Sink or Swim with CTI
By Howard Baldwin
Integrated CTI System
When a company's IS staff is asked to manage its telephones and integrate
them with computer systems, it's best to jump right in.
When Faye Clow was called into her boss's office at Premier Cruise Lines
in Cape Canaveral, FL, three years ago, she expected to be laid off because
the company was downsizing. Instead, the travel firm asked two others in
her department to set sail, and her boss gave Clow, an MIS support specialist,
responsibility for the company's computer and telephone systems. Her first
thought was, yes, the company phone list does need to be updated. Once she
had a better sense of what her boss was asking, her first move was to ask
the accounting department to send over the company's phone bill. Three dollies
stacked with boxes full of bills from local, long-distance and cellular
telephone companies were wheeled into her office. "That was when I
realized I had no idea what I was doing," she says.
As Clow quickly discovered, having responsibility for both the computer
system and the telephone system in a corporation is no simple task. Nor
is it impossible. As telephone systems have progressed from proprietary,
mysteriously managed boxes to digital switches with open software interfaces,
they've come to resemble computer systems. Data is data, after all. This
is an appropriate conjunction, too, because as computer networks have put
more power on the desktop, both users and management expect the two indispensable
devices that sit there--the phone and the computer--to work in concert.
The result is called computer/telephone integration (CTI).
A daunting task? Perhaps. But those who've already been asked to sink or
swim when it comes to these new responsibilities report that the water's
fine. They offer a life preserver to MIS personnel suddenly asked to incorporate
telephony into their responsibilities. Making the transition is a matter
of four strategic steps. First, apply the concepts of data networking to
the phone network (while expecting to learn some new jargon). Second, as
you integrate IS and telephony, manage your resources carefully (both hardware
and people). Third, always remember that the key is not what's best for
the folks in IS or the folks in telecom, it's what's best for the customers.
Finally, when you start implementation, remember to maintain the organizational
skills you used during the integration. Fundamentally, it's a matter of
communication (pun intended).
Figuring It Out
Fortunately, veterans of CTI maintain, learning about telephony is like
learning about other technology. In large part it's a question of talking
to vendors and their customers who've already made the transition. At Premier
Cruise Lines, Clow frequently picked the brains of vendors of computer hardware
and software and telephony alike, but especially the latter. "I had
never administered a PBX [public branch exchange] and had to learn by reading
the manual. They're not well-written," she warns.
It's especially important to keep a level perspective. At the most fundamental
level, you're simply tackling another application. It happens to be a rather
complicated application, and it can match IS phrase for phrase when it comes
to jargon, but what major application doesn't have that? The advice is that
you can survive this, as you did other unfamiliar application areas.
In addition, learning about the subject today is easier now than it was
five years ago. Telephony has been slowly working its way into both local-
and wide-area networks. PBXs, otherwise known as switchboards, are becoming
better integrated with computer systems. PBX vendors such as AT&T, Northern
Telecom and Rolm have been opening up the specifications for the PBXs so
application developers can write drivers and application programming interfaces
(APIs) to incorporate them into networks. At the same time, increased use
of high-speed T-1 lines has made it easier to see how the telephone network
and the computer network work together to transport data. As ISDN becomes
more prevalent, carrying both voice and data simultaneously, the differences
will blur even further.
As a result, many IS people recommend envisioning a single big network.
"Think of it as one thing," suggests David Andrews, director of
operations for Telecharge, a ticket-selling service in New York City. He
views the concept of bringing a T-1 into a phone switch and having 24 channels
as no different than bringing a T-1 line into a multiplexing device and
breaking into 24 channels for data. "Phone switches and automatic call-distribution
systems are computers with memory and CPU and hard drives," he says.
"If you're doing application development, you're going to communicate
with the switch in a standard way with TCP and APIs, just the way you would
talk to any computing device."
Even the diagrams are similar. Think of the phone-to-switch diagram the
same way you'd think of a PC-to-server diagram, suggests Kent Kushar, executive
vice president of J. Frank Consulting in Palo Alto, CA. "It's like
when LAN guys had to understand wiring--they had to understand the actual
facilities where they were working. If you're a data networking person and
you have an understanding of facilities and network components and their
hierarchy [within your organization], then understanding telephony is not
On the other hand, it's important not to understate the dimensions of what
you'll need to learn when telephony falls in your lap. Be prepared to understand
such things as phone call queueing--that is, what happens to calls when
they come into a system before they're answered, because your staff can't
answer 100 percent of the calls immediately; integrating voice-mail systems--some
of which may be proprietary; unification of messaging--that is, creating
universal mailboxes for employees into which voice, e-mail and fax messages
all go; and even phone calling over the Internet. Telephony won't leave
any segment of your IS expertise untouched. For example, because storing
voice recordings, as in a voice-mail system, takes up more space than text,
you'll even have to rethink your storage capacity.
