Small Colleges Grapple with the Future of Enterprise TechnologyMarty Ringle | Chief Information Officer, Reed College
Thirty years ago, small college technology officers faced a strategic question: Should they pursue a best-of-breed approach to administrative computing or would it make more sense to embrace an enterprise system that had the potential to integrate the majority of business functions within a single, seamless platform? At that time, the answer seemed obvious: Enterprise systems such as Banner, Colleague, Peoplesoft, Jenzabar were definitely the way to go. While a best-of-breed product might be the preferred solution for an individual office, the challenge of exchanging data between different systems, the risk of generating flawed reports from inconsistent databases, the staffing required to manage multiple software packages from different vendors, and many other problems created numerous headaches for the institution as a whole. Since the 1990s, integrated enterprise resource planning systems (ERPs) have been viewed as the most cost-effective strategy, especially for smaller colleges.
So why, 30 years later, do we find ourselves once again asking whether a best-of -breed strategy might be superior to an enterprise system strategy?
During the past three decades many of the drawbacks of the best-of-breed approach have been successfully resolved. For example, moving data among different systems has becoming increasingly manageable thanks to industry data standards and built-in Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). University data governance initiatives have yielded data management protocols that can dramatically reduce the risk of generating inconsistent reports from multiple data sources. And, thanks to cloudsourcing, a best-of-breed strategy doesn’t automatically require additional IT staff (and in some cases can actually reduce staffing requirements).
So, does this mean that enterprise systems at smaller colleges are headed for the scrap heap as we all shift to best of breed? Not quite.
At the heart of every administrative computing environment is a core database that stores essential information about the institution and its students, faculty and staff, both present and past. In one way or another, the array of other systems designed to handle student recruitment, human resources, financial aid, course registration, student records rely on the core database.
In an ideal future, the core database—whether hosted in the cloud or on-premise—would serve as the institution’s basic enterprise system and all other administrative (and some academic) systems would be designed to easily attach or detach to the core. The dichotomy of best of breed vs. enterprise would fall by the wayside. The new paradigm would fuse both traditional models into a unified but fluid strategy, conveniently adaptable to the changing needs of the institution.
Now for the good news: The future is nearly here! Software vendors are keenly aware of the powerful benefits of this paradigm shift. Specialized software companies that consider their products to be best-of-breed go to great lengths to make their products easy to integrate with major enterprise systems. And major enterprise system vendors are aware that facilitating connections with best-of-breed products is a winning long-term strategy.
What does this mean for smaller colleges grappling with strategic decisions about the future of their enterprise computing environment? Here are four things to consider:
- Cleaving to a traditional enterprise system strategy will become less and less cost-effective and viable with time.
- Adopting a hybrid enterprise/best-of-breed strategy will involve a complex and potentially expensive transitional period.
- But the outcome of the transition will be a computing environment that is far better at meeting the rapidly evolving requirements of college operations.
- Within the next few years competitive pressures will drive them to adopt an enterprise strategy that must be more agile, effective and financially sustainable.
The second item––the transition from a current enterprise system to a hybrid strategy—is the one that many smaller colleges are already encountering. Not surprisingly, chief financial officers and chief information officers are confronting questions such as: How does one go about mapping the path from a “full-service” enterprise system to a hybrid administrative computing environment? What is the “right” set of best-of-breedsystems for the institution? How does one manage the costs of implementing a hybrid environment and an existing enterprise system while the transition is underway? How can the migration from on-premise systems to cloud-based systems be done seamlessly, without disrupting critical college operations?
As anyone who has been involved with an enterprise system transition knows, these are not easy questions to answer. Yet, experience has shown us that they can—and eventually must—be addressed. As with all information technologies, enterprise systems that were developed more than three decades ago will give way to newer technologies sooner or later. Colleges that cling to traditional, on-premise enterprise software will find themselves spending more and getting less each year.
Rather than ignoring the problem and hoping that it will go away, small colleges should take proactive steps now to evaluate future enterprise and best-of-breedsystem strategies. Enterprise vendors should be questioned carefully regarding their plans for interoperability with best-of-breed products and specialized software vendors should likewise be questioned about the ability of their products to connect smoothly with core enterprise systems. To constrain potential costs, small colleges should partner with one another to conduct a needs assessment, product evaluation, contract negotiation, implementation, deployment, and training.
Individually, small colleges may not have a great of leverage in shaping the course of future administrative computing environments. Collectively, however, their voices can be quite powerful. Now is the time to start raising those voices.
Author Perspective: Administrator