The Case for Convergence in Communications

By taking a proactive approach, IT managers show administrators that unified communications can increase productivity, improve communications and reduce costs.

By taking a proactive approach, IT managers show administrators that unified communications can increase productivity, improve communications and reduce costs.

For Butler University's IT department, making the case for unified communications was fairly easy. When the staff priced new telephone systems, Voice over IP (VoIP) cost about the same as a PBX, yet offered added features that improved communications, collaboration and campus safety.

The Indianapolis university replaced its 15-year-old traditional phone system in 2005 with a Cisco VoIP system that includes an improved call center and a new notification system that lets university police broadcast emergency messages campuswide. In February, the IT department integrated Microsoft Exchange with its VoIP system, offering users the ability to check their voicemail through their PC and smartphone e-mail inboxes. And in the coming year, the department is hoping to add web or video conferencing, further boosting worker productivity.

"Five years ago, we saw the vision of unified communications and smart devices coming down the road and wanted to do more with voice than just pick up the telephone. And it's been wildly popular," says Joe Indiano, Butler's senior director of networks and systems.

Colleges are increasingly adopting unified communications because it empowers administrators, faculty and staff with new ways to communicate and collaborate, resulting in increased productivity, more reliable communication and cost savings. Adoption nearly tripled over the past two years, with the number of colleges that fully implemented unified communications growing from 6 percent in 2009 to 17 percent in 2011, according to the 2011 CDW Unified Communications Tracking Poll. The survey polled 900 IT managers in education, healthcare, government and business, 150 of whom work in higher education.

Unified communications is the convergence of voice, video and data services and software applications, which boosts collaboration and improves business processes. From their computers, faculty and staff can call, instant message or hold video or web conferences with one another or with other colleagues.

"A lot of the benefit is the convenience factor," says Daniel O'Connell, a Gartner analyst. "You can dial someone's number from your e-mail client. You have the ability to check presence of someone and know who's available to chat. And you can check your voicemail in your e-mail and play them as .wav files."

UC Benefits

In the CDW survey, 41 percent of respondents say securing funding is their biggest challenge for deploying unified communications. However, some colleges say they didn't have such problems because they were strategic with their approach. These schools timed their pitches to coincide with needed network upgrades and the replacement of aging PBX systems. And they successfully convinced their administrators that a VoIP and unified communications system was more cost-effective and offered better features and a better return on investment.

76%

Among those surveyed who have fully implemented unified communications, the percentage who say UC has met or exceeded their return-on-investment expectations

SOURCE: 2011 CDW Unified Communications Tracking Poll

Butler, which has reaped the benefits of unified communications for several years, is one such institution. For its deployment, the IT staff integrated Microsoft Exchange and Outlook with the university's phone directory, allowing faculty and staff to view an online phone book on the screen of their new IP phones. They can scroll through to find a contact and select a name to dial out, Indiano says.

The IT department also deployed two other unified communications technologies: contact center technology, which improved customer service, and mass emergency notification, which improved campus security.

Before the new system was deployed, the university did not have call center technology. Customer service agents had no idea how many people were calling nor how long it took to answer calls, says Chad Miller, systems engineer. People calling the IT help desk or student services would get busy signals or be placed on hold, or the phones would ring until they were answered.

Cisco Unified Contact Center software lets the university's call center agents queue callers and see call volume. And if it's busy, they can quickly get other employees to assist with calls, Indiano says.

The university also installed Singlewire Software's InformaCast emergency notification system. If a natural disaster, security threat or other emergency strikes, university police can quickly alert employees by blasting voice or text messages to each IP phone on every desk. Voice messages are broadcast live through the units' speakerphones.

"The university has 100 acres of ground, and if a tornado is coming through, the phones allow us to push out alerts to every corner of the university," Indiano says.

Butler University continues to add new features. This year, the university upgraded to the latest version of Cisco's VoIP system, called Cisco Unified Communications Manager. During the upgrade, the university switched to Microsoft Exchange 2010 for voicemail, providing users with unified messaging for the first time. Employees can now listen to their office voicemails as .wav files in their PC's e-mail inbox. They can also use their smartphones to access their office voicemail and e-mail when they are out of the office or in meetings.

"It's taken off like wildfire," Indiano says. "They are seeing computing and voice come together. Most office workers tend to be Outlook-centric, so being able to handle all their messaging in one inbox makes them more efficient."

Go Slow

College IT administrators advise universities to limit the scope of their UC projects and focus on the essential features – don't try to deploy a full implementation all at once. If users and the IT staff want more features later, implement them in phases. Doing so is more cost-effective and makes the implementation process easier, says Geoffrey Starnes, network systems and security manager at Stark State College in North Canton, Ohio.

In addition, universities don't have to lock themselves to one manufacturer, says Cathy Horvath, IT director at Minot State University, in Minot, N.D. As long as products are compatible, IT departments can use multiple UC manufacturers to get the best prices for features they want. That's how Minot State successfully deployed unified communications, choosing ShoreTel's VoIP system, Microsoft Exchange Unified Messaging and Microsoft Office Communications Server. Minot State tested and successfully deployed one UC tool before moving on to the next, Horvath says.

