Colleges turn to unified communications to save costs, boost productivity

More schools are implementing unified communications solutions.
More schools are implementing unified communications solutions.

More K-12 schools, colleges, and universities are turning to unified communications as a way to streamline campus communication and save money in unpredictable economic times, a new survey suggests.

Unified communications is the convergence of enterprise voice, video, and data services with software applications designed to achieve greater collaboration among individuals or groups and improve business processes. Component technologies include video, audio, and web conferencing; unified messaging; and more.

The benefits that education technology stakeholders see in implementing unified communications are the same that executives in the government and business sectors see, according to the second annual Unified Communications Tracking Poll from CDW Government Inc. (CDW-G), which provides products and services to education and other sectors.

Fifty-four percent of school IT executives said reducing operating costs is the top benefit of unified communications, followed by increased productivity (50 percent) and more reliable communication (44 percent).

“IT executives report that economic pressures were a greater concern in 2009 than in 2008, but for many, the return on investment from UC deployments is so compelling that they ask, ‘Why wouldn’t we do this?’” said Pat Scheckel, vice president of converged infrastructure solutions at CDW-G. “The result is reduced costs, increased productivity, and improved decision making—benefits that resonate across every industry, especially in a recessionary economy.”

Higher-education deployment

In higher education, public institutions are more likely to have prepared a business case or strategic plan for unified communications than private institutions, according to the survey.

Twenty-three percent of higher-education respondents said they have deployed a unified communications solution or are in the process of doing so. Another 29 percent are planning an implementation, and 48 percent are assessing unified communications and its role in their own university.

Marquette University is in the middle of a unified communications implementation and has recently put its voice mail onto a single platform that is accessible via eMail through the university’s Microsoft Exchange program.

Four buildings will make the transition along with two new buildings opening this year, said Dan Smith, senior director of IT services at Marquette, followed by the rest of the campus over the next two years.

While exact cost savings can’t be measured yet, “we have some indications that we’ll save quite a bit of money doing this,” Smith said.

Moving to a software-based phone system as Marquette is doing expands a telephone’s feature set dramatically, and the university’s Windows team will handle the necessary periodic upgrades to the system.

“It is being received well; any new technology … is very much a cultural change, and the features and functionality can confuse some people,” Smith said.

University staff received training on the new system a week before implementation began, with additional follow-up training a month later.

“Once we get past the initial comfort level, it’s important for us to offer that additional training,” said Kathy Lang, chief information officer at Marquette. “Because it is new, we’ll have training issues and support issues.”

Smith and Lang said Marquette made the switch because the university’s analog telephone system was approaching its end of life, and for the additional functionality that unified communications brings to the table.

An added bonus is the ability to participate in conferencing from desks in addition to conference rooms.

“Now, we’re able to offer video conferencing and web conferencing right from the desktop,” Lang said.

Faculty now consider bringing in virtual speakers via web or video conferencing, Lang said—something they previously did not often do.

Schools that are planning to implement a unified communications system should plan from both a technology perspective and a communication and training perspective, Smith said.

The university established a project management office to oversee implementation, which Smith said is working very well.

“Planning is critical,” he said. “Just like any other thing, it’s more of a cultural thing than a technology thing. The technology works well; it’s just getting people to understand it and use it effectively.”


CDW-G 2010 Unified Communications Tracking Poll

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