Next Generation Institutional Management: Beyond ERP and Best-of-Breed
The following interview is with Leif Anderson, chief information officer at Augsburg College. Today, more than ever before, higher education institutions are focusing on improving their operational efficiency and institutional management. It’s widely accepted that working with vendors is the ideal approach to finding the best system possible, but what’s unclear is what is actually available. As an industry, we’ve been bogged down in debates around best-of-breed versus enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, but is that representative of the state of the market? In this interview, Anderson sheds some light on these murky waters and shares his thoughts on what the future might hold for institutional management systems.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): A few weeks ago, we were chatting about institutional management systems and you mentioned that you thought that, as an industry, higher education has moved past the ERP vs. best-of-breed debate. Could you elaborate on that?
Leif Anderson (LA): The market has changed significantly over the last 10 years, driven by the pattern of disruptive innovation that actually makes things better over the long run. The debate, which was so present in our institution six to eight years ago [was] about whether or not our information systems investments were going to be single-vendor integrated investments. That was essentially the nirvana, the goal; could we get everything on the same vendor’s platforms?
The emergence of whole new categories of products—course management systems and the whole movement towards CRM in higher education that allows us to be very in touch with each student on a case management basis—these were products that looked great, that would meet student needs in compelling ways and they weren’t being developed by the big information system’s ERP vendors.
It has taken some time for us to realize that there’s actually a model here, that certainly if one can do it, there might be a core of information application systems at the center of a college. The information systems environment for even a small college in the modern age is going to be a series of great products that are somehow stitched together, and that’s really because of our work as information systems leaders.
Evo: In today’s institutional management system marketplace, what options do leaders have at their disposal?
LA: The choices that simply make this kind of stitching together model work well are not immediately obvious. Part of that has to do with the fact that a number of us have actually invested significantly over the past eight or 10 years in systems. Many of them you would now call legacy systems, but they’re important running products and they’re often at the core of our institution. We’re already so far in to stitching together these information systems that it’s not been a great marketplace for the kind of research and development of companies to come in and make the all in one argument.
For a good few years we had ERP vendors who were trying to sell us course management systems as a module to their system. That seems to have all fallen away now. The products that are emerging will often pitch that their core big ERP systems are built to play with the new emerging disruptive products that make higher education cutting edge and innovative. This notion of being open, this notion of being built to play is the hallmark of the fairly traditional ERP meeting this new world.
Evo: Looking to the future, what are the features and elements that you think will characterize “next-generation” institutional management systems?
LA: Mobile and self service go together. Anything having to do with advising or student financial systems or registration, anything to do with a student’s, faculty’s, staff’s or administrator’s life at the institution is going to be managed starting with a powerful self-service portal that takes the transactional work and puts it in the hands of those who want to track our work.
[These systems will also be] process-based and workflow-based. A number of us have workflow engines that are sometimes added on or piecemeal, but the next generation of ERP systems will really be designed on process. That process will be seamless and natural behind the scenes.
Another characteristic is that the information system is providing context-aware data and analytics. [With] context-sensitive analytics [staff can] immediately make a sound decision with the answers right there, all the variables around that decision and that kind of smart, just-in-time analytics as opposed to going to run reports.
There are some cloud-based, web-based, mobile-aware, context-sensitive data focused on process and really friendly and intuitive for the end user.
One more characteristic is that these products will be configurable enough that we’re going to install them and run them rather vanilla. We’re not going to be doing code customizations. In modern cloud-based products, all the institutions using this platform are running off the same code set and the applications environment is being updated by the software company that’s hosting these applications.
This is a really important idea moving forward: that the characteristics of my institution or my processes that are different need to be accommodated in that software’s ability to be configured to make sense of them. That means that it’s configurable in a user friendly way and doesn’t require code customization to fit my institution.
Evo: When we’re talking about the value of configurability, in a highly configurable system will there be processes that are effectively not used by an institution? In that scenario is it that an institution is running inefficiently or is it that there are just processes that a company might build in for independent instances?
LA: There’s an argument here that at the core of all these complex processes, there’s enough that’s common, there’s enough that’s great practice that’s based on highly efficient models of administration that we can adjust to them. There’s a notion of really powerful workflows and processes that are designed by the software vendors and are worthy of us adjusting to them and giving up some notion of how we’ve been different in the past. That’s part and parcel to this generation.
The winners are going to emerge based on their ability to really understand how higher education works.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Administrator