Paul Smith's smart, cool clothes and idiosyncratic accessories have earned the firm a place in the front ranks of British fashion as designer and retailer. But as well as pursuing the cutting edge of fashion, the firm is also a keen adopter of new technologies.

Communications technologies are particularly important to the company. For starters, it has operations in 35 countries and showrooms in many of the world's major fashion capitals: London, Paris, Milan, New York and Tokyo. Secondly, suppliers in Italy and China play an important role in supporting the day-to-day efficiency of the business. And thirdly, hundreds of Paul Smith employees regularly travel between the company's offices, factories, warehouses and showrooms.

Because of this, Paul Smith has been keen to pursue a unified communications (UC) strategy, realising its vision in the summer of 2008 when it implemented a dedicated platform, bringing together the various forms of communication the firm uses, including email, instant messaging (IM), Voice over IP (VoIP) telephony, audio conferencing, and videoconferencing.

From a business point of view, it has helped Paul Smith standardise and simplify its office-based and mobile IT equipment. For the large proportion of employees who travel between the international locations, it means they only have to carry one computing device - a laptop with a Bluetooth headset - and can stay in touch with the office through any preferred mode of communication.

Paul Smith has had designs on digital communications for almost a decade, and was an early adopter of VoIP in early 2000. This was, incidentally, the same year that the founder Paul Smith was granted a knighthood. Born in Nottingham in 1946, Smith started as an assistant in a local clothing warehouse at the age of 18. In 1970, he opened his first shop with a few hundred pounds of savings and took evening classes in tailoring, gradually -developing his own distinctive style.

Six years later, in 1976, he had become a consultant to an Italian shirt manufacturer and showed his first collections in Paris under the Paul Smith label. Since then, the company has become a great British success story, establishing a chain of around 225 shops. It now has an annual turnover of over £300m.

Comms is key

Good technology and strong communications between branches, suppliers and partners have played a vital role in Paul Smith's success, says the firm's head of IT, Lee Bingham. The firm itself has a lean IT team under Bingham's direction with just eight members of staff looking after over 700 users globally, and mainly responsible for network services and support.

"We are an aggressive user of technology and are very technically literate. Where there is a requirement and where we can facilitate business processes, and provide solutions to the business, we will look at using IT," says Bingham.

"The business managers will always be our key sponsors. Ours is a very IT-driven business, and my role is to keep the business fresh and up to date from a technology perspective, and seeing how technology could work within the business model," he explains.

Bingham adds that the size of the business and the IT team, plus the Paul Smith brand itself, have meant that vendors like Microsoft and BT have invited the organisation to take part in several rapid-adoption programmes.

"They like the profile and size of the business, and the agility we have," he says.

For example, Bingham had the opportunity to implement Microsoft's Hyper-V server virtualisation hypervisor at Paul Smith before it was officially released in September 2008. The company used the software as part of a relocation to move data from one warehouse or distribution centre to another.

"The technology fitted the profile of our relocation project, as we had to build a primary and secondary database in parallel and then bring online two bigger data-bases than before," Bingham says.

"This all required twice the server capacity we had. We also wanted to consolidate the hardware as much as possible, rather than buying multiple servers."

Having such a small IT team, Paul Smith relies heavily on its IT services partners for strategic projects. Its allies include Microsoft, BT and Staffordshire-based IT services firm Risual. "We work closely with our partners to pilot technology, and then to implement, configure and support it and this allows us to stay so small," explains Bingham.

The size and global reach of the firm also meant that the retailer was a good candidate for unified communications, and the concept of federation to help lower communication and supply-chain costs.

In summer 2008, Paul Smith implemented Microsoft's UC platform, Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007. The idea was to unify all real-time communications into a single interface and system. The software is designed to help employees work more closely with each other regardless of location, and to use the most appropriate means of communication according to their situation.

OCS was deployed as part of an engagement with Paul Smith's long-term communications service provider, BT Global Services. Paul Smith agreed to pilot BT's Cohesion project, which used the Microsoft software to introduce federated communication across the business, and link it more closely to partners like BT itself.
"When we looked at OCS's impact and usability in the business we saw that there was an immediate value-add for us," Bingham says.

"It's a very tangible product in terms of the cost and time savings it can deliver, so that assessment was very quick."

Paul Smith was also guaranteed the support of a number of dedicated engineers from both Microsoft and BT, who helped with the technology implementation. The project began with a small OCS pilot which involved connecting its Nottingham administration and distribution centre, 12 internal finance staff spread across four different locations, and the eight-person internal IT department.

The second phase saw the firm extend the trial to its London-based finance managers. After that, the firm started to scale out the system to the remote branch offices and showrooms, initially to Paris, and then to Milan and New York. At the same time, Bingham decided to upgrade other core parts of the IT system, bringing in Microsoft Exchange 2007 and Windows Vista along with Office 2007, as well as more powerful Intel-based HP hardware to run the new software.

Step by step

As the trial progressed, Bingham introduced UC in stages, starting with IM, moving onto VoIP, and then to desktop videoconferencing. The most recent trial was so-called multipoint-to-multipoint videoconferencing (where multiple nodes can communicate) between the Paul Smith London and Paris offices, over the organisation's Cisco-based wide-area network.

So far, one of the most surprising results of the trial has been the way in which staff have adopted IM as a means of communication. The firm had experimented with IM about two years previously but lack of integration at the time prevented it from introducing it more widely across the business, and Bingham says he removed the application "for abuse reasons".