To boost your technical knowledge, sources also recommend attending industry
seminars, such as those sponsored by Business
Communications Review , and trade shows, such as the Computer
Telephony Expo, which is held twice a year. In addition, the part of
AT&T that kept the name, as both a switch vendor and long-distance provider,
sponsors user groups for its toll-free customers, among other constituencies.
You may not have the luxury of becoming comfortable with telephony terms
before you start dealing with staff issues regarding CTI, so you'll be learning
in parallel with your coworkers. The lines between computers and telephones
haven't blurred sufficiently enough to mask concerns of traditional IS and
telecom folks, so you'll have to be prepared to tackle cultural issues as
well. Most people agree that telecom and IS should be combined into one
department, but that's not always easy, as John Bowling recalls.
His firm, PSI Energy, is the public utility for two-thirds of Indiana. It
decided to consolidate its telephone services from 49 regional offices into
its headquarters just outside Indianapolis four years ago. Bowling, now
call center supervisor, made the mistake of raising his hand in a meeting
when one of the executives asked if anyone knew about telephone switches.
"I was in an office once when we installed a new telephone switch,
so I was thereby appointed to be the technical coordinator for our consolidation
effort," he remembers.
His response was to form a team with the telecom and IS departments to meet
on a regular basis, trying to hash out what this CTI was supposed to look
like. It wasn't easy initially. "We were married to each other for
three to four months," he recalls. "We almost ate, drank and slept
together. We traveled to visit sites together. We argued." They debated
the pros and cons of LANs versus WANs, terminals versus PCs, hard-wired
connections versus server-based connections, and other topics. Tensions
arose because both IS and telecom wanted to go with the technologies with
which they were most familiar. The ultimate proposal required a "spirit
of compromise," Bowling says, and the PSI group was successful ultimately
because it focused not on the goals of IS or of telecom, but the goals of
Thrashing out CTI between departments is important to get maximum value
out of those facets that the computer and telephone systems have in common.
"The key is synchronization. Make sure you're solving the problems
once and solving them all together," says Jerry Cohen, principal voice
engineer for Georgia Power in Atlanta, part of the Southern Company conglomerate
of southeastern utility companies. He advises that, however you design your
network topology, it should be the same for both voice and data. For instance,
keep the protocols simple. "Our objective is to go to a single protocol,
rather than multiple protocols working together," he says. Georgia
Power is moving toward TCP/IP, but to do that will require the PBX also
to understand TCP/IP.
You have to be determined to get those efficiencies, Cohen says. "It's
got to be driven by reducing costs. If by combining departments and moving
telecom to the data side, you get lower operation and equipment costs, do
it. Not just 10 percent savings, but 30 to 40 percent savings. If you can't
get that, it's not worth it."
Remember the Customer
Throughout the integration process, it's important to focus on the people
for whom you're doing all this work, insist both IS and telecom folks. It's
to benefit two entities: the business itself and its customers. The customers
may be the customer service representatives who staff the phones and get
screen pops on incoming calls from the mainframe database, or they may be
the people calling in--or both. Recognizing that common goal will keep the
"If it came down to IS, telecom or customer service, customer service
was going to prevail," says PSI Energy's Bowling. He is concerned that
if the technical folks had their way, they'd be likely to come up with technologically
sexy "whiz-bang tricks and gimmicks." But if it's impossible for
the customer service representatives to understand the system, those gimmicks
don't do anybody any good.
Generally, the MIS person has to keep a broader perspective of the company
as a whole, suggests Cynthia Holladay, group marketing manager for telephony
application developer Aspect Telecommunications in San Jose, CA. Even before
MIS brings a telephony application such as automatic call distribution into
a call center, she says, "Ask questions of the people currently managing
that environment. How do they run it? What's important to them?"
Then, Holladay adds, you have to get into the telephony-related details,
such as how much time elapses on average before a call is answered and how
long the caller has to deal with the interactive voice response (IVR) system
that they use to route their call to the correct agent. Once you know these
benchmarks, you need to be able to monitor the system after it's up and
running to make sure you're still achieving these same targets. "You
have to put the metrics in place to see what your costs are and refine the
applications to be more cost-effective," she says. It's fine to focus
on customer service, but to serve the business also, you have to maximize
resources and minimize the cost of running the call center.
