Microsoft solution is so deeply embedded and integrated with all the rest of our enterprise software," Fort says. "There were also cost factors in our case - the Microsoft solution was cheaper for us."

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