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Taking the Lead: How IT Delivers the Experience Students Expect

The EvoLLLution | Taking the Lead: How IT Delivers the Experience Students Expect
Central IT units have a significant influence on the capacity for an institution to provide students the consumer functionality they expect from any other industry.

If the past decade has taught higher education leaders anything, it is that they are no longer immune from transformations happening around them. The marketplace is more competitive. Students are thinking more like consumers. Higher education’s very value proposition is the target of constant critique. In order to meet the heightened expectations of today’s majority non-traditional student population, institutions need to address not only the content and the delivery mechanisms of their academic product, but the business processes used to support them. Today’s students expect a consumer experience similar to what they see in other industries when it comes to working with the administrative arm of the institution. In this interview, Joanna Young shares her thoughts on what it’s going to take for institutions to meet student expectations in this regard, and how IT can lead the charge.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it so important to create a strong customer experience now that students are so conscious of ROI?

Joanna Young (JY): Students are becoming increasingly savvy consumers and they are looking at institutions through the lens of technology, in much the same way they perceive retail or other experiences. If institutions don’t offer a strong customer experience—a robust digital experience—it makes students wonder why it is so difficult to do business with the institution. Ultimately, it taints their perception of the institution. Today, it’s increasingly important to have “enterprise grade” or “consumer grade” experiences as the new normal.

Evo: Why have universities been so slow to adapt to this fundamental change in the way students expect the institution to work on the business side?

JY: The two primary centers of gravity at any institution are going to be the academic enterprise and research. The focus has been on academic technology in the classroom and, in the research space, there has been an incredible focus on minimally sustaining research portfolios as federal government funding is shrinking.

The center of gravity hasn’t been on the customer experience because, traditionally, students haven’t been thought of as customers. Institutions have been slow to adapt because they haven’t thought of the customer experience as critical to sustaining and advancing the educational experience and the research portfolio.

That now is starting to change. A lot of institutions are starting to realize the importance of multiple types of customers—students, parents, alumni, visitors—and they’re starting to realize that they have to pay attention to the customer experience. That means thinking about technology differently and investing a little bit differently than they have been.

Evo: What role does the institutional IT unit have in creating that student experience?

JY: Central IT needs to play an extremely strong role in making sure an institution has the base it needs upon which to build a more customer-centric strategy. We have to have ubiquitous WiFi. If you don’t have a really strong network and really good WiFi, it doesn’t matter what kind of strategy you have because you’re not going to be able to deliver it. Central IT has got to drive that and make sure the advancement is right and that it’s sustainable.

The other thing they’ve got to do is be a strong influencer, or directly drive more scalable ERP. Things like paying bills, doing payroll and producing a balance sheet, those are very common processes and transactions. The CIO and central IT really need to be strongly influencing, if not primarily driving getting the customization out of all that. There’s just no reason for many of these customizations and higher ed is spending too much on them, to the detriment of other things they should be investing in.

The third thing is the CIO and central IT need to be instrumental in bringing new and interesting solutions onto the radar for the other primary stakeholders. Let’s take CRM for example. It’s a novel concept to a lot of higher ed leaders that you would employ customer relationship management technology. You have to be able to tell them a story about how it can help them, how it could help drive better retention, better student incomes, a better admissions experience. A lot of them are not going to be able to come to these conclusions on their own. They’re relying on the CIO and central IT, as they rightly should, to point out to them these contemporary solutions that can be helpful.

Evo: What are some of the advantages of partnering with an external provider on something like that as opposed to building the system in house?

JY: The advantages are significant if you choose the right provider and you have the right contract. When you’re buying these solutions, you’re buying automated processes. You should be able to do 80 percent or greater pretty much out of the box.  With anything else, you need to really ask yourself if there’s any value in customizing because you can greatly reduce the amount of money you spend by going with an out-of-the-box approach.

There are a lot of great things about the faculty culture. These are amazing, brilliant people and that’s great in the academic side. But having so many individual business units is challenging when you’re looking at running common enterprise functions. It’s not necessary for someone in a finance or accounting or human resources role within a particular academic unit to be making up and managing their own processes in this space. They shouldn’t have to do that and they shouldn’t be incented to do that. It should all be done pretty much the same.

There’s a lot of higher ed that has said, “We need to build this ourselves or do it ourselves because we’re so different.” My answer is that there’s zero value to our students in having multiple units in any institution doing these basic functions differently or in some customized way. People don’t come here because we onboard new employees in a dozen different ways.

Evo: What kind of impact does greater process efficiency created by central IT have on the student experience?

JY: It directly impacts the student experience if you’re doing these back-end processes in a really streamlined way. It should ease the production of statements, paying bills, the basic stuff that every institution has to do in terms of interacting with students. More importantly, if we can decrease the investment and the operational run rate, it should free up valuable resources to focus on things that are more innovative and interesting, things that are going to delight the student and delight the customer.

You can think about three things: efficiency, effectiveness and innovation. In the ERP space, it has to work, but once you’ve got it working you should be able to just really drive the efficiency and the cost model down. We should be investing as much as possible in the innovation space and make it more effective for students to self-serve.

Evo: What are some of the most significant roadblocks to making the changes we’ve been talking about a reality on university campuses?

JY: The biggest challenge is the state of the marketplace. There continues to be pressure from both federal and state government to drive costs down, improve outcomes and matriculate more highly educated people into the workforce. There’s also consumer pressure. People are saying, “If I’m going to spend $100,000 or $200,000, I’m going to make sure that when I come out the other side, I can be earning enough to pay off those loans to make that investment worth it.”

If you couple the government pressures, consumer pressure and then all the disruptors in the marketplace, traditional institutions have a lot of challenges with which to contend. Internally, you’re dealing with institutions who have done things a certain way for hundreds, based on models that are thousands of years old. What they’re starting to realize is their time-to market is not fast enough.

If you think about the pace at which technology moves and the type of new and different workforce we need in this day and age, institutions need to get faster at creating the institutional products and the research products that are going to keep up with that. You can’t think in terms of years, you’ve got to start thinking in one or two years or even months because the market is getting impatient.

Evo: What can innovative leaders do to actually help institutions overcome some of these obstacles to change?

JY: I’m a big fan of iteration and refinement. You’ve got to pick a couple things and see where you can make a difference. These days, with the state of technology, you can put something together pretty quickly. If you get all that stuff right and it’s a nice scalable solution, you can start small but then you can start adding and building around it.

This interview has been edited for length.

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