UI has mostly settled in with new phone system

URBANA — A box full of desk phones lies unwanted inside the University of Illinois surplus property warehouse, the remnants of a bygone era in campus communications.

They're among the roughly 12,000 telephones removed when the campus switched to a voice-over-Internet phone service earlier this year, part of a new Unified Communications system.

Most have already made their way to Springfield, where they will be sold through the state's "iBid" online auction service. Several pallets have already been auctioned off, a government spokeswoman said. Phones that don't work are being sent to an electronics scrap vendor, said Cameron Fear, clerk at the UI property surplus warehouse in Urbana.

The campus has settled in to the new communication system, though not without complaints. Call almost any office and you're apt to get an earful about Unified Communications, which uses Microsoft Exchange and Lync software to combine email, instant messaging, electronic calendars and phone service, all through a computer.

It's been a process, according to Andrea Fierro, office manager at the Family Resiliency Center in Urbana.

For the record, she likes the new system. She can more easily contact far-flung students, faculty and administrators for whom she manages calls, and get quicker responses. But she's also taken the time to learn some "tricks" that make it easier to use.

"I just think it's immensely more efficient. Obviously, with every new procedure or protocol, especially at the university, there's always going to be some grumbling just because we're all busy, and trying to learn something new is out of the norm," Fierro said.

The number of Lync-related calls to the Campus Information Technology and Educational Services help desk peaked in June, at 626, when most of the campus moved onto the system. It remained elevated through August, when many students and faculty returned to campus, but has gradually tapered off since, according to figures provided by the university.

Problems were reported with call transfers, departmental phone lines, and numbers that somehow weren't moved over to the new system.

Switching more than 10,000 phone lines to an emerging technology is bound to cause some wrinkles, said Joseph Yun, manager of campus IT relations.

Underlying many of the complaints was the fact that users didn't fully understand the system or appreciate what it could do, Yun said.

It's a different mode of communication, with employees clicking boxes on a computer screen to answer and transfer calls rather than pushing buttons on a phone, he said.

The system is much more robust than the old land-line network, allowing departments to customize their phone services, he said. But even though CITES held training sessions, piloted the services in certain units and walked people through the options, "inevitably when you start using it, you're just going to be confused."

After a few months, some departments found they didn't want the setup that they had originally requested, so CITES worked with them to tailor their service. Among the frequent customers that "tweaked" their service multiple times were the UI Library, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the College of Engineering.

One common problem: In the old system, a receptionist or office manager could answer multiple lines from a departmental phone, and someone else could fill in when that employee was absent.

With Lync, it doesn't work that way. Departments had to specify how many people should be connected to a given number. Those people can be anywhere in the world and answer that call, as long as they're logged in to a computer. But if only one person is assigned to a department line, and he or she goes on vacation, "nobody's answering that phone anymore," Yun said.

In the months preceding the switch-over, departments were asked to specify how many people should answer each number, but they didn't really understand the new concept, Yun said.

"So we get a request, saying 'Our phone is broken'" when it's not, he said.

Associate Chancellor Robin Kaler, whose job involves talking daily with reporters, was alone in the office one day and realized the general public number wasn't ringing through because it's not attached to her line. The office now has an Internet phone plugged directly into a wall jack that shows who's calling, "so I will always see the calls that come into the main line," she said.

The change-over also happened around the time many employees retired or left the UI through voluntary separation agreements, so "numbers were assigned to people, and they left," Yun said.

Fierro noted that the UI also launched the system the same week it implemented a new purchasing/travel card system that staff members found extremely cumbersome.

"In the beginning, it was horrid. Talk about people being up in arms. That was too much in one week," she said.

The system itself had some quirks and technical issues, she said.

"It is a different audio experience. We would get a lot of reverberation on the phone," Fierro said.

Many employees weren't used to logging in to their computers first thing in the morning, but unless they do, their phones aren't connected.

