Planning Is Everything in UC

Planning is probably the single most important aspect of a unified communications or contact center deployment. Whether converting from a legacy system, upgrading a solution, or adding functionality, your organization must pay careful attention to what should be done to ensure a successful outcome.

You can't afford to neglect the planning phase, even though planning can require extensive time and resources, and oftentimes far beyond what people are willing to invest. Spending time on upfront planning often means spending less time dealing with unexpected issues, delayed deployments, and poor user or customer experience.

If you think you can take a new UC solution and make it work on the same infrastructure you've been using for the last several years, you have another thing coming. (That's probably a fairly shortsighted conclusion.) If you plan deeply enough and consider the realistic needs for your organization, you'll be well ahead of the game.

Microsoft highlights the importance of planning with the three-phase Skype Operations Framework (SOF) it released last month. The SOF provides prescriptive guidance and training for customers and partners to plan, deliver, and operate a successful Skype for Business solution.

In particular, I'm referring to two of the stages in the Plan phase: Envision and Assess. You must envision the complete solution and ensure it aligns with your future vision for communications and productivity in the modern workplace, and you must conduct a network-readiness assessment to understand how your network will perform with the solution and user experience you've envisioned. Spending extra time on this will save countless hours/days, dollars, and gray hair as you'll know where you stand in advance and what remediation steps will need to happen before and during deployment to maximize success.

Ask Questions
How are end users going to interact with the system? Does the infrastructure have the bandwidth and performance necessary to support your needs? If you ask important questions like these early on, you'll avoid unnecessary costs and pain later. We've seen it time and time again -- a customer starts a UC deployment and all works great for the first group of pilot users. It's not until the deployment grows to include a broader set of users that everything starts to fall apart.

Network Assessment
As organizations grow and change, so does the network. Networks are living entities that often change daily or weekly depending on how the organization is changing. Networks are typically designed with the future in mind; however, UC technology has been developing rapidly and much faster than network deployments and upgrades. Additionally, with mergers, acquisitions and expansions, most networks are connected together with multiple vendors and varying levels of performance.

Performing a network assessment before deploying new communication technology is critical to getting a solid picture of where your current network performance is in relation to the performance requirements necessary for a good UC user experience. Also, with the rise of cloud communications services, such as Skype for Business Online in Office 365, there is an additional element of the network outside the organization's LAN/WAN, and across the public Internet or across a private connection to the cloud. Assessing and testing the entire network path from all sites for capacity, configuration, and performance of typical and forecasted communications traffic for voice, video, and desktop sharing will provide an accurate assessment of how the network will perform under the UC load.

Once you have a baseline against the optimal requirements, you can then troubleshoot the identified problems and remediate the issues BEFORE users have a bad experience, which these problems will undoubtedly cause. Having an end-to-end solution that can assess, test, troubleshoot, remediate, and manage the entire user experience on an ongoing basis is really a must-have for any organization leveraging the power of unified communications.

And let's face it, if the user experience is subpar, users will vote with their feet and wallet and find other communications tools, costing organizations millions through lost productivity and shadow IT spending.

Test Early and Often
Testing is another critical component of planning during the pre-deployment phase. Customers often skirt around testing, since it can feel like an extra expense and a burden. They'll say, "I understand that we need to test everything, but let's keep moving forward and we'll get to the testing later." That's exactly the lack of depth in planning that causes problems later on. All too frequently we see a customer put a solution into place without testing the environment to the necessary extent. An example is when an organization sets up a UC solution with SIP trunking and many session border controllers, but fails to establish a method for testing it under full load from the outside-in or inside-out.

You must thoroughly test your UC solution in advance to make sure that it will work as expected and as designed. We recommend full upfront assessment and testing of everything. It's crucial to make sure the system can handle the volume and stress of real-world conditions before the system experiences it in real life.

After you've completed your deployment, you should continue to assess the network and test the system on an ongoing basis. Regular tests could take place hourly, daily, or weekly to ensure that everything is working properly. For example, are the phones answered when you expect them to be answered or did a network element change somewhere internally or even from the carrier? The last thing any user wants is to go to an online meeting or important phone call only to find out that something isn't working, or a customer wants to buy something and is unable to make a transaction or ask a question.

You also have to pay attention to critical nontechnical areas. Obtain constant feedback from users and customers. Whether the information comes from your internal employees or external sources (e.g., from a contact center), feedback is extremely valuable. Is the customer experience as you intended?

Remember, making sure that the technology itself is functioning within expectations is not enough. The purpose of building a robust system is to ensure user satisfaction. Everything in the system could appear to be operating with green lights instead of red, with no obvious problems to report. However, at the end of the day, the user experience trumps all.

If you ask the right questions, pre-assess, and test early and often, you'll be right on track to have an effective UC system, a positive experience for users and customers, and positive ROI for your efforts.