69%

The percentage of those surveyed who are evaluating, deploying or have fully deployed unified communications using a cloud model

SOURCE: 2011 CDW Unified Communications Tracking Poll

At Stark State College, Starnes limited the scope of his project to what was essential for his school: a new Cisco VoIP system with call center technology and an emergency notification system. He configured Cisco's "find me, follow me" feature, which routes office phone calls to people's cell phones and smartphones. But he decided against implementing unified messaging and video conferencing because those two features weren't critical to the college.

"There is so much you can do. The boundaries are pretty big. If you set out to implement everything, the project will take forever," Starnes says. "For us, it was important to have a limited, defined scope – that this is what we will do in a specific timeframe."

Before its UC deployment, Stark State's nine-year-old PBX system offered a limited call center that created a call queue but did little else. Each year, three weeks before both fall and spring registration, the call centers were overwhelmed.

After researching multiple manufacturers, Starnes was most impressed with Cisco's features, so he purchased Cisco Call Manager, Cisco Unity Voice Mail, Cisco Contact Center Express and 400 new Cisco IP phones. The project took one month to plan and another five months to deploy.

Through a Cisco call center reporting tool, call center managers can now view live statistics on how many callers are waiting in queue and the average hold time. Stark State's IT staff installed Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology and wrote database scripts that pull student information directly from the college's databases. That way, students can verbally interact with the computing system and get the information they need after answering a few security questions to confirm their ID, Starnes says.

The college also installed the InformaCast emergency notification system to augment its overhead paging system. In addition, the IT department integrated its Cisco VoIP system with Microsoft's unified communications software. The college previously installed Office Communications Server in the data center and Office Communicator on users' PCs, so staffers could instant message each other. Now with voice integration, they can use Office Communicator to check presence and use their phone extension to call coworkers from their PCs.

Hinds Community College in Raymond, Miss., is also taking advantage of Microsoft's unified communications PC software. Administrators from six campuses regularly hold audio, video and web conferences without having to drive 20 to 30 miles to meet face to face, says CIO Russell Wood. Through web conferencing, staffers can share presentations or edit documents together without being in the same room.

The collaboration technology was an easy sell to college administrators because reducing travel saves time and money, says Wood, who installed Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 three years ago and recently upgraded to the new version, Microsoft Lync.

University IT managers say unified communications systems offer a significant payoff. At Minot State, the benefits include reduced maintenance fees and easier IT management because voice and data reside on the same network, Horvath says. It also allows for single sign-on for multiple communications tools, such as instant messaging and Exchange e-mail, and it allows employees to be more mobile. "It gives us device independence," Horvath says. "I'm not locked in to a phone at a desk. I am connected all the time and can look at one app and see all my messages."

Stark State College's call center is no longer taxed several weeks before each semester begins. The new call center technology improves customer service, reduces call volume and saves the college money because it no longer has to hire additional call center staff during busy periods.

"The call center and IVR were the biggest pieces for us," Starnes says. "The amount of customers we can serve while maintaining the same level of staffing is greatly increased."

Overall, improving campus safety and offering the campus better communication and collaboration tools makes the investment worth it, Butler's Indiano says.

"It provided us a stack of important features now that we had not had before," he says. "We couldn't do all those add-ons with the old-style phone systems."

SOURCE: Survey of 150 college IT administrators, 2011 CDW Unified Communications Tracking Poll.

Mobility Drives UC Adoption

Top UC features:

56% access to work e-mail and voicemail via smart phones
46% ability to receive voicemail via e-mail
45% video conferencing
40% ability to send broadcast messages to a group via e-mail and phone
39% integrated audio/web/video conferencing
38% instant messaging

5 UC Best Practices

Thinking about unified communications? Here are five best practices:

Know what you want. Manufacturers define unified communications differently, depending on the features they support. While researching products, make sure to identify the functionality the organization needs. This will help the college select the right manufacturer or combination of manufacturers, says Neil Fulton, Minot State University's network operations manager.

Avoid turf wars. The telephony, network and server teams all own a piece of unified communications, so teamwork is important to ensure success with implementation and ongoing maintenance, says Joe Indiano, Butler University's senior director of networks and systems.

Build a reliable network. With downtime, communications can grind to a halt, and poor network performance can result in jittery video or unintelligible phone calls. Upgrade the network to ensure there's enough bandwidth and build in redundancy, says Geoffrey Starnes, Stark State College's network systems and security manager.

Run pilot projects. Minot State University spent several months piloting its VoIP system to work out bugs and ensure good voice quality. The IT department installed the system multiple times, using different configurations to determine what works best, says Darren Olson, systems administrator.

Get user buy-in. Butler University picked 50 users, including representatives from every university department, to help choose a vendor, test the equipment and promote the technology to their colleagues.

VLADGRIN/ThinkStock
May 17 2011

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