Nov 23 2009

Unified Communications

Colleges enjoy converged office capabilities that cut travel needs and improve customer service.

By Karen D. Schwartz


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Tarrant County College District rivals its much larger counterparts when it comes to communications technology.

Just a few years ago, the two-year college in Tarrant County, Texas, had a simple phone bridge to handle meetings and phone calls between staff at its five campuses and district office. Today, it uses a unified communications system that not only saves the college money, but vastly improves productivity throughout the district.

Like Tarrant County College District, many academic institutions are implementing unified communications: a platform that combines different types of media, such as audio and video, and sometimes includes more advanced capabilities such as collaboration and presence.

The overall goal of unified communications is to improve user communication, productivity and efficiency while reducing human latency and decision-making time, says Sara Radicati, president of The Radicati Group. Unified communications solutions have relevance in many organizational settings and have proved to be a worthy cost-saving and travel-reducing solution, she says.

Breaking Boundaries

Reduction in travel time was one of the main drivers for Tarrant County College District's unified communications deployment, reports Ann Fuller, the college's project manager for unified communications. The institution implemented Nortel Communication Server 1000 and Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 products.

“Before we implemented this system, staff members had to travel to other campuses for meetings, which meant that not only were they unproductive during travel, but we had to reimburse for travel expenses,” says Fuller. “Now departments can hold meetings without employees traveling, which means that people can multitask while attending meetings, mute when they need to, and generally be more productive.”

The system works extremely well, Fuller reports. To initiate a meeting, the meeting leader uses Microsoft Exchange to send out a Live Meeting invitation. During the meeting, participants link to a meeting workspace via Microsoft SharePoint, allowing everyone to see the agenda and the participants. Polycom CX5000 (formerly Microsoft RoundTable) technology provides attendees with a panoramic view of the conference room.

Today, many of Tarrant County College District's departments, including IT, counseling, bursar and registrar, use the system for meetings, and others will soon follow. Eventually, Fuller expects that the unified communications infrastructure also could be used for distance learning.

Western Technical College in El Paso, Texas, has forged a different path to unified communications but enjoys many of the same benefits.

For the private college, which depends heavily on e-mail and voice communications not only for internal communication but also for recruitment and customer service, voice seemed the optimum place to start when considering how best to upgrade its aging PBX system.

IT Director Jose Perez says the college ultimately chose a Cisco solution because it has been using Cisco technology for years and teaches Cisco courses to its students. The basis of Western Technical College's unified communications system is Cisco CallManager, an IP telephony system that adds features such as mobility, presence and conferencing to traditional telephony capabilities. The system allows users to easily initiate an instant messaging session, phone call or video conference.

“It allowed us to put our voice and e-mail on one centralized system, and in combination with Microsoft Exchange, allows for each communication between campuses,” says Perez.

Perez says the system has generated significant savings; for example, reducing telephony cabling costs by 50 percent. In addition, more efficient call handling has improved customer service.

“The system has worked really well – so well that we're looking into adding video conferencing,” Perez says.

Moving Forward

75 million: Number of on-premises enterprise unified communications users by 2013, which represents an annual average growth rate of 20 percent.

The unified communications market is continuing to change, particularly from a phone focus to an entire platform experience, Radicati says. She points to Microsoft's addition of a voice component earlier this year and the release of IBM's Lotus Sametime Unified Telephony system.

In the coming years, Radicati expects more changes, such as the incorporation of social networking, will make the concept of unified communications even more appealing. For example, by combining the two, users might be able to access a click-to-dial feature while browsing a colleague on a business social network.

“There continues to be significant change in the unified communications market, and these changes are moving UC into more common use within organizations,” she says.

A Good Call

Follow these tips for deploying unified communications:

  • Poll your users and department heads about their communication needs.
  • Prioritize your organization's needs (audio, video, collaboration), and choose a solution with strengths in those areas.
  • Build on what you already have. For example, if you have voicemail and e-mail, you can add video conferencing to the mix with the help of a good integrator.
  • Evaluate your current network and communication infrastructure and make sure it can support any systems you are considering.
  • Make sure the system you choose is fully integrated with your security infrastructure.
  • Deploy the system in phases by department or function to catch problems early.
  • Before rolling out the system, fully train your staff about how the new system works.