Many agencies have a siloed approach to unified communications (UC), meaning that they deploy voice, video and data independently of each other and without a unifying strategy. As a result, they are challenged to deliver a consistent, high quality user experience, and they end up with a more complicated network to manage. By unifying voice, video and data services, IT organizations have the ability to streamline the management of the network infrastructure and deliver a high quality, integrated experience to their users. That means providing the ability to connect people, not devices – connect them regardless of whether they are using a dedicated video endpoint, desk phone, laptop, tablet, or smartphone. Whatever device they are using, users can be assured of a consistent, high-quality experience in which they are able to communicate in the most effective and efficient way possible. When the experience is consistent across workers, whether office based, mobile or teleworkers, IT is positioned to provide a significant impact to the mission side of the business by being a true enabler of citizen services.
By integrating voice, video and data networks, an agency will achieve the means to maximize its investment in infrastructure and networking assets. Rather than supporting disparate access and network technologies for voice, video, and data, an agency can now leverage a single “pipe” and intelligent backbone to support true converged services. This is accomplished through the use of IP-based technologies leveraging a quality-of-service framework to ensure applications are given proper precedence and treatment across a converged network. Collapsing at the network layer also eliminates cost, with an agency’s operational expense now tied to a single access and backbone infrastructure. Implementing a converged infrastructure also will enable the use of mobility as business applications will now be extensible to smart devices (smartphones and tablets), which could lead to better support for enterprise telework initiatives. Numerous government agencies are exploring ways to save operating expense in real estate. Mobility and telework use cases provide a means to reduce significant costs.
When an IT organization can take a strategic, architectural approach to providing unified communications and deliver critical services that help the agency meet its strategic objectives more efficiently and effectively, it makes them an integral part of the agency mission. UC can provide a consistent experience for voice, video and data, connecting employees not only to people within the agency but also across departments and outside of government -- to include citizen services. That is a very powerful resource. In addition, with the proliferation of cloud services for unified communications, IT organizations can streamline the management of the UC platform under a single umbrella, alleviating the pressure of managing the network and freeing up IT resources to focus on more strategic initiatives.
Instead of operating and managing disparate networks, an agency would only be required to manage a single network infrastructure. Additionally, network sizing becomes easier and more streamlined. All applications using the intelligent network can be viewed within a single pane of glass. Additionally, an agency can right-size its bandwidth usage and build a backup solution that is more cost-effective and resilient. An agency can choose to manage the entire ecosystem by itself or partner with a services provider to oversee such tasks as incident management, configuration management, change management, patch management, performance reporting, voice quality reporting, and to establish and enforce service level agreements.
Given that a single unified platform can be used to communicate with peers not only within the organization but across agencies and with citizens, the possibilities for increasing productivity, while lowering expenses, are vast. UC can provide very tangible benefits, such as expediting decisions, reducing travel, and enabling telework. It can also provide intangible benefits, such as unifying a geographically-dispersed workforce, providing more efficient meetings, and fostering a better balanced work/ life environment. As voice, video and information sharing tools become increasingly pervasive throughout an organization, we also see opportunities to integrate UC into government processes and to simplify the ways in which citizens engage with agencies. There are certain caveats to this, though. To maximize the potential of a UC deployment, it has to be ubiquitous across the organization. From the top down, workers need to have access to the same tools to be able to collaborate effectively and that is where taking an architectural approach becomes critical.
By consolidating disparate networks into a single infrastructure and then extending the capabilities of IP beyond the network and into the mobile environment, agencies can make business applications available to the mobile worker. Mobile workers can continue to be productive outside of the office because not only can they access enterprise applications but can they can be reached as if they were present within a wired environment. Voice and video conferencing can be supported over a smart phone or tablet. Data and files can be shared over wireline and wireless systems. Collaboration with people and systems are no longer dependent on geography. Because employees now will be able to collaborate instantaneously while having access to enterprise data immediately, decisions can be made quickly. So not only does unified communications increase the productivity of employees, but it also enables agencies to make decisions with great agility, which will improve services to constituents and customers.
