Harvard takes slow approach to IP call-center integration

Details of the university's infrastructure made for a complex project

Call it the Harvard University Tower of Babel. That might be the most descriptive way to look at the institution's network of networks that consists of 10 academic units with independent CIOs and staff who build and take care of their own environments, yet all rely on a centralized call-center infrastructure to serve users.

The task of refreshing the infrastructure that serves this diverse and decentralized group falls to Michael Rowe, manager of systems and applications for Harvard's university information systems division, and this week he shared how he has overhauled the call center infrastructure to embrace IP, expand features and keep costs down.

Due to the complexity of the mission and the fact that no commercial call center was designed for such an environment, the project has taken seven years and is still a work in progress, Rowe told the Association for Information Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education, also known as ACUTA. Association members share technology challenges and address common problems in a cost-effective way.

None of the Harvard units has call centers in the traditional business sense of a roomful of agents trained to handle similar calls. Instead, they consist of groups of agents numbering as few as three but no more than 21spread around Harvard facilities in and around Boston and Cambridge, Mass. Rowe's goal was to have a single call-distribution device that could handle all of them.

At the outset of the project in 2001, the phone system was centralized, being delivered via Verizon Centrex over PRI trunks to 30,000 phones. Call center features were also provided by Verizon, queuing up calls for the dispersed call centers that handled anything from help-desk calls to answering questions about university medical benefits.

When Verizon decided to phase out the service, Rowe went looking for a replacement that he could place in the Verizon central office that dished up the Centrex service. That way it could route calls to appropriate extensions as they came in.

Even with the help of a consultant, finding the right product was difficult, Rowe says. After reviewing 16 RFPs, he chose a list of six finalists to demonstrate their wares, and the results were dismal. Only two managed to get their systems to work in the university environment. He chose Customer Interaction Center (CIC) from Interactive Intelligence, because it had more flexible administration and allowed for expansion to meet future demand, he says.

Still it wasn't ideal. Initially he placed two CIC servers in the central office where they could back each other up automatically, but the auto backup never worked smoothly. The servers proved temperamental, failing over at the slightest glitch and always requiring human intervention, Rowe says. "The software worked great, the switchover was the problem. It was not a good solution," he says.

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