When Craig Hinkley at Bank of America, first brought voice and data workers together for a three-year VoIP project that would affect 180,000 users, the room divided, and "the voice and data guys set up castles and started lobbing grenades," says the senior vice president of network architecture.
As more companies start down the winding road to converging voice and data communications, it's ironic that the first obstacle they hit isn't a technical hurdle but a human one. That's because converged network projects work best when companies get voice engineers under the same management umbrella as the data team, which means the CIO takes charge of the voice side of the corporation.
Sounds easy enough, even logical. You simply convene a campfire in a rustic setting and have the voice and data teams sit together singing "Kumbaya," right?
Not exactly, say some IT managers who have been through the process and lived to talk about it. The fact is, because the separation of the two teams is so ingrained in tradition, the CIO's attempt to don the chief telephony officer's hat is fraught with corporate politics.
And because voice and data people don't usually work together, they tend to have different work styles and personalities. One observer compares the differences between the two teams to those between Animal House-type fraternity members and dormitory residents, with the former setting up messy data-switching closets while the latter tend well-organized voice-switching closets. The data folks might be stereotyped as rebels on hot rods, while the voice workers are country-clubbers in sedans.
Despite these differences, bringing the two workforces together is essential to successful convergence projects, analysts and IT managers say. And as time goes on, more companies will be dealing with the issue as they update their aging circuit-switched phone systems and increasingly opt for an IP converged network to support applications that mix voice with traditional data applications such as e-mail.
A good start to achieving harmony is understanding the two groups' very different perspectives. Data workers tend to focus on data availability and reliability, not the millisecond time delays that annoy voice users, says Clay Swenson, a VoIP project manager at GlaxoSmithKline PLC, where a pilot convergence project is under way.
For their part, voice personnel understand the need to eliminate that millisecond delay, but they have to adjust to making voice "just another application" in a data network with voice over IP, according to Swenson.
At many companies, voice teams have been traditionally lumped under the facilities group in the organizational chart and charged with maintaining the copy machines as well as the phones, Swenson says. The data teams, on the other hand, work for the CIO and have been rulers of the server domain, operating in a world less in tune with immediate user needs.
For example, when a voice circuit goes down, users are instantly up in arms, but when a data system goes down, it may take a while to affect their work, so they may not immediately notice.
To neutralize these differences, the pharmaceutical giant set up virtual teams of voice and data workers that will collaborate at least until VoIP is rolled out globally throughout the organization.
At Bank of America, Hinkley says he observed that the teams have a "natural distrust" of each other, with voice workers tending to be older than those in the data group and each being accustomed to different ways of getting things done. That's why Bank of America started bringing the groups together slowly with meetings and top-level discussions of what skills were needed for the VoIP project.
Bank of America has relied on a structure that happens to be similar to what analysts at Gartner recommend. The bank separates VoIP infrastructure services teams from VoIP application services teams, and each group includes people with both data and voice skills. In addition, each of those teams needs to operate with a security team, Hinkley says.
The model at Bank of America helps define the roles of voice and data engineers, he says, "which helps both camps realize that each has responsibilities to make sure the IP environment is successful."
Hinkley also advises engaging in cross-training. "If I were a traditional voice engineer, I'd be cross-pollinating my skill set with IT practices and understanding of data network components," he says.
That doesn't mean that voice engineers need to become network design engineers, he adds, but they should understand the key components of data networking.
As for data engineers, they need to understand the importance of real-time communications and its effect on network design, since VoIP arguably provides the first test of using data networks to meet the needs of real-time communications with voice, Hinkley says.
Experienced managers also advocate throwing the voice and data groups together more than they're used to, whether through meetings and other gatherings or even by moving their cubicles closer together.
That's sound advice, according to Janet Smith, a consultant at Janet Smith & Associates. Smith combined the voice and data teams at an academic medical center where she worked in a prior job, but she found that it wasn't easy to get the two groups to play nicely together. "It's a very difficult nut to crack," she says.
"The telecom workers sense that they almost always lose in these convergence situations, and the telecom team is not eager to give up its territory," Smith says. And because the CIO is often from the data tradition, he may have difficulty valuing telecommunications workers and their experience in dealing with people as opposed to technology, Smith adds. It helps if the CIO recognizes that difference and addresses it with both groups.
Even if you don't have an IP telephony project in the works, Smith advocates merging the voice and data teams. And that doesn't mean just changing the organizational chart so that telecommunications reports to the CIO, she adds. Voice and data staffers need to work alongside one another in the same work space, with the integrated teams focused on three areas: infrastructure, applications and customer-facing functions.
But before merging the teams, companies need to have common procedures and methods in place for both groups to handle job orders (such as a phone for a new employee), as well as change and problem management, inventory tracking and asset management. Some of these processes are standardized in systems management software packages.
If convergence is really working, Smith adds, your company has a single number for users to call for help, whether the problem is with a PC, a phone or other technology, such as a workgroup copier.
Smith's advice is mirrored by other analysts, including those at Gartner, who recently urged in a report that CIOs merge their voice teams with other key IT functions. Gartner compared VoIP to CRM initiatives, which require cross-business cooperation to be effective. It said that if telephony isn't the responsibility of those planning the network infrastructure needed for real-time communications, a company will be unable to maximize the benefits of new technologies.
VoIP convergence might require companies to retrain or recruit workers with new skills in order to build a communications team with voice specialists, network designers and managers, and security specialists, the report says.
"The IP telephony decision needs executive sponsorship due mainly to political issues, and the three teams must cooperate," says Lawrence Orans, one of the authors of the Gartner report. "Otherwise, the project will be doomed."