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Novartis telecom director: VoIP is the cure for all ills

Jun 02, 20037 mins

Telecom pro shares his lessons learned and goals achieved with his VoIP rollout.

Pharmaceutical company Novartis recently took the plunge and installed about 600 IP phones at a new research facility in East Hanover, N.J., and about 400 in a new facility in Cambridge, Mass., linking the systems using part of an OC-12 that runs between them. Director of Telecommunications Marc Shipman spoke with Network World Senior Editor Tim Greene about integrating voice over IP with the old PBX system, planning and executing the project, and lessons learned.

Why voice over IP?

Being the more intelligent phone, we saw some of the advantages first on Sept. 11. The phone is able to send to our security group the office location where that call is coming from. Secondly, because the phone essentially is a Web browser with an eight-line display on it, we can now use it to drive applications. We wanted to position ourselves for future technologies and leverage those technologies in all areas of the business.

So the idea is that we didn’t see a long-term future in the current telephone technologies. We felt the voice-over-IP products that were offered were mature enough. At that point we did an evaluation among several vendors to choose one primary strategic vendor. . . . We picked Cisco. Primary evaluation was between Cisco and Avaya.

Was cost a driver?

No, not really. VoIP was what we believe was slightly less. We felt the long-term cost savings existed. We’re starting to see some small benefits to our moves, adds and changes. Anytime a user moves you don’t have to have somebody come and pick up their PC and plug it into the data network, and then someone else come and move their phone. Now the same person who is moving the PC is taking the phone with them.

Do you get any new phone functionality?

We have three new applications. First it’s the corporate phone directory. You can walk up to the phone, type in a person’s name, and that name will come up with the phone number. All you have to do is hit the dial button. Next we have a world clock. Because we’re a global organization, you can go up to the phone and ask “What time is it?” in corporate headquarters in Basel [Switzerland] or in Japan or in our U.K. location. People struggle with the time difference between here and there and the U.K. The last thing we did, and it’s kind of along the lines of nice-to-have, is you can get the weather. You go up to the phone, type in a Zip Code and it will give you the current weather and the forecast on the phone.

We wanted to have easy-to-use applications that would generate some thought on the part of the end users to say, “Hey, can I do this or do that with the phone going forward?”

Do you use call center or conferencing features?

Not yet. I was hesitant to add new technologies to our call center until we were able to do proper research. I think it’s a natural progression once we feel comfortable with the overall technology.

You will still have traditional PBXs at other facilities?

Yes. Back in East Hanover [in older facilities] we have a mix of Cisco [VoIP] in our research building and sprinkled in other buildings, but it’s primarily a legacy Avaya telephone system.

Were there integration problems?

There were a lot of issues upfront integrating the legacy Avaya — both PBX and voice mail systems — into the Cisco VoIP.

It was getting the voice mail systems and the Cisco VoIP systems to recognize each other, the information signaling that’s going to flow back and forth to be recognized, to have the proper levels of intelligence included on the communications. So when a Cisco phone rang, after three rings we wanted [it] to pass [the call] along to the Avaya voice mail system, understand that the phone call is coming from Marc Shipman and have that voice message acknowledge that I’m not at my desk, please leave a message. I’m trying to be delicate on this one — it should have been off-the-shelf stuff, but we ran into issues.

How long did it take to get it to work?

 It took weeks. That’s where we spent a majority of our troubleshooting time, with the integration of the Cisco phones and the Avaya voice mail and PBX.

What sort of team did you form to handle the projects?

We felt it was going to be a combination of outside consulting resources to provide project management and technical expertise in tandem with the Novartis staff, both voice and data. We didn’t want to see the knowledge leave Novartis after the consultants had finished the engagement. That’s why it was important for the Novartis telecom staff have a close working relationship with the consultants we brought in.

So it’s important to have traditional telephony people still around.

For sure, because we still have several thousand people in East Hanover and many other locations that are using the legacy system.

Some telecom people worry that with VoIP in place, their companies will be able to get along without them.

The telecom voice people early on had some insecurities as to would this new technology force the company to replace them. We spend a lot of time not only educating them in the new technology but also in assuring them that this is just a natural progression in technology and that we would educate them in the new skills. If anything, they’d become more valuable not only to Novartis, but also to the rest of the industry. This is the way the rest of the industry was going. In the event that Novartis ever did no longer need their services, we felt there’d actually be a stronger desire for their services in the outside world. We tried to play it up as a positive.

Did it work?

Yeah, I think so.

What were your major goals for the transition?

The whole thing was to minimize user impact. We knew we had to teach them how to use a new phone to a certain degree, but we didn’t want to have to teach them how to use a new voice mail system. That’s why we stayed with the Avaya voice mail. We didn’t want to come across as all these technology bullies who hadn’t played with this new stuff before so let’s try it out here. The phone is such a basic instrument to their daily life that we couldn’t interrupt them too much.

What lessons did you learn?

I would have spent more time and energy upfront understanding the integration between the legacy and the new Cisco infrastructure instead of going through the trials and tribulations during the project.

I would have educated the telecom folks a little more upfront, given them a little more hands-on so they’d get a better understanding of the direction we were moving, allay some of their fears as far as what direction the company is going and deal with their job security.

I would make sure you had a consulting firm you had a lot of confidence in, both in their technical skills and their project-management methodology.