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CIOs grapple with tying Wi-Fi, VoIP into unified communications plan

Despite a communications revolution, midmarket CIOs are adopting unified communications strategies in small steps.

John D. Halamka, CIO at CareGroup Inc. in Boston as well as at Harvard Medical School, is trying to make it easier for 3,000 doctors at four hospitals and a campus to talk to one another. Halamka is in the middle of implementing a unified communications (UC) plan at both organizations.

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"Doctors are very mobile people; they don't sit at a desk or in a hospital," he said. "Being able to get to written or voice communication anywhere, anytime is the goal. Whether it's on an iPhone, BlackBerry, cell phone or laptop. They should feel fluidity across all modalities."

Halamka has already deployed enterprise Wi-Fi over 2 million square feet, and supports devices such as BlackBerry and iPhone 3G via a BlackBerry Enterprise Server and ActiveSync. Next year comes phase two: going live with instant messaging (IM) using Meebo on a new intranet portal with social networking apps.

"A whole bunch of people live on Facebook," he said. "IM is sometimes not thought of as a enterprise app, but some generations think of that as the best way to communicate."

So far, however, Halamka hasn't deployed a UC solution per se, such as Microsoft's Office Communications Server (OCS), which integrates phone, voicemail and conferencing with IM, email and calendars. He said he's looked at the technology but there's no real user demand to integrate email and telephony. "No user has ever asked for the ability to receive email in voicemail," he said.

Halamka's experience seems to be the norm for midmarket CIOs, who are moving into UC with small steps, despite hype about a communications revolution sweeping through corporate America.

David Lemelin, an analyst at In-Stat in Scottsdale, Ariz., said the technology is maturing faster than workers are embracing it.

"The large enterprise space has established the UC deployment plans it's following," he noted, "but the midsized market is just not formulating these strategies and is looking for trusted vendor/communications partners. I think the efficiency gains are undeniable. Getting employees to leverage those capabilities is the key challenge. That is what will evolve more slowly but become pervasive as the younger set enters the workplace."

In September, In-State released a report estimating that the UC market, including products and services, will grow from $2.3 billion in 2007 to $25.9 billion by 2012. Unified messaging is the fastest-growing area, with vendors such as Avaya Inc., Nortel Networks Corp., Cisco Systems Inc. and Microsoft offering integrated unified messaging, conferencing, IP telephony and IM products.

"On one hand, the IT person does not always have employees looking for these capabilities, but he knows the efficiencies to be gained," Lemelin said. "Many CFOs are not as comfortable with ROIs that are not tangible. Another challenge is getting many employees to embrace the concept of presence. Not everyone wants to be reachable 24 hours per day, so presence needs to be managed. Employee satisfaction with their current capabilities to integrate their communications needs is fairly solid. There's a lack of felt need."

I can't see us buying another
phone system.

Steven Agnoli

Steven Agnoli, CIO at the law firm K&L Gates LLP, is grappling with just those sorts of issues.

"It's definitely a good idea for a globally diverse firm," Agnoli said. "People are on the move and mobile. There's a productivity component and over time there's probably a cost component. People are starting to request unified communications and ask what our plans are.

"We want the basic stuff that will be the biggest bang for the buck: Presence, voice and email integration, dialing from Outlook. That's probably where 80 to 90 percent of the benefit is for us."

K&L Gates, which is based in Pittsburgh but has 28 offices and 1,700 attorneys on three continents, has grown through numerous mergers, giving the organization a mix of legacy communications systems.

"We have a pretty heterogeneous voice structure and a homogenous email structure," Agnoli said. "We want to leverage our existing investment in Outlook Exchange and not replace the phone hardware. I can't see us buying another phone system. We have Siemens, Nortel, Cisco. It's becoming more feasible every day to deploy unified communications as platform agnostic and layer over PBX."

The firm is working on needs analysis and hoping to move into deployment next year.

"The biggest challenge will be the cost and being comfortable that the ROI is there," he said. "I think the technology is fairly proven, but it's making sure we have the return and implement properly."


Michael Ybarra is a monthly columnist for and a former senior writer at CIO Decisions magazine. He is also the author of Washington Gone Crazy. Write to him at


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