Achieving Unified Communications at Clark Atlanta University

Clark Atlanta University had a communications problem. Its aging communications infrastructure just wasn’t up to the task of meeting the needs of a diverse university comprising 38 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees and specialist programs.

The system limitations became a serious problem in 2010, when federal financial aid policies changed and parents with question flooded the school with three times the normal call volume. The overwhelmed phone system couldn’t keep up.

Reggie Brinson, associate vice president and CIO of Atlanta, Ga.-based CAU, was only in his second year on the job when he was tasked with revamping the communications infrastructure of the entire university. "Part of my process, as always, is coming in to review what’s been in place, understand the business needs and business demands, and take opportunities to align with the strategic objectives of the university," Brinson says.

The university had just completed a three-year strategic plan. Building institutional capacity with an eye towards improving customer service and responsiveness was a priority. "Our students need to communicate with us through different platforms and mechanisms," Brinson says. "Telephony was very important to us, as well as integrating the other items. We laid out what we thought we needed to have."

On the list were:

  • Call management capabilities; and
  • Integration of telephony with email, faxes, SMS and voice messaging communications.

The university had a 20-year-old system in place when it began its search for a new solution. "One of the key issues for us was to find a vendor partner that seemed to be very customer-focused and that would be with us in terms of service issues," says Brinson. "After 20 years, you kind of get comfortable in the marriage and you’re not as responsive."

And responsiveness was a deciding factor for Brinson and CAU. "Vendors who are serious will come to the table and be willing to open the kimono and show you their technology roadmap," he says. "We also [wanted to see who] came through with new ideas and solutions that would help us get to places we didn’t even dream we could go."

Beginning in April 2010, CAU evaluated offerings from Avaya, Shortel, Cisco and Siemens, among others. At the end of the summer, the university decided to move forward with a solution from Siemens Enterprise Communications. CAU chose Siemens Enterprise Communications’ OpenScape Voice Application and OpenScape Contact Center running on the OpenScape UC Server with the help of solution provider Black Box Network Services.

"Black Box and Siemens and came up with a solution that I think answered a number of our problems around the whole spectrum of communications and parents," Brinson says.

The implementation began in January 2011. "I expect fully by the time I get to September that all of the capabilities that we have worked on with Siemens and Black Box will be in place," Brinson says.

The system cost just shy of $600,000, Brinson says, and will cost about $40,000 annually for ongoing maintenance. The university’s previous system cost about $1.3 million and had a three-year lifecycle. "I did not want to be on a cycle where every three years I’m signing a $1.3 million contact," he says.

Selling the features and capabilities of unified communications to the university was a challenge, Brinson says, but the system’s capabilities are going to be able to change the way the university functions. "Last year, when we had our enrollment issue, we took a large room, installed 10 telephones and computers and that became our call center to address receiving calls from parents and students and call-back activity," he says. "This year, I can virtually create a call center whereby individuals won’t need to leave their offices. I can program in their extensions to have them help us manage those incoming calls as well as help manage outgoing calls."

That capability alone shows return on investment, according ton Brinson. "If you think about the economics of taking someone out of their jobs and sitting them in a room with a telephone, versus having them integrate that activity with their normal activities at their desk… that one business model of a virtual call center as opposed to developing a physical space to manage that… I think that’s going to pay dividends for us," he says.

When it comes to undertaking a complete communications overhaul, Brinson recommends deciding what you want in a partner up front. "Tell your vendors what you want, be quite clear about it and stick to your guns," he says.

"The other part of it is [that], as technologists, we have got to be a bit of a salesman. A big part of what I’ve tried to do from the telephone system perspective here is to sell an idea of what the future might look like, and doing it in attractive turns that will make the business side embrace that," Brinson says. "I think that helps you focus and get the right solution."

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