Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Eureka Moments and Death of the Deskphone

I’ve been here in the Caymans for six months now. We’ve got a nicely defined 2-3 year IT Roadmap and strategic plan and we are starting to chip away at it. A recent independent assessment—sort of a mini audit—rated 12 areas of our IT state of affairs. At my request, the assessment team rated the 12 areas on a scale of 1-10 according to generally accepted best practices, with 10 being the best. We averaged 2.8 out 10, so I’m a little worried that my dreams of enjoying Mother Nature and the locale might suffer during the next 2-3 years.

We’ll see… anyway, on our Roadmap is a plan to convert to VoIP telephony in the next 9 months. The previous plan, before my arrival, was to convert to VoIP this year, but that was a bit na├»ve, given the incredibly decayed state of our network cabling infrastructure, and overall network design—very flat and wide. The infrastructure can barely stay afloat providing data services, and I wouldn’t want to risk voice services on top of that, too.

That sets the stage for the new play: “Death of the Desk Phone” (aka: The Evolution of a Eureka Moment)

Scene 1: Stuck in old thinking about new VoIP. Pulling out my old files, searching My Documents for old project plans, standing in front of a white board drawing familiar diagrams of the past– Planning a traditional VoIP conversion, much like what we went through at Northwestern the last couple of years.

Scene 2: Negotiating cellular discounts. Huddled around a table with vendors on one side, me on the other, each of us with notebooks and calculators. While planning the “done it before” VoIP conversion, I’m also renegotiating new rates for cell phone services which, as the phrase goes, is a race towards zero margins for the vendors, once again. Likewise, the new billing models benefit from dual SIM technology to make cost control a nicely shared accountability between the health system and the employee.

Scene 3: Never at my desk during work hours. An empty office chair, the landline telephone ringing. (If a phone rings in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?) I’m running around to this meeting and that meeting so frequently, nobody can ever reach me at my office phone. They leave messages on my voicemail or with my Assistant and I try to return their calls when I can. I go so far to change the signature block on my email to read that I’m “rarely there” next to my office phone, hoping that people will instead call my cell phone so I can stop managing two voicemails.

Scene 4: No fixed-line home phone. A lonely, dusty old Panasonic wireless landline phone, wrapped and strangled in its cord, sitting in a storage box. I haven’t had a landline home phone in almost 4 years.

Scene 5: Look to the kids for a peak of the future. A college dorm, buzzing with the energy of youth. I read an article in the Chicago Tribune that lists the things that you will no longer find in a college kid’s dorm room: CD tower, ironing board, alarm clock, boom box, heating plate, and a landline telephone. The University of Illinois eliminated landline telephones this year in their dorms, and nobody noticed except the parents.

Scene 6: I finally get it (Eureka!). Late at night, all alone, staring out my dark office window at the parking lot below… then my eyebrows raise and I rub my chin thoughtfully and nod in agreement with my thoughts. The other scenes come together into my recognition that the old-school landline office desk phone is dying… and if it’s dying, why should I invest a handsome sum of money in a VoIP conversion which, for the most part, perpetuates the old-school telephone environment?

Scene 7: New VoIP Strategy. Another meeting room with vendors on one side of the table and me on the other, but now we’re all excited…laughing and cajoling about this great new strategy and the limitless possibilities of a truly mobilized and affordable healthcare system. I’m meeting with my telephony vendors to craft a strategy that will essentially turn our 800-employee public healthcare system into a mobile telephone environment, eliminating as many fixed line office phones as we possibly can and minimizing any investment which keeps the landline telephone system on life support.

Scene 8: Mobile, shiny, happy people, R.E.M. style. My feet propped out in front of me on a lounge chair, relaxing on the beach, taking care of business — Bachman Turner Overdrive style — reveling in the beauty of the mobile healthcare environment. Oh sure, we’ll still need landline phones in a few key areas… but 5 years from now, I’m betting we have 80% fewer landline office phones than we do now. Eight years from now, we’ll be completely cellular…?

So, if you are a smaller healthcare system, trying to stretch every dollar, and haven’t converted to VoIP yet, you might give this strategy some thought. And you might want to consider the universal stages of my Eureka moment. Make time for observation, reflection, and a willingness to take on reasonable risk. Nobody got fired for renewing their landline contracts and nobody dies when they take the safest route… but neither do we excel.

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