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Migration – How did Cisco IT get from Legacy PBX to Unified Communications?

There is plenty of reading collateral out on the internet that covers the “technology” side of migrating from a legacy voice system to IP Telephony and Unified Communications (e.g. Cisco Collaboration Systems Migration and the Cisco IT Migration Best Practice) but not much that covers the human aspects that need consideration. They are often overlooked or left until too late despite being key factors that influence the quality and cost of the delivery and operation of the services as well as the ability to maximize the value on the investment. They can be the hardest part to get right. Here are some thoughts based on Cisco IT’s experience in migrating tens of thousands of employees to Unified Communications.

In order to migrate tens of thousands of users to the new voice platform, we needed to have business support for the change and great executive sponsorship. Luckily, we had both. Our CEO, John Chambers, was a driving force toward adopting Unified Communications inside Cisco and our senior leadership both within the business and within IT were on board. They helped create an awareness of the new technology and a willingness to try it.

Any change you make to a user environment will generate confusion and resistance if the change is not planned for and managed. Cisco IT can change the network architecture or replace data center servers while employees continue their work, blissfully unaware of the wheels of IT infrastructure turning away in the background. Try to change the phone on their desk and you’ll find out the sort of possessive creatures of habit your workforce really are. Sometimes the simplest differences in experience or workflow can cause significant disruptions to productivity. These changes need to be considered and user reaction and responses forecasted so that appropriate change management can be prepared.

To minimize disruptions caused by the new platform, you should understand how your employees use existing voice services by performing an audit on your existing platform. Plan a strategy for each use case. For instance, we found that executive admins were often the heaviest phone users in the companies, and their work processes and phone configurations were often customized to support them. We also found a lot of other unique use cases – labs, private fax machines and other analogue line instances. Some remote locations had customized their telephony environments through working with local PBX service companies. We found that a lot of the PBX configurations had simply grown organically over time beyond the scope of any IT documentation about the systems. Identifying these exceptional users, and these exceptional locations and designs, is important for a smooth migration.

You are bound to find surprises when moving some user groups onto a new platform and it is important to keep the user experience in mind. Educating new users about the functions of their upgraded telephony ensures they are using all relevant features for their specific job functions and increasing their efficiency.

With that said, I don’t recommend migrating customization configurations to your new platform unless it is business-critical. Migrating to a new technology platform is a fantastic opportunity for housekeeping and standardizations that will further enhance the efficiency of your IT operation and eventually, your employees’ work practices now and in the future. The Cisco UC platform offers opportunities for leveraging the API’s to automate IT processes for managing telecom moves, additions and change, however to maximize its benefits, the key is to drive strong adherence to standards. Having a robust business change program in place to manage user/business groups through the migration equates to better workflows and practices. We found a lot of customizations were to provide multiple configuration methods to achieve the same business requirement. It is important to tie back configurations to the actual business requirements whenever possible. This will offer a much clearer opportunity to standardize and consolidate configurations.

The training component of the new technology has been an interesting part of the migration process. Being a technical organization, training has never been a strong point at Cisco IT –we rely heavily on users self-servicing their training needs. In the early days of our IP telephony deployment, however, we did live, room-based training sessions with employees and allowed users to interact with the technology prior to the migration. We brought in key executive admins and walked them through their new phone capabilities, asking them to be our champions in introducing the new technology throughout their buildings and locations. We also gave out laminated “quick user guides” with the phones. Today, we rely more on social media, like internal WebEx Social sites and video how-to guides to provide training to new employees joining the company. We still leverage our executive admin community as our key focus group for introducing communications technology since they play a key role in our executive’s productivity, in addition to being great connectors to their respective organizations. To reiterate the importance of standardization again: the more standard your configuration is the less you will need to spend on training material and delivery.

Be aware of the cost of managing a drawn out migration period and look to take business decisions that will enable you to expedite full transition to the new platform. Managing platform integrations can be a complex area, which leads to higher support costs due to the higher risk failure domain. Only plan on providing backwards integration of the legacy platform to support business or mission-critical services as a short interim agreement with your business clients. Ensure an agreed term and a commitment between business and IT to migrate or obsolete the use case. Be prepared to make some tough decisions to lower costs and reach the end goal faster. The best solution is to minimize this period as part of any migration strategy to avoid spending costs on what is a transitional phase.

One concern we hear from customers is: “What happens to our voice engineers?” as if they will suddenly become redundant once voice becomes just another data networking application. We’ve found the opposite to be true. The voice environment is very different from the traditional data networking environment, and voice engineers have necessary skills that are hard for data engineers to duplicate. Understanding voice change management requirements, dial plans, call routing requirements for least-cost routing, telephony regulations, contact center call-control and handoff requirements, voicemail service and storage requirements, and more are not normal skills for data engineers, but critical to a functioning Unified Communications solution.

Even today, after 12 years of Unified Communications, the role that voice engineers play at Cisco is still a valuable one. UCM is still foremost a voice platform providing voice services to the business. Traditional telecom skills are extremely valuable in ensuring the services offered to the business on the new platform continue to meet business requirements for voice. We still have most of our site’s voice gateways using ISDN PRI to deliver PSTN and the practices for deployment, management, and support of PRIs hasn’t changed much over the years – just the routing platform has changed. What we will see over the next 10 years is SIP becoming more and more common for all voice network interconnections. Cisco IT has already migrated our larger voice PRI connections to SIP and migrated our contact center interconnections to SIP for reduced cost and better call control. So if not started already – it’s time to get familiar with SIP as a control protocol for inter-network voice.

This is not to say that you can effectively or efficiently manage your Unified Communications system with traditional voice skills alone. Be prepared to add system administration, application development, management and automation and networking engineering skills to your Unified Communications service teams. A great opportunity arises to develop and cross train existing staff across your IT organization. The top technical talent in any organization always relishes the opportunity to learn and acquire new skills. I recommend you give a broad set of your IT organization an opportunity to be a part of your IT service transformation!

For more information on service management and support, check out my blog series on IP Telephony.

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