Ontario college gets managed services schooling

When Lan Nguyen tried to use her cell phone for an interview about Centennial College’s telecom projects, the call wouldn’t go through. Nguyen’s handset couldn’t get a signal — a fitting indication of the technology challenges that the school faces.

Nguyen is the Toronto institution’s vice-president, innovation and IT partnership. She was at “Warden Woods” when scheduled to chat. Warden Woods is one of five full-service campuses belonging to Centennial, and one of the oldest. It’s built like an army ammunition warehouse. In fact, that was the building’s original purpose. Centennial turned the former military storage resource into an academic facility in 1966.

No matter where she went in Warden Woods, Nguyen couldn’t get her cell phone to work. Perhaps the building’s solid construction isn’t conducive to modern communication. “I had to go out and sit in the car,” Nguyen said, having finally connected with a reporter.

Old walls stood in the way of Nguyen’s connection. Aging infrastructure could be described as the main challenge before Centennial. The Warden Woods campus is getting on, which is part of the reason why the school built the HP Science and Technology Centre, brimming with new technology like Voice over IP (VoIP) and Wi-Fi.

As well, Nguyen said Centennial expects to lose 40 per cent of its staffers to retirement in the coming years. The school could use advanced communication technology, like Wi-Fi, to give people a leg up in the productivity department.

Centennial must also keep abreast of a new didactic paradigm that gives students a post-secondary education that is at once theoretical and practical. To that end the school has teamed up with the University of Toronto to offer joint degree-diplomas. The HP Centre, in fact, is strategically situated at the edge of U of T’s Scarborough campus.

All of the above comprises a big transformation for Centennial, as the school aims be known as a premier education centre that employs the latest technology. It’s a massive undertaking that might be particularly hard on the institution’s IT department. According to Nguyen, Centennial’s IT staffers would be hard pressed to install VoIP equipment across the many campuses, test Wi-Fi signals and continue the heavy lifting required to keep such systems running smoothly.

The school called in Avaya Canada Corp., particularly the local contingent of Avaya Global Services (AGS), to aid the endeavour. Avaya manages Centennial’s telecom infrastructure. The company also helped install new VoIP systems in various campuses, aided in constructing Wi-Fi access and made call centre set-up look easy at the HP Centre. Avaya also helps create curriculum so Centennial can teach students about this gear maker’s equipment alongside other vendors’ wares.

The strategic alliance between Centennial and Avaya took some getting used to, Nguyen said. IT department staffers were skeptical.

“They’re used to Cisco technology, and they’re possessive of what they do and what they know. Imposing a new managed service, it’s almost as if they felt like they were losing something.”

After a while the IT department came to rely on the vendor’s employees. Nguyen said a large part of success in this regard has to do with Avaya’s on-campus manager, who “translates Centennial culture into a perspective that Avaya can appreciate.” She added that it’s important to have this human-resources integration in client-vendor partnerships.

Nguyen said it also behooves organizations to discuss “vendor lock-in.” Centennial does not want to be seen as a school that is influenced by a single provider in equipment purchasing decisions. She pointed out that Avaya walks a line between trusted technology advisor and gear maker bent on making as many sales as possible. The AGS team seems to be holding up its end of the bargain, sometimes suggesting equipment from other providers when Avaya equipment might not be the best choice.

AGS’s representatives said end-user organizations should undertake self-examination before entering into managed-services agreements.

“They really should give some consideration to what their objectives are,” said Lubo Vaculik of Avaya Canada in Markham, Ont. “Do they really want to invest in managing an infrastructure? Are they better off investing in other areas, more core to their business?…They really need to understand where they come out ahead.”

Nguyen said the Avaya partnership is working out for Centennial. Nonetheless, a certain amount of work still has to be done before the school realizes its dream of becoming a tech leader in education. A small example: there’s no guarantee that cell phone connectivity will be any better at the HP Centre than it was at Warden Woods.

“My staff just informed me,” Nguyen said, sounding somewhat frustrated, “it doesn’t work very well.”

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