Over the last two years, we have heard much about digital transformation (DX) being important to higher education. DX addresses fundamental change in an institution’s approach to delivering on its core mission areas: education, research, and service. (We recently heard wisdom about how to approach it.) Digital transformation, however, is not a goal for every institution, as one of our members recently reminded me. Many institutions are conservative in their nature, and even in the pandemic era, simply do not have grand desires to change their nature. As we explore that continuum, we must recognize that a similar but different concept—modernization—is driving significant technology activity simultaneously with DX.
In the applications world, modernization is replacing aging, brittle, highly customized, on-premises applications and infrastructure with modern, adaptable, software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications. Am I proposing that the cloud is a panacea? No, no, and no.
The First No: Not all cloud is SaaS. If applications were not built to be run in multitenant SaaS environments, they may be hosted in the cloud. Moving existing applications to the cloud may provide real benefits for institutions. Still, cloud-based applications are fundamentally different from the SaaS applications I am talking about. SaaS applications, if well-architected, are scalable, configurable, and relentlessly refactored and updated by their vendors.
The Second No: Not every SaaS application is great, or even good. Buyers must still beware, as there’s no magic behind the browser. As we often see in higher education (where we like to allow some early thrill-seekers to test out software for us), as adoption spreads, we tend to see useful and stable applications. Full institutional vetting of solutions and their existing user base is critical. (A certain analyst firm can help you with that—but on to my main points.)
The Third No: Many institutions are running stable, well-managed, economical core administrative applications on their campuses and do not have a burning need to change them. In most cases, additional SaaS applications have been purchased and integrated to augment the functionality and experience provided to students, faculty, and staff. I stated “many,” though that may be an exaggeration. Let’s go with “some.” More on that later.
As we here at Tambellini work with institutions of every type and size, we see the landscape of institutional profiles related to core administrative applications. Institutions fall into three general categories:
So, what’s the critical point here? Why should Holding Fast institutions think about modernization now? I offer a few reasons based on what I observe in many institutions and in Tambellini research:
Starting your planning process is daunting. There are many things to consider, prepare for, and align, including the institutional appetite to go through a significant change and the financial resources to execute on it. Whether intentional or not, implementing these new platforms creates momentum to simplify and standardize core processes, thus improving responsiveness and accuracy of processes, from financial reporting to benefits election. These improvements can directly impact the institution’s ability to execute on its strategies to improve student outcomes and experiences.
At the same time, institutions often struggle with the state of the student information system landscape, as is being actively discussed in the market. These are legitimate concerns. But without a long-range plan that aligns with your institution’s strategic plan, the ability to begin the process to update this aging technology may be out of reach when institutions need to make the change.
In the meantime, institutional technology leaders need to consider preparing for that eventuality by investing in their teams and technology. By improving integration and identity-related systems and starting on the path of holistic data management and analytics practices, leaders can build their teams and architectures for the future. Investing in these technologies and disciplines can have short-term positive impacts and smooth the path to SaaS when the time comes.
In addition to preparation work, institutions need to understand the application market as it continually changes, advances, (and has occasional failures). We believe strongly that now is the time to begin the planning process for most institutions, even if that plan can lay dormant for a few years. To assume that “everything is fine” with core systems puts institutions at risk in the coming years.
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