Teck Cominco mines IT to create single inbox

Some employees can’t get enough of online poker. Others prefer online soduku. Nobody, it seems, likes to play telephone or e-mail tag.

IT administrators at the Vancouver mining company Teck Cominco Ltd. didn’t comment on the first two games, but they discussed how they managed to put an end of the last one by using unified communication (UC) technology.

With mining staff located around the world from Alaska to Peru, Teck Cominco wanted to a cost-effective way to streamline its various voicemail, wireless and e-mail messaging capabilities to keep employees connected in or out of the office.

Unified communication — a method of integrating communication streams such as fax, data, e-mail, voice and video within a single inbox — is ideal for companies with geographically dispersed staff.

In the past, a lot of time was wasted when people left messages on multiple connection points (desk phone, mobile phone, e-mail and fax) in attempts to contact a specific person or set-up a team meeting, said Vern Kasdorf, IS program director for Teck Cominco.

“If you were the caller, you had no real idea which communication channel would yield a connection. If you were the receiver, you wouldn’t know you had an important message until you got back to your desk,” Kasdorf said.

The set-up generated a lot of downtime, he said.

To consolidate the company’s e-mail and voicemail under a single platform, Tech Cominco hired Bell Business Solutions.

The integrator recommended that the mining firm consolidate its servers and upgrade to a system based on Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 with Unified Messaging (UM) and Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007.

The company already had an existing licensing agreement with Microsoft and upgrading to Exchange Server 2007 would leverage existing IT investment, according to Peter Hass, of Bell Business Solutions. “Other options were just too costly, complex and disruptive. They needed a quick ROI (return of investment) and a system that can grow with the business.”

This strategy meant that Teck Cominco didn’t have to migrate to a new platform but rather “extend” the software they were already using. IT administrators and employees in offices and mine sites needed minimal training. About 100 users were migrated to the new system in four hours. Unified messaging allowed employees to access voicemail, e-mail, calendar and contacts over any phone and provided voice messaging and fax delivery to the workers’ e-mail inbox.

“The system eliminated the messaging silos and seamlessly connected all communication devices,” said Erin Elofsen, unified communication and collaboration product manager for Microsoft.

A speech-enabled automated attendant that answers calls can be accessed through touch tone menus or speech recognition feature. The system also has the ability to convert text to speech which allows phone users to have e-mail, calendar, personal contacts and other information read to them over a handset.

A key benefit of the system is the presence feature of OCS 2007, which enables users to see the status of the colleague they are trying to contact to help them decide the best way to reach out: via e-mail, instant messenger, phone or mobile-phone.

Kasdorf said the system eliminated the need to check multiple devices for messages and because of priority setting features it also does away with the need to listen to voice mail messages in sequential order.

By integrating to personal calendars, the system can inform a caller whether the colleague they are contacting is on another phone call, working at his desk or out in a meeting.

“When I get a call, my computer screen or mobile device can tell me who it was and whether they left a message. If I want to return the call, the caller’s information is right before me,” said Kasdorf.

Unified communications products are still in the early stages of deployment, says Jon Arnold, principal of J Arnold and Associates, an Internet Protocol communications research firm in Toronto.

Companies contemplating UC adoption can choose between hardware and software-based solutions, he said. Software-based UC product vendors include Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, SAP, Google, Yahoo and Skype. Hardware UC sellers include Cisco, Avaya, Nortel and Siemens.

Organizations should concentrate on achieving flexibility and productivity for the business and employees and not so much the technology, cautioned Arnold.

“Think about the user experience. Unified communication is about connecting people not devices or endpoints.”

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