But the arrival of OCS meant that IM has now become one of the main modes of communication used by the firm internally. "IM technology has moved on and, in-particular, Microsoft OCS has not only got the level of integration right but also the user interface is as intuitive as you'd expect. IM is saving us huge amounts of time," says Bingham.

The BT Cohesion trial has also brought federated communications to Paul Smith, which basically means that the firm is able to get through to staff and partners more quickly and easily by finding the best means of communicating with them at any given moment.

IM and social networking web sites have used the status indicator for several years, to tell users whether they are available to chat, but OCS extends this concept of ‘presence' by taking information straight from the individual's Microsoft Outlook calendar, and from Active Directory. This information can then be integrated with phone system data to see whether a person is actively on the phone, or on divert to a mobile, for example.

As part of the BT Cohesion project, Paul Smith federated with certain account -management and technical support individuals at BT Global Services, as well as with Risual.

In practical terms, federating with BT has meant that Paul Smith can get a faster response from colleagues at BT Global Services on issues regarding technology implementation, account management, billing and services.

Kerry Burn, head of transformation for BT Global Services, runs the Cohesion project and says, "Once you've got your partners connected by federation, we can offer added features such as the voice -recording of calls, as calls are IP-based."

Paul Smith also installed the OCS client software on BT-provided mobile phones, allowing users to transfer voice traffic between landline and mobile networks, while only paying for a local call.

"Another benefit for Paul Smith of having presence is that it has wiped out text messages for them, and we have seen their mobile bills drop," Burn says.

Alun Rogers, a director at Risual, says that federation allowed it to create a "dynamic environment" in which it could work together with Paul Smith's IT department "without wasting time".

"For example, if you've got a quick question to ask you can use IM to get the information without interrupting someone's schedule," he says.

The next step for Paul Smith is to federate with its supply-chain partners, manufacturers and distributors who are located across the globe in places as far apart as India, China and Italy. If partners are able to use presence to see the current availability and communication preference of individuals with whom they have frequent contact, this could greatly enhance their business processes.

Bingham doesn't see language as an issue, though varying technology platforms could pose a problem. "We tend to source and recruit people who are native speakers, and we have a lot of Chinese, Japanese and Italian speaking people in the business as a whole. The challenges come more from the technical side, where IT systems of our third-party partners are different and unique."

A new vision

One major change that UC is likely to bring to Paul Smith's working practices is the wider use of videoconferencing, a technology the company didn't use at all before the trial.

Bingham envisages the firm using video as the communication method of choice for global inter-office communication. He added this will help to reduce the company's sizeable travel budget, and facilitate quicker decision making.

"Kerry [Burn] and I have frequent conversations over videoconferencing, and like traditional face-to-face communication, you can look each other in the eye," Bingham enthuses.

"There's a certain level of travel in the business that is unavoidable, but we are trying to reduce our travel for the sake of our green agenda. We see video communications in the business as a huge value-add," he says.

"We've always been put off by the cost in the past, but with OCS we have videoconferencing that uses a reliable and easy-to-use interface. Plus video is really easy to upscale so you can shift from IM to voice to point-to-point video from the same interface."

In the future, Bingham anticipates more companies federating with each other via OCS or similar UC platforms.

"At the moment there are few people out there using OCS in the way that we are, so the opportunities for transformation [through federation] are naturally limited," he says.

"But it won't be long before this platform becomes as pervasive as other desktop products, and then things will really start changing fast."

From Nottingham to the Milan catwalk

It was a fluke of chance that turned Sir Paul Smith's head towards the glamorous world of fashion.
Aged 16 and with no qualifications to his name, Smith was working for a clothing warehouse in Nottingham but dreaming of becoming a pro cyclist. But that dream died suddenly when Smith had an accident that left him hospitalised for six months.

On leaving hospital he began to frequent a pub popular with the local art college and his thoughts for the future turned to a career in that world. In 1970 he opened the first Paul Smith shop while taking evening classes in tailoring. By 1976 he had his own label and was showing in Paris.

Today his characteristic trendy twists on classic clothing have made Paul Smith a global brand and he is now the proud owner of 12 collections including PS by Paul Smith, Paul Smith Jeans, R.Newbold (Japan only), Paul Smith Accessories, Paul Smith Shoes, Paul Smith Fragrance, Paul Smith Watches, Paul Smith Pens and Paul Smith Furniture.

The Paul Smith collection is wholesaled to 35 countries and the company has shops in London, Paris, Milan, New York, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, the Philippines, Korea, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. In Japan alone, the brand has over 200 stores but there is also still a Paul Smith in his native Nottingham, where he is now one of the most famous sons of the city, alongside Robin Hood, DH Lawrence and Jesse Boot, founder of Boots the Chemist.

Half of CIOs adopt UC strategy

A recent survey of 100 UK CIOs found that 47 per cent of large UK businesses have a UC strategy. However, only 23 per cent use presence technology that allows end-users to display real-time information on their availability and how they wish to communicate - often in the form of a status indicator.

The study noted that presence was arguably the key component of a successful UC strategy, and without it, firms could diminish the return on a UC investment.

The research also found that almost a quarter of those who had a UC strategy said they benefited from a reduced carbon footprint of 14.5 per cent on average. However, cost reduction was the top board driver for UC deployment, with the green agenda being far less important to CIOs.

The study involved 100 IT managers and CIOs of organisations in the UK with 1000 employees or more. It was conducted by Vanson Bourne on behalf of Dimension Data in June 2008.