The opportunities here are endless. Once an agency has a solid foundation on which to deploy UC applications, it can be transformational. When you consider the diverse needs of different government organizations -- from DOD and the Intelligence community to the multitude of civilian agencies -- the environments are vastly different. But fundamentally it comes down to securely sharing information within and between organizations, and that is the heart of collaboration.
Agencies struggle when they develop silos of unified communications and then try integrating them after the fact. Think about building a house: It’s much more difficult to rewire a house after the walls are up. The same holds true for collaboration architecture. Agencies will see a much greater return on their investment in UC if they execute it according to a strategic vision – with clear near- and long-term objectives in mind – than if they put it together piecemeal.
When you have a strategic architectural approach to your collaboration platform, it provides the flexibility for employees to work and collaborate in a seamless fashion, using the device that works that works best for them. This is why it is so valuable to have a UC platform as part of a bring-your-own-device initiative. You can have an employee in the office using a room- or desktop-based video system to communicate with a teleworker using a software client to collaborate with a mobile worker who is on a tablet – and they all have the same high quality experience.
Once the infrastructure is in place, an agency can take advantage of the flexibility enabled through IP to tailor is collaboration portfolio in a variety of ways. An agency can create policies around user groups, security profiles, location and applications that are specific to how a user or group of users would consume its collaboration toolsets. Certain users may have permission to use the entire collaboration suite (voice, video, data and privileged apps), while, depending on work requirements and privilege, other users may have permissions only to use voice and data applications. The management toolsets can be configured in any way to optimize and define usage. Policy definition can be managed on a per-user basis as well. End-users can define how they want to be viewed internally and externally –as available, in a meeting, away, not available, etc. End-users also can define how they want their calls to be routed. For instance, a user can define policies that route most users to voice mail while routing certain high-priority users to a phone. A user can promote voice calls to video calls while collaborating on content over the web. These capabilities can be utilized on a wired IP-based video phone or on a mobile device. Ultimately, it all depends on how an agency defines its acceptable-use policies.
We really begin to see the transformational nature of this technology when organizations adopt a philosophy that collaboration tools such as videoconferencing and telepresence are not just for executives but should be available to everyone across the board. That enables workers at all levels to collaborate up and down the chain, as well as across organizations. This is where collaboration tools can help break down organizational stove pipes and facilitate the sharing of information in a way that is highly efficient and productive. But it’s not enough to deploy the technology – agencies need to make sure that their users are comfortable with it enough to adopt it on a broad scale and make it a significant part of their business processes. By instituting policies and programs that compel end-users to take full advantage of the UC capabilities, they will see a far greater return on their investment.
The first step would be for an agency to evaluate how it would intend to use unified communications and then map its uses to specific business functions. It’s often a good idea to perform a baseline evaluation of the agency’s existing environment to ascertain what toolsets could be employed as part of a consolidated unified communications implementation -- which would be considered as sunk investments -- and where new investments might need to be considered. Mapping specific use cases by agency department to features within the unified communications framework would then provide guidance on how the converged environment would be deployed and ultimately used. Employing this discipline will serve to establish a policy framework. The user base must include all tiers of an agency hierarchy, extending from senior management to individual contributors.
Web conferencing traditionally has been a meeting application unto itself, used independently of other UC applications. People would get on a WebEx meeting, or they would get on a videoconference, but the two didn’t mix. Now we are seeing web conferencing applications being integrated with telepresence and video conferencing to provide large-scale, high-quality, virtual meetings. We see web conferencing becoming another facet of the dynamic meeting experience – and another tool in the UC toolbox that enables collaboration, versus a standalone mechanism.
I see web conferencing being used as an effective means to reduce costs in a budget-constrained environment. Users now can collaborate immediately not only through video but around content. Agencies can improve productivity by maximizing time otherwise spent on travel to meet and arrive at decisions more quickly.
At Cisco, we believe that for video conferencing to be a viable alternative to a face-to-face meeting, it needs to be a robust, high quality experience. We see high-definition video (or pretty close to it) as a requisite for these scenarios. Most of us have used consumer-grade web applications for video. And while you might find that sufficient for chatting with your family and friends, our government customers need be assured of a high-quality experience, one that is so natural and reliable that users can forget about the device and focus on the conversation. When that happens, video conferencing changes how government workers collaborate.
