Why Is Modernization Planning Urgent?


Principal Analyst

Top of Mind: Why Is Modernization Planning Urgent?
Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes

Over the last several years, we have heard much about digital transformation (DX) being important to higher education. However, DX is not a goal for every institution, as one of our clients recently reminded me.  

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.) Many institutions are conservative, and even in the post-pandemic era, simply do not have grand desires to change.  

As we explore the digital transformation continuum, we must recognize that a similar but different concept—modernization—is driving significant technology activity simultaneously with DX.  

The Role of Application Modernization in Higher Education 

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.  

Modernization Planning: 3 Reasons to Be Discerning About the Cloud 

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. 

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, and the Tambellini Group can provide insight into the selections similar institutions have made and the results.  

Existing Systems May Be Sufficient. 

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. 

3 Categories of Higher Education Modernization 

At Tambellini, we work with institutions of every type and size and see the landscape of institutional profiles related to core administrative applications. Institutions fall into three general categories:  

  1. Transformation First: These institutions have intentionally embarked on modernization to give the institution the flexibility and process infrastructure to enable DX goals. These two practices are not the same; they are neither required for one another, nor mutually exclusive. 
  1. On a Burning Platform: For one of many reasons, the institution needs to replace a major system in the coming one to five years. The application may be nearing end-of-life. It may be so customized that it can’t be updated. Or it may be wildly misaligned with current requirements (so far that it can’t be “fixed.”) These institutions are already facing or nearing a major system replacement to keep institutional practices aligned with strategy and operational goals.  
  1. Holding Fast: These institutions have managed their core systems well, made incremental investments to stay current and supported, and have added functionality around the core to minimize the impact of the slower progress of innovation on them. Many of these institutions do not yet have plans for major system replacement.  

Why Higher Education Institutions Need to Plan for Modernization Now 

Why should institutions think about modernization now? I offer a few reasons based on what I observe in many institutions and in Tambellini research:  

To Avoid Risk  

If you assume that modernization planning is for someone else, then you risk falling into the Burning Platform group. This is a dangerous place to be for any institution on core platforms. Modernization projects run in the three- to seven-year range. This generally follows one to two years of planning and preparation. So, if you believe your core systems are suitable for the coming decade, the clock is already ticking.  

To Better Manage Unexpected Change  

As we heard from many institutions that were already on SaaS platforms at the start of the pandemic, these platforms’ flexibility was crucial to their adaptability. With all the forces at work in higher education, inflexibility is not the friend of any executive responsible for operations.  

To Avert End-of-Life Support and Extension Costs 

With major software vendors prioritizing investment in their cloud (even if not modern SaaS) solutions for the last several years, time is also not on the side of the current software. Though extensions of support to existing platforms are common, the pressure to move away from these legacy platforms will only increase in the coming years as vendors look to reduce support costs.  

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 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 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 it is complex. Without a long-range plan that aligns with your institution’s strategic plan, the ability to begin the process of updating this aging technology may be out of reach when institutions need to make the change.  

How to Prepare and Plan for Modernization 

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 strongly believe 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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Principal Analyst
Dave Kieffer spearheads research focused on finance, and HCM applications, data management and other critical higher education technologies at Tambellini Group. He brings more than 30 years of creating, implementing, and managing enterprise-class applications in higher education. His experience includes all levels of applications development and management in higher education. Among other things, he has been responsible for ERP implementations, mobile, and web development, application architecture and integration technologies.

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