Simplicity key in telecom projects, panel says

An end-user panel gave a clear message at Thursday’s Know Your Alternatives telecom conference: For the decision-makers behind a telephony project, simplicity is the key.

Steve Anema, chief financial officer for Bluewater Health in Sarnia, Ont., faced a language problem in his job. “I’m just a simple accountant,” he said. But medical staff at the 320-bed facility, two hospitals in Sarnia and nearby Petrolia, spoke a different language.

“What does a cabbage cost?” he asked the audience at the conference, put on by consulting firm Henry Dortmans Associates. Apparently, cabbages are expensive in the medical field. It’s medical slang for a coronary bypass procedure, and it costs about $50,000. His wife gave him the gift of a medical-to-English dictionary; he thinks a technology-to-English dictionary would be a good idea, too.

A study had identified the need for a new hospital serving the southwestern Ontario community of 128,000 in 1997. The $320-million project didn’t get a shovel into the ground until October of 2007, shortly after Anema took over as CFO. Part of that project was replacing a legacy telephony system from now-extinct Nortel Networks Corp.

“We should have sainted the guy who kept it running,” Anema said. “We were all out of chewing gum and baling wire.”

But as a line item in the redevelopment budget, the telecom system commanded all of 0.25 per cent. “We were just going to replicate what we had,” Anema said. Despite the long planning period – or perhaps because of it – Bluewater had no clear telephony plan. “The managers really didn’t know what they wanted,” he said. Polling the users, he said, two priorities came to the fore: having a dial tone, and voice mail.

Anema asked Emily Neilsen and her team at Nielsen IT Consulting to help with the request for proposals for the telecom system, and it quickly became evident that there was a lot more available to the hospital than voice mail and a dial tone. Nielsen ended up helping develop the telecom plan for the hospital.

(Neilsen was the moderator of the panel.)

That was one of the lessons Anema said he learned through the process: Get external help early in the process. Telecom has to be part of the overall plan in a redevelopment project, too. A lot of attention was paid to architecture, landscaping, parking and the myriad other areas that make for a successful development. “We were focussed elsewhere,” Anema said.

It’s also important to assess the experience of the IT department and the end users, and to be flexible; over the 12 years since the assessment (Phase 1 was completed in April 2010), technology had changed a lot.

Claude Vezina inherited a different kettle of fish when he became national telecom manager for accounting firm BDO Canada in 2007. The company had 95 offices across the country, supporting anywhere from two to 200 staff, and each had its own telecom infrastructure. There were dozens of brands of equipment, and dozens of models within each brand. There was no central management or support, no service level agreement, no understanding of the cost for repairs or moves, adds and changes (MAC).

“I’m sure, being an accounting firm, if I dug deep enough, I could find receipts,” he said.

When developing a company-wide strategy for telecom, he said, step back and ignore the products, or you risk designing a system based on what they can do.

Simplicity was his mantra developing the strategy. If the features aren’t easy to use, the end user won’t use them. The individual offices didn’t have dedicated telecom staff, and several had expiring leases and were likely to move. There was also the possibility of a call centre on the horizon. In the end, Vezina decided he wanted a cost-effective, centralized, Internet protocol (IP) based system that was easy to manage.

Many of the service providers he met with were incredulous. One told him he didn’t know what he was doing. One vendor (Vezina didn’t identify who) seemed to get it.

BDO’s headquarters had been a Nortel legacy shop, so when the vendor asked if he’d consider equipment from upstart Shoretel, he said no. The vendor persisted. Eventually, Vezina came around. But there was still the task of winning over executive management. They didn’t know how financially stable Shortel was. They weren’t comfortable with Shortel’s commitment to the market.

“The irony of it all was, we were all worried about Shortel’s finances, and we were a Nortel shop at the time,” he said. (Nortel declared bankruptcy in January 2009.) Shortel’s CEO agreed to brief the team on the company’s finances. Vezina pored over analyst’s reports. The execs relented.

Vezina called the new system “ridiculously simple” to manage and install. Headquarters staff preconfigure the switches, which is most of the work. Offices are down for about 15 minutes for the install, he said.

Bob Mansbridge, IT strategist with Henry Dortmans and former CIO of Sun Life, compared partnering on projects to scuba diving. “You are totally dependent on the environment,” he said. “If you don’t trust the environment, or anything in it, don’t do it.”

He said of all the common excuses for project failure – poorly articulated business requirements, having too many projects on the go, lack of budget, lack of subject matter expertise, out-of-the-loop leadership and “getting the vendor’s B-Team” – only one points to the vendor. Look at your own team first, before committing to a partnership.

If you or your partner can’t articulate what the business reason for a project is, “don’t do it,” he said.