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How Flexibility and Agility Benefit Today’s Higher Ed Organizations

The EvoLLLution| How Flexibility and Agility Benefit Today’s Higher Ed Organizations
Cloud services do not offer institutions a panacea but can help them to create a business that meets students’ expectations and allows them the space to grow and evolve.

Today’s higher education market conditions, which demand institutions do more with less, have led “flexibility” and “agility” to become goals so sought-after that they are beginning to fall into the category of buzzwords. However, creating flexibility and agility in a higher education organization can spell significant benefits for the institution, especially when it comes to meeting the heightened expectations of today’s students. In this interview, Michelle Stiles discusses the benefits of nimbleness in the postsecondary context and shares her thoughts on how cloud-hosted systems and services can help institutions achieve these outcomes.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are a few of the most common challenges to flexibility and agility that higher education leaders need to navigate?

Michelle Stiles (MS): The structure of higher education organizations—the bureaucratic nature of how institutions are organized, the level of approval and review that everything goes through and the fact that the people who are making decisions are oftentimes not directly involved in the elements on which they are deciding—is a major challenge. These issues make getting the right information to the right people, and making sure they understand that information, absolutely critical.

Secondly, higher education operates under extensive regulations, policies and procedures. It can be very challenging to remain compliant when you’re trying to be flexible or agile, especially when it comes to launching a new program or transforming your IT infrastructure.

Third, when we’re talking about decision-making, there is a culture of consensus building in higher education. In private business, you have a few people making decisions that might be informed and supported by teams. There’s no aversion to decision-making in private business, where higher education is not that way. There’s more of a collegial approach and consensus building is a big activity in higher education.

Fourth, different departments often operate in silos so they may not have an organization-wide vision. When the organization as a whole looks at becoming flexible and agile, some people may buy in to that while others won’t. Transforming an organization to be more flexible can be really challenging in higher education.

A fifth challenge centers around funding, though this isn’t something that impacts us as much in Extension. Because we’re a self-supporting organization, we don’t necessarily face the same types of challenges as an organization that receives state funding. We have a little more flexibility to invest in innovation and be more agile. Oftentimes in higher education, though, funding is allocated far in advance. Making that funding responsive to market changes can be really challenging.

Finally, there is also a little bit of conservatism in higher education that does not support risk-taking or new approaches. Higher education organizations are much more cautious than private organizations. This risk aversion has an impact as well.

Evo: You made an interesting point about how the self-funded nature of Extension provide more freedom to make technology purchases that support divisional agility. Does that same reliance on internal revenue make it riskier to invest in IT as well?

MS: There are always two sides of the coin when you’re looking at benefits versus risks. One of the things we do at Extension, which we’ve done for several years, is maintain a percentage of revenue that we apply to innovative projects. It’s our skunkworks, for lack of a better term. We have to be more aware of what’s on the horizon and adapt to it.

This is a key part of our business strategy, having funding that’s allocated directly for innovation is important for us. That being said, because we are self-funding, we can’t go out and spend like venture capitalists. We have to be aware of how much we’re allocating for innovative investment to make sure we can still run our core business.

Self-funding can also be a hindrance, but once you start adopting that planning it becomes less risky.

Evo: What impact does a lack of flexibility have on an institution’s capacity to grow, scale and serve its students?

MS: Our students today are very sophisticated and they know what they want, especially when it comes to technology. They’re out there and working with technology all the time. If you aren’t able to keep up with that, and if you don’t have the flexibility to implement these systems, you don’t meet your students’ expectations. In an organization like ours, there’s the potential to lose market share if you can’t meet student expectations.

When you’re working within a bureaucratic structure, the time needed to navigate the system can really delay the reaction that an organization needs to make. In some cases, you can miss an opportunity to be innovative that might have been very profitable, or introduce a core function that would have really enhanced service to the student, because by the time you do it the technology might already be old. Additionally, along those lines, you spend so much time trying to get something through that by the time you implement the technology it might already be dated.

Evo: What impact do administrative silos have on the student experience?

