Published on 2015/11/06
The EvoLLLution | Beyond the Cloud: Embrace the Exostructure
Cloud tools alone aren’t enough to guarantee an institution’s agility or flexibility. An exostructure strategy that clearly defines institutional goals and maximizes the use of appropriate technologies will have a better long-term impact.

“We’re a cloud-first organization.” This idea is fast becoming the mantra within many higher education IT organizations, and for a good reason: moving administrative systems to the cloud can have many benefits. However, putting systems in the cloud is not necessarily a formula for instant agility. While cloud solves a variety of operational problems, it presents its own challenges impacting agility. Instead, the key to agility is to deliberately design it into the institutional architecture, by looking beyond the IT systems and asking: what else can be relocated to the cloud to create more agility?

Moving IT systems to the cloud can have many benefits. Indeed, one of the most significant innovations in enterprise IT over the last decade has been the proliferation of cloud-based “-as-a-Service” functions (software, platform, and infrastructure) driven by the development of scalable virtualization technologies. Cloud technologies can greatly reduce costs for data-center, equipment, licensing and labor, while also substantially increasing capacity and capabilities. Cloud applications can provide better quality and scope of services than in-house IT, where the provider is scaling massive resources across large numbers of customers to each customer’s benefit. Moreover, cloud systems can offer much greater resilience. For example, with cloud’s lower infrastructure costs and ability to clone whole collections of systems and applications, it becomes possible for smaller organizations to implement meaningful disaster-recovery sites and operations. Most importantly, from the strategic perspective, with fewer resources devoted to maintaining infrastructure, the organization can instead turn its focus toward developing and executing a digital strategy to increase competitiveness.

Does moving to the cloud automatically make the organization more agile? To be sure, the ability for larger, older higher education institutions to be able to move with the speed and nimbleness of new, smaller competitors is of increasing importance as technology lowers the traditional barriers to entry of location, time and quality. As the higher ed world evolves toward hyper-competitiveness, those institutions that win out will not necessarily be the largest, the most-established, or the wealthiest, but will be those that are most able to adapt to change quickly. Yet while the cloud solves some operational problems, it’s not an instant recipe for the agility needed for this age of hyper-change. Some traditional impediments to agility don’t go away when moving to the cloud: big applications with significant configuration still take time and resources to change, especially if there are downstream impacts; cloud applications may still have defects that need to be tested and fixed; vendors juggle competing priorities from their customers when planning upgrades; cloud services still require contracts that may span many years with no ability to terminate for convenience; and cloud apps that lack configurability hamper your agility nearly as much as self-hosted apps. Moreover, the cloud brings new challenges of its own: integrating data across cloud systems can be time-consuming and costly; lack of interconnectivity between providers makes it difficult to change; business continuity in case of vendor failure, or even cyber-criminal attack, takes on a new dimension when an entire IT ecosystem can, technically, be decommissioned in minutes; and storing critical data out-of-house can be a real concern from a security and data-governance perspective. Finally, simply migrating old apps and business processes to the cloud—thereby recreating the same in-house constraints in the new cloud environment—will not yield any improvements.

Indeed, if agility is the goal, consider shifting the focus, from simply “moving to the cloud,” to embracing the cloud paradigm as a strategic opportunity to redesign business processes and become better at executing the mission. Redesigning the organization in a cloud paradigm can break down the silos, streamline operations, improve overall productivity and collaboration, and support a truly global operation. Done right, a successful cloud strategy can foster opportunities for new cloud-based services, allow institutions to rapidly pilot new technologies and services, reduce time to market, and quickly adopt new, or scale-up existing, capabilities. It is here that there can be real, positive, impact on agility and the institution’s ability to innovate. How to get it done?

