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Rethinking Implementation Planning for the UC World

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Implementation planning for communications technology solutions has evolved over recent years, although vendor methodologies lack consistency. Still, what used to pass for acceptable procedure or even best practice is no longer the right way to optimize the opportunity for successful installation.

A legacy PBX vendor often still uses the same approach that worked for years with telephony cutovers. Most every industry veteran can recall the long weekends of a large flash cut to a completely new PBX, replete with copious amounts of coffee, cross-connects, and cold pizza. Many a telephony tech made more money in overtime on cutovers than regular pay, albeit at a cost to family time.

A vendor with an IT background is more likely to recall a cutover as a rolling process that usually required long periods of overlapping solutions. In many cases, scheduling was fluid and communications with users was often vague to provide the needed flexibility. The technical team was often engrossed in dealing with the application or configuration problems that surfaced after the latest round of go-live cutovers, especially during the early stages.

Today's communications solutions inevitably require both telephony and IT elements, and implementation planners should learn from the experiences of each group. However, neither approach is sufficient without acknowledging the deficiencies in old practices and the impact on the organization. The lessons learned should include analysis of the strategies, not merely the efficiencies of the tactics used.

Scheduling
One of the first implementation planning discussions usually covers the best night for undertaking cutovers that might affect service. Perhaps not surprising, many (formerly PBX) vendors still push for Friday night/weekend cuts -- supposedly to give them more time to deploy sets and fix problems. However, avoiding Fridays is a good idea for many reasons.

First of all, external personnel are more difficult to locate on weekends if any issues develop; this includes experts at both the manufacturers and the carriers. Second, Monday mornings are often a peak time for many companies, and the added pressure of a new system and process are an unwelcome burden for employees. What's more, training from the week before is often forgotten (more on this later). Departments or clients that are 24x7 will appreciate avoiding Friday night cuts, too. Of course, Monday must be a first day of service in some cases, such as when a client moves between locations over a weekend.

The other early discussion about scheduling is how to roll out the new capabilities/features of a unified communications system. We often review the following three options:

Click to the next page for more guidance, including on pilot testing and training

Pre-Cut Preparation
Almost everyone in the business today is aware (or should be) of the need to prepare the data network and infrastructure before cutover to a VoIP system. Despite this, many a vendor has planned to install Power over Ethernet switches the same night as a user cutover, or to update desktop software during the download of the new PC client software, which often isn't pushed out until the night before go-live. A host of other infrastructure basicsshould be part of the preparation, not part of the cutover. These include things like ensuring adequate power and availability of uninterruptible power supplies where desired in the telecommunications rooms. And don't forget to make time for all the new tasks, such as cleaning up Active Directory listings, that are not part of traditional telephone installations.

One option that exists with a VoIP replacement of a traditional PBX is the ability to deploy the telephone sets in advance (since they use different cables/outlets). This may save a bit of time on the night of cutover, but it does not work if the current system is already VoIP. If the user is going to move to a software-only (no desk phone) configuration, the software should be loaded in advance. In most cases, these early installs will enable the user to check out the new system in advance, since internal calling could work even if the user's primary telephone extension still rings to the old system.

A legacy telephone cutover trick that still has value is to half-tap the analog ports. Then converting from the old PBX circuit cards to the analog gateways is much faster and avoids mistakes from cross-connect errors on cut night.

Carrier Services
Almost anyone in the business can relate horror stories around otherwise well-planned cuts derailed by a carrier-related problem. Although porting DID numbers is still often a bit of a dice roll, certain steps can minimize the risks and impacts. The most obvious is to pre-install circuits to the new system and perform validation testing using first test numbers and then later the pilot users. Then there is the typical plan to interconnect the old system to the new and use dial plan/routing updates to move calls between the two systems seamlessly, even if the carrier is not cooperating.

Pilots and Testing
Some vendors (and customers) look at pilots as little more than proofs of concept. However, we have learned that a good implementation schedule will include much more time for the pilot users to test the solution.

The project team needs to focus on lessons learned and incorporate them into the plan, not just fixing the "big" problems. This usually includes updating training plans, adjusting deployment schedules, altering configurations, and improving communications. Testing should not just verify that the system is working, but should be repeated for each go-live group to validate that the unique applications and configurations (such as menus, call routing instructions, etc.) match business requirements.

Training
Don't believe vendors when they say their products are so intuitive that no training is necessary. Many recent No Jitter articles have touched on this (including by 8 Tips to Ramp Up User Training, Training for UCC -- Is It Needed?, Let There Be Training, and Train in Vain?). Just as important, though, is the timing of the training. Training should be scheduled for as close to a user go-live date as possible, preferably the day before the first day of service. This is further support for the idea that cutovers are better when the first day of service does not follow the weekend.

Companies should embrace new training concepts too. These include on-line video training and quick how-to shortcut instructions. In addition, having a department "expert" than can help co-workers can boost training success.

To reiterate, training is a necessity. Experience tells us that about three out of every four calls to the help desk on the first day of service are from users who did not go to training.

Communications
As suggested above, a good idea is to have knowledgeable business users to assist their colleagues in getting the most out of a system. Consider these folks as solution champions -- evangelizing to their coworkers and serving as liaisons to the project team. These key users are likely to be excellent contributors to the ongoing lessons learned process.

Today's UC systems need the structure of the old PBX deployment plans combined with the flexibility of the IT approach to complex system implementations. Best practices must continue to evolve to keep pace with the demands of the organization for smooth transitions.

"SCTC Perspectives" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communication technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.

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