This technology is invaluable for situations requiring a “real life” experience, where the dynamics of a meeting requires people to be able to see each other and interact as if they were all in the same room. Additionally, there could be situations in which high-definition quality video is required to send vivid and detailed content for evaluation purposes – for example, visuals to make a medical prognosis, and situational awareness information for law enforcement, the battlefield and critical infrastructure protection.
For UC to be truly effective, it needs to extend beyond the office to the mobile worker, to the home worker, to other agencies and even citizens. And for this to happen, the appropriate levels of security need to be in place. Government customers have diverse needs when it comes to security, and so it’s important that the IT organization’s UC team tightly align their work with the security team. Agencies that engage their security counterparts early in the planning process are much more successful than those that try to implement security after the fact.
At Cisco, we believe that security should be inherent throughout all facets of the network and integral to the deployment of every system. Our security and UC offerings are multi-platform and OS-agnostic, so they provide users with a secure, consistent experience, whatever device they use. When you take this strategic architectural approach to your UC network and make security part of the conversation from the beginning, you go a long way toward mitigating future risk.
An agency will need to revisit its security policy when introducing a unified communications initiative, with a focus on refining policies to support converged applications across a single network while also incorporating a mobile infrastructure. Firewall policies will need to be adapted to accommodate the proper treatment of voice-over-IP, video and other business-oriented applications. Previously, in a wired-centric environment, an agency’s enterprise security posture was limited to firewalls, content management, and other perimeter security appliances. But now employees now have a variety of devices from which to perform business functions, so agencies need to extend their systems and policies to the mobile ecosystem. Smart devices will need to be managed remotely through a mobile device management (MDM) platform, and user credentialing will need to be extended to smart devices. Likewise, users accessing an agency enclave from a smart phone or tablet, rather than a laptop, still require a means of authentication. The security considerations to protect assets and intellectual property remain consistent, in principle, with policies that defined disparate infrastructures – the scope now expands.
It is critical to provide all employees with the same high-quality experience whether they are working at home, in the field, or in the office. Such consistency is becoming more of a challenge with the adoption of bring-your- own-device policies, as IT managers find themselves managing multiple devices on different platforms. That’s why at Cisco, we believe in being platform- and operating system-agnostic. We want to ensure that consistency of capability in delivering video from wherever you may be located. The device might be different, but the experience should be the same. In addition to the technology, agencies need to be aware of implementing policies and programs to support a remote workforce. For example, if they require IT support, is there a documented process? In addition, as mentioned earlier, it’s important to have programs in place to ensure that all workers are comfortable with new technology and are maximizing the usage and adoption.
Unified communications is one of the key enablers of remote telework. Agency employees will now have access to business applications through a smart device. Additionally, an agency employee’s “presence” – that is, whether they are in a meeting, away or available -- can now be extended to the mobile environment, with phone call treatment now managed through a web-enabled central portal. An agency can actually save operating expense in real estate, since employees, using unified communications, can continue to be productive anywhere.
In today’s environment, UC is largely a tool for internal communications within agencies. As these tools become increasingly pervasive across government organizations and at the consumer level, unified communications could become a greater part of the processes that agencies use to engage with citizens. We are seeing it on the state and local level with Connected Justice, in which citizens engage with courts remotely to expedite the judicial process, making it possible both to increase efficiency and lower costs. We see similar opportunities to use UC to improve constituent services at the federal level, such as conducting grant reviews at the National Institutes of Health, designing enhanced taxpayer services at the Internal Revenue Service, or adjudicating cases within the Social Security Administration.
I believe unified communications will be synonymous with mobility. Not only will unified communications provide the framework to converge disparate networks and applications (voice, video and data), but it also will make those applications available to the mobile user. Use cases for mobile communications will extend into the fields of law enforcement, health care, the military and more. I also believe machine-to-machine applications will become an integral part of mobility and unified communications. The name of the game will be the collection of data. Information being collected from the field and processed centrally will facilitate real-time decision-making. This will result in saved lives, greater safety for the warfighter and law enforcement, increased productivity for civilian workers – all while maximizing the budget and increasing operational efficiencies.
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