It sounds so easy. Just give employees the ability to easily move among desktop and mobile voice calls, instant messaging and videoconferencing technologies - and productivity and efficiency improvements will naturally follow.

But IT managers such as Sonny Reid have learned that deploying unified communications (UC) systems isn't that simple. "We clearly had challenges with bringing everybody onto the same platform," says Reid, global network director at Legrand North America, a building automation firm.

A UC system integrates multiple technologies so that workers can, for example, reply to email with a voice message, read voice-mail messages as mail, turn instant messages into telephone calls and answer their desk phones from the airport. The challenge is deploying a UC system without causing chaos as the organization adopts unfamiliar technologies.

Elizabeth Herrell, an analyst at Forrester Research ., says the problem areas include system interoperability, infrastructure readiness and user training. Failing to fully address each of these points, she notes, could lead to crippling enterprise communications failures.

"UC adoption is not a single solution but a process," Herrell warns. "Without a clear understanding of how UC benefits the entire user community, many of its benefits may not be achieved."

Jayanth Angl, an analyst at Canadian company Info-Tech Research Group, says there are several infrastructure issues that could derail a UC deployment, such as implementing it over a network that's incapable of supporting the new traffic. That's why UC projects require a lot of careful planning and testing.

Reid says he was able to achieve a successful UC deployment - with only a few hiccups - mostly because of attention to details, such as helping end users learn how to access and use the system's various communication modes. "There were no showstoppers, which was basically due to the significant planning we did upfront," he says.

A phased deployment, rolling out a UC system in several limited stages, also helped Reid avoid any major surprises. He decided early on that Legrand would deploy its Cisco Systems  UC technology on a site-by-site basis at its office locations worldwide. The lessons learned along the way in terms of system performance and user training are continuing to pay dividends as additional locations are given UC capabilities. "We've basically taken advantage of our learning and developed a best-practices cheat sheet," Reid says.

Joseph T. Massey Jr., technical adviser to the deputy CIO at Atlanta's Emory University, says that when it comes to a successful rollout, there's no substitute for knowledge - both of system operations and end-user needs. Emory's UC deployment, based on Avaya Inc. technology, includes a complex mix of fixed and mobile VoIP, unified messaging, conferencing and other communications technologies.

"The hardest part about planning [a deployment] is learning how the system works," Massey says. A staff that fully understands a UC system's structure and its user requirements is prepared to identify and remedy just about any rollout problem that may arise.

But acquiring the necessary knowledge takes time, Massey adds. "There's a discovery process that I would say takes several weeks," he says. Yet Massey feels that such an extended effort is necessary if an enterprise is absolutely serious about avoiding a UC breakdown. "Perfection doesn't just happen," he notes.

In with the old
Jim O'Brien, director of technical services at St. Louis-based ReHabCare Group, a physical rehabilitation services provider, says he was able to prevent start-up glitches, reduce end-user confusion and cut costs by bringing some of his enterprise's existing technologies -- such as its PBX system and phones -- into the new ShoreTel UC system.

"PBX phone systems come with line cards ... so we were able to take the old phone system and then integrate it with the new [one] so they could talk to one another," O'Brien says. "It allowed us to do a much more graceful transition, rather than trying to come in and replace 450 phones in one weekend."

Bob Haldane, operations analyst at Payworks, a Canadian payroll services firm, says he avoided deployment problems by going with a UC system that was easy to design and manage. For Haldane, this meant steering clear of Linux-based offerings. "We don't really employ very many Linux experts here," he says. After considering various options, Haldane ultimately settled on Windows-based UC technology from Objectworld Communications Corp. "It's allowed us to feel comfortable by not sending us into a situation where we would be in over our heads," he says.

Haldane also felt it was important to find a vendor that would commit to fast and reliable support. "If something does go wrong, you want to make sure you've got a lifeline you can call," he says. "You want them to get you back up and running if it's something that you can't figure out in-house."

Info-Tech's Angl notes that poor training often sends new UC deployments into chaos as confused end users flail away in an environment they don't fully understand. "When you're implementing this end-user-facing technology, certainly having a help desk and support processes in place -- ensuring that end users have access to training as part of the deployment -- is critical," he says. "There's not much value or impact if users don't adopt these new [UC] features."

Reid says the only significant glitches he experienced were the result of poor training. "We absolutely learned the lesson the hard way, and if I had a do-over, that would be the one I'd want," he says. "I really would start from the beginning with extensive user training."