Jul 13 2010

Unified We Stand: Making a Case for UC

CDW's latest poll proves that Unified Communications is an investment K-12 IT managers can't afford to miss.

If unified communications hasn’t been part of the mix, there’s compelling evidence suggesting it should be.If unified communications hasn't been part of the mix, there's compelling evidence suggesting it should be.

There's no better time than the start of a new school year to take stock of what's working (and what isn't) on the IT front and to figure out how to make your systems run more efficiently. If unified communications hasn't been part of the mix, there's compelling evidence suggesting it should be.

Both Gartner and Frost & Sullivan have flagged UC as a key trend to watch. Gartner believes the practice of integrating communications applications will soon become mission-critical for enterprises of all sizes. Frost & Sullivan says the UC market is “poised for a huge leap forward” as UC technologies mature and users come to understand their value.

For K–12 IT managers doing more with less, system improvements are valuable only if the return on investment is so compelling that their schools can't afford not to make them. CDW's second annual Unified Com­muni­cations Tracking Poll confirms that UC is such an improvement.

This study of UC adoption rates and implementation drivers and barriers within six markets (including, for the first time, K–12) found that seven in 10 organizations that have fully implemented UC netted ROI that met or exceeded expectations. And yet, adoption rates vary: 13 percent of K–12 responders have deployed UC and 18 percent are doing so now, but another 30 percent are in the planning phase and 39 percent are still assessing their needs.

Why the delay? Interoperability is a chief concern. It's crucial to map out a UC strategy that leverages systems already in place, because starting from scratch simply isn't an option for most schools. Current UC solutions typically support multiple protocols. As a result, IT teams must evaluate whether the UC products and services they're considering will support the appropriate protocols to integrate their districts' legacy devices with the new systems.

Manufacturers are working to address this integration issue. The aim of the newly formed Unified Communications Interoperability Forum is to make standards-based, inter-vendor UC interoperability a reality. If the forum succeeds, the case for UC will become even more compelling.

The ABCs of UC

So, what is unified communications? And why are UC solutions so important to K–12 schools?

Think of UC as a circle of interconnected points. Each point represents a method by which a school's stakeholders communicate and collaborate. Video, audio and web conferencing; messaging; e-mail; texting; and telephony all facilitate this flow of information and communication.

Instead of treating these services and applications as separate functions operating in vacuums, UC platforms bridge the gaps to weave them into a single, integrated architecture, helping schools reduce costs, boost productivity and ensure more reliable communications. In practice, UC:

  • makes widespread emergency notification possible and efficient. With UC, administrators, security personnel, teachers and parents can be alerted to emergencies on campus over any communications device with a single call. (The UC Tracking Poll found that K–12 organizations consider mass emergency notification a key benefit.)
  • saves time. With UC, administrators and other school officials can collaborate from any location in real time via video, audio and web conferencing, minimizing the need for travel. With integrated scheduling and presence, it's possible to know when staff are available for meetings.
  • fosters peer-to-peer collaboration. With UC, teachers can share and edit curriculum-related materials from any location, rather than relying on e-mail or handouts that must be circulated and then edited to consolidate changes. It's more convenient, and it ultimately results in faster, more collaborative decision making.

These are just a few examples of the ways that UC can streamline operations. In this issue, Chief Technology Officer Sheryl Abshire explains how Calcasieu Parish Public Schools in Louisiana takes advantage of a UC infrastructure using Schools Interoperability Framework standards (see SIF You Please). In so doing, the district cut costs and boosted collaboration. And who doesn't want that?