Unified communications (UC) pros struggle with not only the technical challenges of integrating diverse UC tools, but also successfully deploying them in a way that makes sense to users and encourages adoption. Duke University has identified enterprise social software as a way to integrate UC tools into a familiar interface that encourages collaboration among students while keeping their communications secure.
The 165 students enrolled in the MBA-Cross Continent Program at Duke's Fuqua School of Business spend two of their 16 months in the program traveling among a half dozen countries to immerse themselves in and learn about global economies. Until recently, the students used staple UC tools -- email, presence and instant messaging (IM) -- to collaborate, but lacked a centralized virtual meeting space that brought them and the tools together.
[Enterprise social software] gives me a way of overlaying unified communications stuff on pretty much anything I can stick inside of an IFrame.
Computer Systems Architect, Duke University
"You could [access these services] before, but you would not have it all in one place," said Mark McCahill, computer systems architect at Duke.
Social networking had the potential to bring these UC tools together intuitively for users, but privacy and security concerns ruled out consumer sites such as Facebook or Twitter, McCahill said. Instead, he deployed Cisco Systems' enterprise social networking software, Quad, which delivers a Facebook-like experience with microblogging, news feeds and profiles.
McCahill integrated his legacy Cisco voice over IP (VoIP) infrastructure, presence servers, IM and video content delivery systems into the enterprise social software platform. He also embedded non-Cisco tools into Quad, including Microsoft's calendar services and an in-house file sharing application.
"We wanted this to integrate with the infrastructure we already have in place, so one of the key pieces from my perspective -- and I'm a system architect, so I worry about this kind of stuff -- was that the authentication would integrate with what we're already doing for federated single sign-on, which is Shibboleth," McCahill said.
"That made it easier to integrate existing services into the platform," he added. "It is more complex -- maybe a little bit -- but it's more compelling."
Without ever leaving the Quad interface, a Duke student can watch a video posted by another student, check that other student's presence and make a VoIP call to the classmate. The UC services display as a small bar across the bottom of the screen that travels with the user as he or she moves between news feeds, profile pages or embedded applications, McCahill said.
"It's not exactly a portal but a container that I can put a lot of other things into," McCahill said. "It gives me a way of overlaying unified communications stuff on pretty much anything I can stick inside of an IFrame."
Enterprise social software gives Facebook feel -- with security
Enterprise social software gives Duke more control over content sharing. Public social networking sites have radically changed how enterprises approach marketing, call centers and other external communications, but no organization wants employees to discuss competitive strategy or sales leads on Facebook and Twitter.
Video has taken a dominant role in Duke's MBA program, McCahill said. While studying abroad, students conducted video interviews with international business leaders. As part of their assignment, these students shared these videos with classmates. McCahill knew that the students wouldn't get meaningful responses from those business leaders if the videos were thrown onto the public Internet. With Quad, he was able to provide enterprise-class video sharing tools with access control.
"There are some videos you make for a class that you really don't want to upload to YouTube. There may be licensing issues about the video or you don't want to have to get releases from everybody that's involved in the video," he said. "The people in real business don't necessarily want everything they're telling the students up on Facebook for the world to see … so having the intellectual property stay in the enterprise is important."
At the same time, McCahill said using enterprise social software that mimics the Facebook experience removes many hurdles to adoption and eliminates a lot of time he would otherwise have to spend training users.
"Those students are really busy. They've got regular jobs and they're doing this very intense MBA, so they don't really want intense learning curves on the tools," he said. "If [this user interface] is something they're familiar with, then you just lowered the bar for training, so they pick it up faster."
McCahill sees room for improvement in Quad. He has asked Cisco to customize Quad with multi-layered user groups with parent and child communities. This feature would allow a professor to establish a user group for a course and several subgroups for students who form teams for group projects.
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer.