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The best-laid VoIP plans

A Forrester Research case study spotlights Social Security Administration CIO Thomas Hughes' model approach to VoIP.

The Social Security Administration might not have the money to pay for your future retirement, but CIO Thomas Hughes is taking the right steps to ensure your complaints will be heard.

Faced with an aging phone structure that soon will be pushed to its limits by retiring baby boomers, Hughes is evaluating whether Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is best equipped to field the agency's 60 million calls a year.

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Into the woods with VoIP

VoIP and compliance

His approach, said Forrester Research analysts Lisa Pierce and Laurie Orlov, is a refreshing alternative to the ready-fire-aim strategy of many IT shops, and provides useful lessons in how to sell your organization on new technology.

In their case study, "SSA's CIO Leads a Measured Technology Migration," Pierce and Orlov said Hughes has resisted the common temptation "to buy a much-hyped technology and then search for a deployment." Instead, Hughes is taking a cautious approach that begins with a deep understanding of needs of the business.

Hughes' caution certainly demonstrates composure under pressure. As the report notes, the SSA spends over $1 billion a year on IT products and services. The technology serves an organization that spans 1,400 sites, employs 7,000 at its headquarters and, oh, yes, issues 50 million checks a year.

Three Forrester VoIP tips
Determine service-level objective minimums the new technologies must meet.

Use the pilots to test capabilities from multiple competing vendors.

Fill in expertise gaps with third-parties at each appropriate stage.

Telephony is mission critical, given the volume of calls. To date the SSA's telephony is ill-equipped to integrate data and voice, meaning that every time a caller phones in, most SSA employees must ask for that caller's detailed information rather than have it pop up on screen. The coming baby boom bulge will strain staffing and infrastructure to the breaking point. Finally, the SSA's current Federal Technology Services, or FTS, contract expires in 2008.

While there is urgent need for change, the SSA, isn't "accustomed to making such a significant technological change," the report found. Hughes decided it was up to him to build consensus from the executive level on down, a process that began with educating all the project's constituencies on the pros, cons and liabilities of VoIP and included designing pilots and trails to measure and monitor various VoIP systems.

The report said the SSA is about halfway through a 40-site VoIP trial that will test both Cisco and Nortel IP telephony phones and switches, and VoIP services from both AT&T and MCI. The trial involves several offices, each with about 40 employees. The trials will focus on call center/computer telephony integration applications, including calls transfers between sites.

Employees and customers will be surveyed on issues such as call quality, latency over distance, usability and LAN server impacts. Hughes said he also believes a new network of this scope will require monitoring and management by third-party specialists, even at the trial stage.

Meanwhile, the SSA is implementing some important improvements to its legacy system, including a uniform use of screen pops and speech-enabled voice response units, or VRUs. The upgrade ironically poses a threat to VoIP, as some key constituents don't see a compelling reason to evaluate the new technology now.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

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