Enter the Exostructure Strategy. One approach to cloud-based agility is to strategically leverage external partnerships, applications and services from the cloud to support institutional functions. In their report “Top 10 Strategic Technologies Impacting Education in 2015,” information technology research and consulting firm Gartner identifies “Exostructure” as a key strategic tool for the future. In Gartner’s words, “Exostructure strategy means acquiring the critical capability of interoperability as a deliberate strategy to leverage the increasing numbers of partnerships, tools and services in the education ecosystem.” Similar to strategic sourcing, other industries have been doing this successfully using digital technology since the early 2000’s: through business-process outsourcing (BPO), integrated supply-chains, remote back-office operations and global call-centers, all connected digitally to the core through a variety of standardized protocols, APIs, and web-service definitions. Higher education may be late to this game, but the opportunities abound as the higher ed ecosystem of tools, vendors, services, as well as the technologies to link them altogether, have matured substantially in the last five years. The number of cloud-based technologies and services that can quickly be plugged into the core architecture is significant and growing rapidly.

The right exostructure strategy can enhance agility across four dimensions: capabilities, market reach, efficiency and innovation. Plugging into the cloud can quickly add new capabilities—such as coaching, personalized learning, or video transcription—with low up-front investment, and can rapidly scale up existing capabilities—such as enrollment management or bookstore operations—without increasing fixed costs. Cloud-based platforms for mobile learning and competency-based education can support quick entry into new market segments, new formats, and increase reach into existing markets. Leveraging outsourced services that benefit from economies of scale, such as virtualized data-centers, call-centers, or helpdesk, can drive down costs while increasing quality or throughput. And the ability to easily integrate technologies, platforms and services through open-standard integrations such as LTI—instead of building them in-house—speed up the institution’s ability to adopt new innovations.

Of course, having all of these options doesn’t guarantee agility: what’s needed is a systematic approach to deliberately design agility into the fabric of the institution. Retaining focus on the mission is critical. Guiding questions should include: What capabilities are core to the mission? What capabilities differentiate the institution and provide sustainable competitive advantage? How many are run-of-the-mill activities that don’t provide any differentiation? Can they be done better, faster or more efficiently in the higher ed ecosystem? For example, one might ask “Does it make sense for our institution to be in the data-center business when it can be done so much better by [insert your favorite cloud provider here]?” Some of these questions have no easy answer. Some capabilities may not add value to the mission but cannot be moved to the cloud for regulatory or governance reasons.

Finally, avoid thinking that there is any one institutional structure that’s going to work best. Instead, let strategy drive the structure. Institutions serve many diverse audiences with different needs, and each audience may require a unique digital engagement strategy. For example, does it make sense for an adult-learner population served by adjunct faculty to take courses scheduled according to an undergraduate calendar (where “calendar” is an institutional structure)? Think of the institution itself as a platform: for learning and formation, for research and for the common social good. As with any successful platform strategy, adopt an architecture that is flexible, reconfigurable and able to support complementary capabilities—inside (infrastructure) and outside (exostructure) the campus walls—through stable, modular interfaces. How can digital technology be leveraged across these modular units to create improvements that are mutually reinforcing?

Constant change is here to say. For higher education, complexity will continue to increase, and the ability to adapt will differentiate the truly successful from those that are merely surviving. Moving administrative systems to the cloud is one step toward becoming more agile, but greater impact can be achieved through a strategic use of digital technology to leverage significant modules of capability from the higher education ecosystem. The key to doing this successfully is to focus on the mission and strengths of the institution to understand where and how to invest. Ultimately, no single architecture may warrant investment in a rapidly changing environment. Instead, invest in your own agility. Embrace the exostructure.

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Readers Comments

Jacks Collins 2015/11/06 at 10:09 am

I was under the impression that the cloud essentially is the hub of an exostructure strategy, i.e. partnering with experts in particular tasks to make those tasks more cost-effective and efficient. I’m not sure I’m entirely clear on the difference between a cloud-first strategy and an exostructure strategy.

Margaret King 2015/11/06 at 11:20 am

I think the difference is in strategically choosing the pieces that make sense for your institution rather than taking an all-or-nothing approach to switching over. It’s likely there are some things, even if it’s a small number, that you do better (or faster or more cheaply) in-house than your chosen cloud provider. There’s no point in giving up the areas you’re already doing well.

Jennifer Parker 2015/11/06 at 4:39 pm

That’s where the assessment phase is really crucial. Unless you have a solid grasp on what you’re already doing well—in addition to what the strengths and weaknesses are of your prospective cloud provider—you could end up transferring tasks or operations that would actually be better served in-house. You want to be savvy enough about your own operations to be able to pick and choose the kinds of services that makes sense.

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