Published on 2015/11/13
Co-written with Ken Udas | Deputy Vice Chancellor and Chief Information Officer, University of Southern Queensland

The EvoLLLution | Cloud Consumer Services for Flexibility, Creativity and Innovation
Adopting cloud-hosted tools and systems helps drive creativity, flexibility and innovation at higher education institutions.

Universities have a generally accepted reputation for moving slowly and exhibiting little administrative agility. Some might suggest that it is one of our defining features—and that needs to change.

The fact is that university management, more so now than ever before, is put in the position of ensuring that the university is creative and innovative while also managing risk and reputation. Both goals come along with mandates from university governance, and here in Australia from our public funders. Both goals also come along with all of the planning, policy and procedure development, KPIs, measurement and compliance. In addition, these demands frequently pull in opposite directions. Academic and professional staff are commonly put in a challenging situation in which university management insists on innovation and creativity, while also demanding adherence to administrative control structures typically designed to limit organizational risk exposure.

The situation plays out in a number of ways for information and communications technology (ICT). We have consistently turned to digital technologies and assets as catalysts for creativity and sources of innovation, yet we also turn to ICT for control. We see them as essential enablers and also a source of risk. So how as managers do we balance the need for innovation and risk management where ICT is concerned and how might cloud computing provide some solutions?

As you would have heard many times, “the cloud” is many things to many people. The cloud is both an uncontrolled flow of business data and corporate knowledge going who-knows-where, and a savior for restricted budgets and tornados of client demand. As large and complex institutions serving diverse groups of stakeholders, universities have obligations, accountabilities, risk tolerances and planning horizons quite different from an individual or small corporation. Somewhere in here there must be balance, and somewhere is an imperative not to be a technological dinosaur.

The Australian higher education environment has been a mixed set of cases, with many early adopters of the cloud and many institutions waiting so they can first measure the success of others. The University of Southern Queensland (USQ) has been an early adopter of cloud technology in some areas, student productivity and customer relationship management, while also teetering on late adoption in some others. This reflects our early positioning to use cloud technology on a case-by-case basis, where there was a mature solution, when it matched the services lifecycle for consideration, and if it stacked up in business alignment and costing. In the meantime we have watched many products mature, some stumble, some dominate, and others fail to inspire. We have also cautiously watched other institutions’ experiences as they paved the way in cloud adoption, often pushing cloud vendors to new levels of maturity through their painful implementation.

Some Australian institutions have adopted a cloud-first strategy. USQ has recently adopted our version of a cloud-first strategy, which is a reflection of the maturity of service offerings. Now we routinely first assess if there is a cloud solution available, which questions and guides our implementation approach to a service. We still commit to implementing the most appropriate solution on a case-by-case basis, but cloud is always considered an option, and it wasn’t five years ago.

Parallel to this enterprise consideration we also routinely assess and utilize the cloud on a smaller scale. Consumer cloud services often are the most massively scaled, but serve the individual (often on a take it or leave it basis) and can be challenging for institutional policy, strategy, and frankly managerial control structures. These consumer cloud options provide a real opportunity for quick testing of ideas and solutions, with low barriers for use and great usability and utility, once you accept the boundaries of their feature set. They can build enthusiasm, greater individual fluency with digital technologies and enable activities on a small scale, which would be inefficient for an enterprise to undertake. This can build innovation and experience, which, when guided by common sense (and well considered policy and compliance frameworks), can iteratively develop into larger initiatives.

USQ has recently embarked on a project to develop and enable “technology demonstrators,” which operate on a small scale, with quick turnaround (90 days), and clear articulation of what is being demonstrated. During a demonstration, we help individuals “scratch an itc”’ or use a technology in an innovative way to solve a problem with no expectation that it will necessarily become an enterprise solution. It may grow and develop further, but with the freedom to try and just learn (with a little bit of technical and policy guidance) it is hoped that we help build people’s capacity and institutional understanding of where technology can elevate practice. Unsurprisingly, the majority of ideas that have come forward leverage cloud solutions.

There is no question that under some circumstances enterprise cloud services allows for organizational flexibility. It shifts and challenges organizational resources in many ways, positively and negatively, and has a significant impact on staff and cost models. It can also reduce flexibility in terms of customization, potentially reducing strategic differentiators, and with an off-the-shelf product you can become reliant on the provider’s lifecycle for your deployment schedules.

We are finding through experience that the real advantages of cloud computing for flexibility and agility leading to incremental change, creativity and innovation are being generated through small-scale consumer-oriented services. Many of the enterprise cloud services proved their service model in the consumer space and expanded into the enterprise or new ventures using lessons learnt from consumer platforms to build enterprise products. In the same vein, with the right type of mindset and repackaging of these consumer services, we are capturing the benefits of individual expressions of creativity through low-barrier, low-cost, low-risk experimentation.

A multi-pronged approach provides enterprise stability and the flexibility to experiment and learn quickly.

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Readers Comments

Traci Sparks 2015/11/13 at 12:50 pm

The description of problem solving at the beginning of this article is a good one I think. The cloud isn’t necessarily the answer to all your problems, but it’s almost certainly on the table as an option for solving all of your problems.

    Scott Sorley 2015/11/24 at 12:30 am

    We are pretty fortunate that being an already existing organisation, at a reasonable scale, we have a lot of options. I often ponder, if I was starting a new university with no existing infrastructure how would it be different?

    I am certain it would be different, and it would work, but so options wouldn’t be available and cloud would be much more likely.

    The landscape certainly has changed in the last few years with much more mature solutions where for most problems there is a viable cloud solution. I am looking forward to watching the landscape change even further over the next few years 🙂

Wilma Jenson 2015/11/13 at 1:37 pm

Keeping some perspective on things it good. Even if the things changes your life, it won’t do it all at once, and it’s probably more manageable and less risky if you do it incrementally anyway. The different ways of testing out ideas and solutions at a small scale before committing to anything big is one of the more exciting facets of the emergence of the cloud.

    Scott Sorley 2015/11/24 at 12:27 am

    Being able to test out things on a small scale reduces a lot of the stigma and commitment concern about ‘new’ initiatives. It is a really valuable proving ground to get people used to delivering small things. We all had to start delivering small projects before we graduated to doing bigger projects. It is early days, but I can see this also building into a richer skill (and confidence) development initiative where our people capability increases.

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