For the first time since 2019, thousands of participants met in person for the Ellucian Live conference in New Orleans. It was a memorable event with keynote speaker Malcolm Gladwell and a host of major announcements from Ellucian. Attendees filed into the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where they heard about Ellucian’s unapologetic plan to move to SaaS. Over the next two days, several C-level executives took the stage to tout the company’s innovation efforts and make their best pitch to convince institutions to follow them on their cloud-based journey.
Ellucian is veteran player in the higher ed administrative systems world, with many of its customers spanning multiple decades with products that have by now shown their age. With Workday and Oracle developing modern cloud-native platforms, Ellucian has doubled down on its efforts to modernize the underlying architecture of these products and also add a more modern user experience for end-users of both of the two major systems, Banner and Colleague. Backed by Blackstone and Vista Equity Partners, Ellucian clearly has the funding to pull off the massive shift to become a software-as-a-service company. But the question on the minds of many attendees we spoke with was, “Can they?”
Several major new products and features were on display throughout the conference. Ellucian Experience continues to take center stage as the new modern-look-and-feel UI aims to provide a fresh and mostly uniform experience for customers, regardless of the system they use. Beyond Experience, new products Data Connect and Insights look to deliver an integration-platform-as-a-service product (iPaaS) and reporting tools natively into the ecosystem. While Ellucian aims to augment existing functionality with new Ellucian Experience-based components, a reimagined partnership program was also announced, focused on improving the integration experience for institutions wishing to expand the capabilities of their platforms.
Where Ethos seemed to take a notable step down in focus, Ellucian Data Connect was definitely on full display and being promoted as an exciting new product already available for some users, depending on their exact configuration. Many institutions are currently using homegrown connections to transfer data between products or making use of a third party iPaaS providers to manage their bidirectional data feeds. If Data Connect succeeds in living up to the promise, it should give institutions never-before-seen capabilities from Ellucian to seamlessly connect products, custom-map fields, transform data where needed, and even choose event-based triggers to customize data integration processes on campus. Furthermore, Ellucian claims that SaaS customers will be able to take advantage of new delivered integrations.
As the need for institutions to make data-driven decisions increases, access to the data to analyze has continued to be a priority for many campus leaders. Ellucian Insights, when mature, shows great promise as a complete set of data and reporting functionality for Banner and Colleague. Insights includes access to transactional data (as a data lake) and reporting on structured data using existing data models from the ODS product (as a data warehouse), while also allowing importing of external data for analysis and reporting with operational and analytical reporting tools.
That being said, while this announcement elicited excitement from many, it also left others beginning to think about their futures with current data reporting tools such as Entrinsik Informer and Evisions Argos. Ellucian states that Insights was created to alleviate the need for third-party reporting products while also acknowledging that most customers have already invested heavily in these platforms. The company has left the Insights platform open for these tools to continue to provide services in the SaaS environment, but as those customers move to SaaS, their custom reports using custom tables may not function anyway. Some new customers have found considerable value in these external tools with the initial implementations of Banner SaaS, as have customers converting from on-premises to SaaS.
One of the more interesting announcements that had some attendees cautiously optimistic was regarding Ellucian’s Apply and application processing services, built on the Ellucian Experience platform. Whereas, to date, you really needed a CRM to have a fully capable online admissions application experience, Ellucian is now delivering an online application via Ellucian Experience that allows institutions to accept students, reduce fraudulent applications, and move data directly to Banner or Colleague when desired. This is a valuable feature for institutions that don’t have—or don’t wish to employ—a full CRM, but wish to streamline and modernize their application process. Even for institutions with CRMs, Apply conceivably offers an alternative method for students to apply when needed by the institution. Beyond the Apply product, Ellucian spoke about an application processing service where existing online applications—even from Ellucian CRM Recruit competitors—could theoretically connect, eliminating the need for a custom integration or standalone iPaaS solution. We believe this signals Ellucian’s strategy expanding to meet the needs of current customers who have deep connections with third-party products that have not historically been supported by the vendor.
In the end, Ellucian’s message was all about SaaS and modernization, and it’s clear to see why Ellucian is making this effort. With a majority of new finance, HCM, and student selections moving to SaaS deployments, Ellucian needs to adopt this strategy to remain competitive in the market and offer a more future-proof, sustainably supported product for its clients well into the future. While the benefits of SaaS-architected solutions are well understood by most customers, many—particularly Colleague customers—are still leery of making the leap. Much of the customer base is dependent on customized environments due to a lack of base functionality or longevity with their current product. While Ellucian does offer tools to find those customizations and consulting to move to base functionality, it is nevertheless a daunting road forward for most, especially small institutions with enrollment-driven revenue.
While the vision is even more compelling in 2023 and Ellucian has begun to deliver products aligned with the SaaS strategy, the market continues to be split between excitement about a more complete vision of SaaS solutions and a history of changing strategy and product mixes. Many of the attendees we talked to were both excited about what they heard and simultaneously waiting for more institutions to make the leap and live to tell the tale.
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