Fierro walked into work one morning and the fire alarm system had malfunctioned, which meant the front door didn't work. While firefighters stood by, Fierro had to wait for her computer to boot up so she could call someone to fix it.

Eventually, she learned to program some work numbers into her cellphone as a backup. "It just makes life easier," she said.

For most people, the conversion was a matter of adjusting to a new way of handling calls, Fierro said.

For instance: "When you're on the phone, this little box pops up. If you're talking to someone and you want to look on your computer, your natural instinct is to close a box, but if you click on the 'x' on the box it hangs up on people," she said.

It wasn't unusual to hear people muttering to themselves and their computers after inadvertently cutting someone off or failing to rescue someone from "hold."

"I often joke that I wonder if this is what they went through when they came out with land lines," Fierro said. "It was retraining a brain that had already burned another process in."

On the whole, though, she's a fan. Fierro manages calls for an entire building with multiple directors and professors across campus.

"For me, it's more efficient to be able to pop up instant messaging and chat with them online. I don't have to remember phone numbers, I just type in a name and, boom, I'm calling them," she said.

Fierro said students, who "don't really return phone calls," respond much more quickly to an electronic message than a voice mail.

Support staff can also see who's in and who's not just by looking at the status box next to an individual's name. If a professor is gone, or busy, she knows just to send an email.

Fierro used a training tutorial at microsoft.com to find helpful "nuances" in the system, and put together some tips for fellow employees.

"The phone can be cumbersome if you don't know these little tricks," she said.

The primary challenge at this point is teaching employees that the system offers much more than phone service, Yun said.

For instance, "There's still a whole bunch of people on campus paying for web-conference services," Yun said. "With this product, it's free."

Employees can set up a link and send it to others outside the university and do a conference call from their own computer. They can also use voice commands to listen to voice mail or set up calendars.

"Now that all the fires are kind of out, we can actually start promoting the service," Yun said.

There have been unanticipated problems. About a month ago, construction workers cut a fiber-optic cable elsewhere in the Midwest that affected cellphone providers, which in turn weren't able to connect to Windstream, the UI's service provider.

"It wasn't our network that went down, it was the cellphone connection to our telephone provider," Yun said.

For an entire business day, when people tried to call university phones from their cellphones, only about half the calls went through, Yun said.

Other problems persist: the voice-to-text technology is "absolutely not useful," though it remains amusing, Kaler said. And Micosoft has yet to produce an updated version of Lync for Mac users, who make up a growing number of employees on campus, Yun said. Lync for Windows "just has more features that make it a lot more appealing," he said.

Unified Communications is designed to improve services and save money. The annual campus phone bill dropped from $4.8 million in fiscal 2010, under the old AT&T/Centrex service, to about $4 million currently, said Mike Andrechak, associate provost. That 17 percent savings was passed on to each campus unit, although this year it was offset by one-time equipment purchases of headsets and other hardware, he said.

External payments have dropped substantially, now limited to long-distance charges and connections to the phone network. Most costs are internal — such as extra staff to manage the virtual phone system, new servers, an equipment replacement fund and resources to update software, he said.

CITES projects overall campus IT expenditures will drop by $3 million annually with the new system. Officials will be evaluating the figures later this year, Andrechak said.

Complaints to CITES Help Desk about Lync phone system

 

  January  February  March  April  May  June  July  August  September  October  November
Overall Help Desk tickets 6,426 5,604 5,093 6,414 5,846 5,848 6,086 7,937 5,735 4,870 3,336
Lync tickets 78 574 439 282 500 626 457 448 283 324 181
Lync % of total tickets 1% 10% 9% 4% 9% 11% 8% 6% 5% 7% 5%

 

Lync system usage at the UI

Average monthly number of audio phone calls on the system: 2,020,705 calls

Average monthly number of video phone calls on the system: 922 calls

Average monthly number of instant messages on the system: 238,790 sessions

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