MS: The goal in every organization is to minimize the impact of administrative silos on the student experience. You want the students to have the most access they can in the easiest way possible.

When an organization operates in silos, the chances of misinforming students or causing them frustration is greatly increased. Creating an open organization where the student can access whatever information they need when they need it is one of the really exciting things that’s happening now, and which technology enables, in higher education. Cloud computing is really an innovator in that as well.

To be able to have access to information from any type of device from anywhere you need it is so important to students today. It’s well known that most of our students today prefer to use their handheld devices—like phones and tablets—to access these services. What we need to keep in mind as higher education organizations is to make that information fully accessible and to organically plan your system so that students can get to all the different aspects of their life at the institution easily.

Evo: What are a few other ways that adopting cloud-based systems and services can help to overcome some of obstacles to agility and flexibility?

MS: Cloud-based systems and services greatly decreased our IT costs. The on-demand service allows us to increase our access to the system as needed, like during open-enrollment periods, which makes the systems function more dependably. This means that students don’t have the frustrations of not being able to connect quickly enough. If you’re looking at it from the student side, that is absolutely the element that stands apart.

Additionally, to look at the issue from my perspective as the CFO, moving to more cloud-based services decreases our space, facility and equipment demands. That means we can allocate those resources to more things that will directly impact students. It also allows us to take advantage of economies of scale—further increasing our capacity when it’s needed, providing more flexibility and predictability for students.

One of the other things moving to the cloud can do—not necessarily for our team because we have a great IT staff but for some of the smaller organizations—is increase access to IT talent and expertise. That gives organizational leaders the chance to have these solutions they may not have been able to offer on their own.

Another element that the cloud brings is peace of mind. With any IT organization, you spend a lot of time thinking about security and what happens if the unthinkable happens—if you need data recovery and things along those lines. By going to cloud-based services, if you have the right agreements in place, you have an extra level of protection.

Evo: What are a few key considerations that leaders need to take into account before moving major administrative systems to the cloud?

 MS: One of the things we did before we even made the step to look at providers is examine what we were doing internally and understand our pain points. We then developed a plan for what we really wanted to achieve from such a move. As with any technology or solution, you can’t go into it thinking it’s going to be a panacea that solves all your problems.

We looked at where we were—what was working well for us and what wasn’t—and thought about where we wanted to go.

After we understood what we were looking for and hoping to gain, we were able to perform due diligence to understand what different services were available. We looked into where our data would be hosted, what regulatory and political sensitivities we needed to navigate, how secure the data would be, the availability of data service level agreements, expected performance, things along those lines.

By examining what we were doing, what our pain points were and what we were hoping to achieve, we were able to look at all the different services and make a better selection.

Higher education, of course, has so many regulations that it was critical to take them into account when we were looking for a system. How will this help us be compliant with Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI DSS)? How will this help us be compliant with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)?

We also were very concerned about understanding the process of data recovery if unthinkable things happened. What kinds of safeguards would the vendor put into place and what would we need to put into place for business continuity? Another big one, especially in higher education, is understanding who owns the data. Although we hope this never has to happen, we also had to look at what the end of the relationship would look like if it has to go to that point. How do you terminate an agreement, if you need to, and how do you transition to another provider?

Finally, we needed to look at the flexibility of the provider we chose, because it can’t be a one-size-fits-all. That’s not the nature of higher education. While there are a lot of similarities between institutions, every organization has its unique elements so you need to understand how those differences can be accommodated.

Evo: Is there anything you would like to add about the benefits of flexibility and agility that cloud-based services can provider?

MS: The thing that is really important to us is the benefits that the cloud can bring to us as an organization and for our students. It’s often difficult to provide the types of services on your own that cloud partners can create, especially in terms of economies of scale. That’s one of the big things that’s really important when you’re looking at cloud service. It really helps to take away some of the issues when you’re looking at internal operations, especially when it comes to staffing and equipment purchases. You’re moving to a fee-for-service model and as long as you’ve investigated the organization you’re partnering with, it’s can greatly simplify your operations.

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