Published on 2014/05/16
AUDIO | Best-of-Breed vs. ERP: What’s Best for Higher Ed Today?
Due to its adaptability and customization potential, best-of-breed wins out when compared with ERP for higher education institutional management.
The following interview is with Joanna Young, chief information officer and associate vice-president for finance at the University of New Hampshire. Young recently gave an interview where she described the role of the postsecondary CIO as a “CIO Plus.” She has kindly taken some time out to discuss that concept in more detail, and to share her thoughts on whether the best and most efficient approach to institutional system management is best-in-breed software or enterprise resource planning (ERP).

The EvoLLLution (Evo): You mentioned in your recent Q&A with Campus Technology that today’s CIOs need to operate as a “CIO Plus.” What does that mean in the context of responsibilities?

Joanna Young (JY): Formally, I have finance and budget responsibilities in addition to information technology, so I’m very deeply involved in day-to-day financial operations and a variety of strategic endeavors the university is doing, ranging from buildings to technology to strategic hiring. When you think about the CIO Plus role, it is extremely valuable for both my finance responsibilities and my technology responsibilities to have a much more holistic view of the university and its operations and strategy. Both of those areas are made better by having that diverse perspective.

Evo: In the same interview, you discussed the challenge of integrating a new college into the university’s fold. What were your goals and concerns in that integration process?

JY: First off, when you’re doing an integration process — [either] internally through the reorganization or whether you’re doing it with a more external focus with an organization that’s completely outside — my first concern was the very real nuts-and-bolts of doing it.

The financial things and the legal work have to be done correctly. We have to pay attention to important things around the workforce that we’re integrating and things like benefits and payroll. They have to be done in a responsive way, both to the organization that’s coming in and the organization that’s receiving.

The meatier challenges tend to be around culture and really different ways of working and different objectives and goals between the two organizations. When I think about my goals and concerns in that area, [after] we’ve handled the nuts and bolts of finances and workforce, now we have to move on to the more qualitative and less tangible aspects of making sure we’re sifting through different priorities and different ways of working. If you’re the receiving organization, you need to listen to the organization that’s coming in to learn from them. It’s [about] being open and receptive to potentially different ways of doing work, incorporating different priorities and shifting priorities to make sure we’re leveraging the important asset that’s coming into the organization.

Evo: What are the benefits of universities taking the best-of-breed approach to institutional management compared to ERP?

JY: The nature of ERP — how products and solutions get selected and how they get implemented — is changing, and CIOs and other leaders need to be paying attention to this. If you think back over the history of technology and ERP, people have gone with large vendors, implemented these [large] ERP suites and there has been a one-big-size-fits-most [approach] for many of the functions you see for ERP. This is really turning on its head in terms of saying, “Okay, we have to have one solution that’s largely from one vendor.” What this has often led to is a lowest common denominator approach: “Well, this system is really great, maybe, with human capital management but as far as ERP is concerned, it doesn’t give us everything we need in terms of finance or planning or analytics. But, hey, we need to go with this large system.”

Things are really shifting to a best-of-breed focus where you can have what technology has to offer today. You can choose dashboarding and analytics solutions, you can choose finance and planning and budgeting solutions for higher education, you can select the right student or advancement or other CRM systems or whatever the case may be, and those can work together more effectively.

When you translate that or you think about that through the lens of our schools and colleges trying to manage all the different units, I would add our auxiliary units or our other units, that provides us opportunity to do what I call ‘customization at scale.’ Let’s just say we have some unique way I have to handle our athletic operations. With the systems we have today, with being able to choose best-of-breed, we can say, “The requirements for athletics [used] to be forcing the round peg into the square hole and we’re doing lots of workaround. Now that we have the best-of-breed strategy, we’ll be better able to accommodate their requirements.”

This brings us a level of effectiveness, efficiency and opportunity, not just at the institutional level but even at the unit level.

Evo: Looking more closely at the best-of-breed approach, what are the cons of taking this approach to institutional management?

JY: If you go with a best-of-breed approach, you’re going to be dealing with many vendors. You’re going to have many contracts and there is overhead [costs] associated with that. You may have diversity in the overhead that goes into managing all those solutions. You’ve got to be very clear-eyed about the different costs you’re going to incur. Vendor management, different contracts, the integration that you have to do between systems [are all things you need to consider].

That takes me to the next con, which is that you also need to be clear-eyed [about the integration between different systems]. CIOs need to be including that in their decision factor when going with the best-of-breed versus using one vendor for multiple, or even all, aspects of ERP. The most important thing I would say is that you have to think about the impact to the people who actually have to use these products in doing their work and serving customers using these systems. You have to think about the impact on the personnel and make sure you’re handling the change appropriately.

When you wrap all this together, what it comes down to is that you can’t just look at the vendor cost of the ERP and the functions and the cost of going with best-of-breed solutions; you have to look at all these costs and impacts, and that’s hard work. As CIOs, we’ve got to understand all these different aspects and categories and work with our teams and all the internal stakeholders to make sure we’re getting good data and making good choices.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about balancing the positives of best-of-breed against ERP, and what CIOs need to consider when deciding between the two approaches to system management?

JY: One of the greatest challenges — whether you’re choosing ERP or you’re choosing something else — is that the industry is moving so quickly.

I strongly believe you have to iterate and refine. Large ERP projects don’t work anymore. You can’t take three, five or 10 years to implement ERP; by the time you do it, it’s obsolete — business processes will have changed and the whole work will have changed. You’ve got to [think about what you can do in a shorter time frame] and how you can be moving toward what you feel the ultimate solution is. That’s extremely difficult and challenging for CIOs.

To come full-circle back to CIO Plus, that’s why CIOs who are willing and able to take on additional aspects of responsibility within their organization are going to have perspectives and be able to bring greater value as organizations are considering these work choices

This transcript has been edited for length..

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Key Takeaways

  • When it comes to best-of-breed vs. ERP, postsecondary leaders should look to best-of-breed to meet the needs of today’s higher education environment.
  • ERP software cannot serve all of the unique needs of their clients and may take too long to implement.
  • The biggest challenges of best-of-breed are maintaining relationships with the variety of service providers and ensuring smooth integration.

Readers Comments

Francis Beyer 2014/05/16 at 10:38 am

CIOs no longer have the luxury of only being involved in strictly IT-related issues. As technology’s potential for increased innovation, efficiency and success is uncovered, higher ed administration is increasingly turning to their IT departments for strategic direction. Young aptly defines the new job title as “CIO Plus.” It’s an exciting time for those in IT who have long awaited their chance to shine. CIOs are uniquely positioned to understand both the opportunities that lie ahead and what needs to happen in the back-end to make them a reality.

    Helen C 2014/05/16 at 1:39 pm

    I agree with the notion of having a CIO who is able to relate their work to other business needs/practices. Unfortunately, some institutions have taken a turn for the worse and have flipped this position to become something largely strategic, without the appropriate technical knowledge. I recently consulted with an institution and was appalled to learn that the new CIO had a finance background but very little experience working in IT. In the end, it was a difficult experience, as he had trouble visualizing how to integrate our solutions with the institution’s other systems. IT is constantly changing, and even those within the industry can have a hard time keeping up to date. I can’t imagine what it would be like for someone without an IT background.

g s c 2014/05/19 at 5:38 pm

I agree with Young’s point that ERPs are no longer viable for the forward-looking institution. Not only do they take a long time to implement, but their inability to be heavily customized means we risk alienating a growing group of students. We’ve experienced a major demographic shift in higher ed, and the students who are coming to us today have more needs — and greater diversity of needs — than before. They require best-of-breed solutions that can be customized at scale.

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