VOICECON : Convergence of voice, data applies to IT staffs

With the popularity of voice-over-IP systems growing, CIOs and IT managers must wrestle with ways to merge their voice and data staffs, IT managers said at the recent VoiceCon2004 industry conference.

Although the voice and data worlds have merged in a few companies, historically they have been separated. That means voice technicians and data techs within a single company typically operate in different cultures, with separate divisions reporting to separate bosses — sometimes in offices hundreds of miles apart.

At a conference session called “Organizing the Telecom/IT Staff for Convergence,” more than 50 IT managers showed up to express their concerns, with several saying that unifying the cultures can be excruciating. Others offered comments in interviews with Computerworld U.S.

“Every day, I feel like firing somebody,” said one manager wrestling with the problem. She works at a conglomerate of trucking and transportation companies and said the convergence of her two staffs has led to battles that she has had to sort out.

Another manager, who works at a health care company, said putting voice and data workers together is “a huge culture change. You can’t just quickly tell a person, ‘Here is your new job; sit down and get started.'”

Training is a key consideration, said several other managers who have gone through the staff merger process, including some who feel they have successfully managed the combining of staffs and duties.

“It’s working out for us,” said David Stever, manager of communication technology services at PPL Services Corp., an energy utility in Allentown, Pa. PPL began planning for voice and data convergence about six years ago, giving it time to sort through potential problems and plan carefully.

As a result, PPL now has 60 employees who once worked in voice or data who now handle all types of communications needs in three groups: infrastructure and planning, application design, and operations. There is also a separate IT department with about 300 workers who handle data needs not directly related to communications.

At SouthTrust Bank in Birmingham, Ala., a VoIP project was initiated by the bank’s telephony division in 2000, and workers from both cultures were cross-trained in each other’s jobs, said Stanley Adams, group vice-president of network services. The employees work in operations, engineering or support, he said.

“It was a cultural change and it took time, but it increases flexibility,” Adams said. “But you have to have good voice people to do this.”

SouthTrust Bank has 700 offices in nine states.

One IT manager for a vitamin company, who asked not to be named, said that he has relied on Cisco Systems Inc. to train his voice staff in data areas for VoIP systems.

Donald Van Doren, president of Vanguard Communications Corp., a consultancy in Morris Plains, N.J., said converging staffs has been a concern for some clients. “The heritage of data and voice guys is just different,” he said. “It’s in the DNA.”

Van Doren described a new structure, similar to the one used at PPL, than can prove an effective way to start: having the converged staff work in the areas of infrastructure, applications or endpoints (phones or PCs, among other devices). The endpoint group can be put in charge of end-user support as well, he said.

“But the focus is on data,” he noted.

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