Unified communications cause some angst in job space

Users and analysts say that companies adopting unified communications run the risk of igniting open warfare between telecom and IT departments that are already jostling over pecking order and job security in the new world order.

Any large technology rollout first requires consideration of the people issues, as well as the technical. That goes double for unified communications.

Users and analysts say that companies adopting unified communications, especially those replacing conventional PBX boxes with server-based software, run the risk of igniting open warfare between telecom and IT departments that are already jostling over pecking order and job security in the new world order.

"This is going to be a wonderful battle," says Barry Marks, an analyst at IntelliCom Analytics. "In the long term, the voice guys will always have a place, because voice is still a mission-critical function. But will voice guys rule the day on business decisions? No, because those decisions are moving up the value chain to the CIO or COO."

"We hear lots of discussion at conferences from customers wondering which way to go," said Kim Akers, general manager for unified communications at Microsoft, which rolls out its Office Communications Server 2007 on Tuesday.

Telecommunications teams whose job has been to ensure that telephones and related systems such as voice mail and fax remain running 100 percent of the time have traditionally operated autonomously from IT. That's partly because of history. At corporations older than 50 years old, telecom departments often predate IT ones.

While most telecom departments have long ago been outnumbered by their IT peers, they have been able to maintain independence or, by being swallowed by administrative or HR departments, semiautonomy.

Hands-off IT gets the back of the hand

That was true for the California Association of Realtors.

"Telecom has traditionally resided in administrative services," says Rick Kinzel, a vice president at the Los Angeles group. "I was asked to take it over, despite having no telecom experience."

The association was struggling with "an old and somewhat outdated system" based around a 9-year-old NEC switch that Kinzel says offered "very little in the way of applications."

In particular, employees in the association's small call center picked up the phone without any computer-based information on callers to prep them.

While Kinzel sought a solution, the IT department offered little help.

"They were a little bit hands-off, as they'd never been responsible for our phone system," he says.

So two years ago, Kinzel chose a "turnkey" unified communications system from Siemens Communication. For $500,000, the association rolled out a Siemens HiPath 4000 VOIP-based PBX, Agile software for answering calls, Verant software to record them, Microsoft CRM software to bring up data for call center workers and OpenScape software to unify it all together.

Part of that price tag paid for technical support from Siemens, which allowed Kinzel to outsource and thus avoid any "real involvement from our IT folks."

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