Unified communications marks start of new computing era, says Nortel CTO


In a bid to generate strategic advantage, IT is entering a new phase of computing with real-time integration of the front and back office, according to Nortel Networks Inc. Chief Technology Officer Phil Edholm.

What we’re witnessing, he said, is phase three of the computing age. Phase one was during the 1960s and 1970s when payroll and inventory was automated.

“It didn’t change a lot but it made business run faster,” Edholm said.

Phase two emerged in the late 1980s when there was a fundamental shift from technical to strategic, as business processes began to change.

“Wal-mart [Stores Inc.] was the poster child of this transition which was repeated industry by industry during the 1990s,” Edholm said.

The third phase began in 2004 with the question: “Is this is really a sustainable model?”

“Everyone has access to the same technology, and like electricity, IT was no longer strategic. You may have implemented SAP but so has your competitor,” he said.

“The goal now is to completely change the business, which is being accompanied by a radical workforce change, the amount of time staff spend in the office is decreasing five percent each year.”

Edholm said the key to this shift is unified communications boasting real-time media, workflow integration and Web services.

Enterprise priorities are no longer around cost cutting but improving response times to meet customer needs and increasing employee productivity.

This includes the integration of collaboration applications, the Web, video and audio conferencing, mobility, Instant Messaging and presence.

“The focus is on productivity and revenue,” Edholm said.

Speaking at a CIO Magazine breakfast event which was staged in both Sydney and Melbourne last week, Edholm said touchpoints are growing – from Instant Messaging to e-mail, the PC, telephone and the Web – and the enterprise has to support them all.

“I get business cards with 12 different contact numbers and addresses on them, but the goal is to have a single number that reaches the knowledge worker at any given time regardless of device,” he said.

“This is achievable with unified communications as users cannot deal with complexity; 72 percent of consumers cannot program a VCR.

“The phone on my desk should be untethered as today’s worker is mobile.”

Edholm said increased employee productivity includes reducing the times it take to make a decision.

“Up to 90 percent of this time is wasted with calls waiting in queues or staff waiting for replies from e-mails; the six hours it normally takes to make a decision will be reduced to 15 minutes,” he said.

To enable unified communications, Nortel has formed an alliance with Microsoft Corp. to jointly develop products that will ship by the end of 2007, including a hardware appliance for branch offices which ties together Nortel WAN and IP telephony technology with Microsoft messaging software. The companies also plan to insert parts of Nortel’s Multimedia Conferencing platform into Microsoft Office Communicator 2007.

One alliance customer is energy giant Royal Dutch/Shell Group. The petroleum company, which has 112,000 employees in 130 companies, plans to consolidate its entire voice and messaging infrastructure using integrated Microsoft OCS and Nortel VOIP technologies over the next three to five years.

“Putting hardware into remote countries is a nightmare,” said Johan Krebbers, group IT architect for the company. Instead of Shell’s current model — with hundreds of PBXs and e-mail servers distributed worldwide, all voice and messaging applications will be centrally hosted in three data centers to support oil exploration, refining and distribution operations worldwide.

To showcase this new alliance in Australia, both vendors are establishing innovation centers in every capital city across Australia in the next 60 days.

The Brisbane center is already operational with other states coming online throughout March and April.

In a study which aimed to identify emerging best practices in unified communications, the Aberdeen Group surveyed more than 200 enterprises across the globe in November, 2006.

It found 48 percent of organizations will be implementing a unified communications solution in the next 12 months.

Two-thirds of ‘best-in-class’ organizations have revised their communications strategy within the past 12 months compared to 58 percent for the industry average and 6 percent for the laggards.

The research found the biggest obstacle to unified communications is lack of knowledge while implementation costs came in second.

“Unified communications shouldn’t be viewed as a point application, but an infrastructure application that spans every knowledge worker’s desktop,” the paper said.