Putting It All Together
When it comes time to inaugurate the new system, it's easy to echo the sneaker
ad and say, Just do it. Well, don't. Implementing CTI requires an ongoing
commitment, insist those who have done it, because once you've integrated
the technology, you have to integrate your personnel, too. This may be more
complicated than the planning process discussed earlier, because you'll
be reorganizing the way telecom and IS people work together on a regular
The most important piece of advice seems to be to bring staff under the
IS aegis. Even at PSI Energy, where Bowling doubles as call center supervisor
and telecom switch administrator, two IS people are on what might as well
be permanent loan to his group. Officially, they work for IS, but they spend
all their time in the call center. From a management standpoint, Bowling
calls this a "strategic alliance" between the call center and
the IS department.
Clow of Premier Cruise Lines agrees. Although she believes that learning
about telephony has significantly enriched her career, the circumstances
of her transition were difficult. "If you were going to do this in
a healthy way, you would migrate those people [administering the telephony
system] into MIS," she says. As it was, the person responsible for
the PBX was in administration and the person responsible for the call center
was part of passenger services. "The responsibilities really belong
in MIS, because you're talking about computer systems and everyone in the
company interfaces with them," Clow reasons. If anyone in the company
needs something computer-related, they should be able to call just one place
At the same time, however, you can't ignore the importance of telephony
experience. When Telecharge switched over from an asynchronous data terminal
system to a client/server system, it meant rewiring all its offices. "It
was a spaghetti mess," Andrews recalls, remembering the legacy of wires
that had been installed by Nynex and outside vendors. "There was years
of history in the floor, and there'd been little coordination between factions,"
he says. To avoid making this mistake a second time, the IS department took
over responsibility for the cabling infrastructure, and Andrews added an
experienced telecom person to his staff. If you don't combine telecom and
IS, he warns, "the division of labor becomes ridiculous. It's easier
to have the same thing run by the same person in the same department."
What else can you do? Regular staff meetings that bring together telecom
and IS are both prudent and logical, but IS managers recommend going one
step further when integrating services: cross-train your staff. Teach each
group about the other technologies. After all, you're going to invest in
your own training, so prepare to invest in theirs as well. "You need
to recognize that people are assets and there are costs associated with
those assets," says Andrews. "One of those costs is training.
You already have an employee who has a knowledge base of his process and
the company's process. That's a known quantity. It makes sense to educate
them, because the return will be greater than with someone you hire off
There are other advantages, too. In some companies, the telecom staff is
part of the facilities organization. There's network knowledge going to
waste in that department. By bringing telecom into the IS department, you
gain a knowledge worker who may have been underused in another department,
suggests Henry Thayer, director of voice and data communications at Blue
Cross/Blue Shield of Rhode Island in Providence. "I spread the work
around. I have one of my voice guys doing Internet work now. I'm getting
a better return on my investment by making better use of those skills,"
he says, adding that an IS manager might be pleasantly surprised by getting
to know the telecom staff better. "These people were a lot more literate
about PCs and networks than you thought they might be." In the reorganization
that merged the two groups, Thayer lost two employees. He didn't have to
replace them, however, because combining the group improved its efficiency.
Seems Like Old Times
As noted at the outset, incorporating telephony into your MIS group is mostly
a matter of communication: educating yourself, keeping your staff up to
date and instituting cross-training. And even though adding telephony may
sound as easy as adding any other application, it's important to apply basic
IS management principles. One last piece of advice comes from Georgia Power's
Cohen, and anyone who's tried to roll over one new system to another overnight
will appreciate it.
"Don't [at first] replace a central PBX that handles several thousand
people with 20 servers," he says. Instead, he advises starting at the
edge of the network perimeter and working your way back in. "Go to
an office with 20 people and put in a single PC that's both a PBX and a
file server," he suggests. After that effort is accomplished successfully,
do another and another, gradually moving in toward the central switch. Learning
to do the small stuff right, Cohen says, will make the big installation
If this still seems daunting, again remember that you've already survived
waves of integration. Twelve years ago, it was the advent of PCs. Eight
years ago, it was connecting those PCs into LANs. Four years ago, it was
reengineering how those networks shared information with the mainframe.
Now CTI is coming.
"IS was right in the middle of all that reengineering. They were the
executors of that change," says Kushar of J. Frank Consulting. "Now
that's done, and the concern is on customer service. The IS guys have a
real opportunity to apply the data processing discipline to the telephony
function and use their skills to help the telephony side grow faster."
Howard Baldwin has written for publications focusing on
many sectors of the computer industry. He can be reached at HowardB394@aol.com.