The Frontiers of Integration

It’s time for a refresher course on what campus enterprise integration is supposed to be about, and how to get there. Here, enterprise technology vendors and their campus partners respond to the call.

How do we move to the next level of integration on our campuses? The answer has been changing recently, as colleges and universities redefine what the experience of students and others should be like as they interact with our systems and services.

A Little History

In one sense, all of our systems and services are already integrated—in our clients’ minds, anyway. Those we serve already see the college or university as a single entity, whether or not we are set up to operate that way. Students don’t automatically assume that they are starting all over when they leave one building or office and enter another. The goal of integration is to remove as many rude shocks as possible from the clients’ actual experience of our necessarily disparate systems.

The first generation of integration focused on the ERP (enterprise resource planning) system, or on its predecessor, the loosely coupled suite of core administrative apps. There was a simple test for basic integration: Was there a single “people” file for all the applications? Did your name appear in multiple, separate database tables if you were a student, employee, or alum? If you changed your name or address in one place, did it automatically get updated everywhere else? The metric for application suite integration was to discover how much data about a person, course, student grant, gift, or other entity fell inconveniently outside the magic circle, leaving duplicated bits and pieces to be synced and cleaned up after a business process modified them in one area.

From There, to Here

Although it could have a profound effect on the quality of service provided, this integration metric was mostly a technical, back-office concept. Integration was largely a boon to those office workers who would have to compensate by manual adjustments for any lack of consistency in the system. We have moved beyond that standard of integration. The new emphasis is to think in terms of integrated services and seamless experiences for clients themselves, rather than just database-level integration.

This change is due to two factors: the increased focus on self-service, and the arrival of major functionality that clearly falls outside the ERP realm. Self-service demands deeper integration because there are fewer opportunities for a human attendant to gracefully help the user over the cracks in the pavement, as one system hooks up less than perfectly with another. The ERP setup, which traditionally provided the bulk of earlier forms of integration, now has to share the stage with learning management systems and other new environments. No one these days wishes to cobble together a mega application suite that would encompass card access, library, dining services, medical services, parking, calendar, mail, contacts, and file storage, and all the other services that our clientele interacts with on a daily basis.

Vendors Reach Out

The enormity of the new integration task has caused vendors to reach across product lines. “The business of education is far ahead of the commercial marketplace in terms of integration,” says John Speer, VP of Sales at Datatel Corp. (www.datatel.com). “Datatel customers are integrated with over 22 vendors’ applications, from security and food service to library systems. How many businesses provide all those services and expect to pull it all together?”

At SunGard SCT (www.sct.com), the company’s approach is to focus its efforts under the banner of the Unified Digital Campus (UDC). UDC is a combination of SCT’s integration tools (Luminis Data Integration), the integrated architecture of their application suite, and the company’s consulting expertise in tying campus applications together. “Integration will look very different on every campus; it’s not a case of simply using a workbook or pulling a solution out of the box,” says Susan LaCour, senior VP, Solutions Development.

“We leverage what a campus already has,” adds Andy Cooley, senior VP, Marketing. “We are not going to tear up the road and repave it.”

The glue to Jenzabar’s (www.jenzabar.com) solution is Jenzabar’s Internet Campus Solution (JICS), a portal-style solution for linking eLearning and other services. Jenzabar has been particularly driven to develop a plug-in approach since the company got its start via the acquisition of four software firms, and is still eager not to leave behind customers on any of their various platforms.

Portals and Dashboards

Portals provide the one-stop-shopping approach to integration. They bring together the entry points to multiple services on a single Web page and customize the contents of that page to the specific needs and roles of the person using it. Major ERP vendors, independent portal developers, and open source projects offer a wide range of finished products or frameworks for rolling your own. The portal is not a magic wand for integrating services—that still has to be done in the background—but the ease of use and consistency of access g'es a long way toward providing the unified experience that makes sense to users.

Specialized portals and dashboards form an important part of the solution at many institutions. For instance, an executive dashboard might pull together information about current enrollments, admissions applications, and up-to-the minute financial data to give top administrators a way to monitor the institution’s health.

The PI (Principal Investigator) Portal developed by the Ohio State University Research Foundation illustrates the value of this specialized approach. The point of the PI Portal, according to Anne Moffat, deputy executive director, is to provide information to faculty in a format that they can easily use and understand.

“We wanted to make routine project management information available even at 3 am, if that is what a PI wants. Users can see what their balance is, costs incurred, encumbrances—an updated picture of the entire financial status of their projects.” The system pulls information from Ohio State’s PeopleSoft system, including Grants Management, Financial Management, and Human Resources.

Do You Have a Chief Integration Officer?

This question is only partly tongue-in-cheek. It comes from the recognition that integration is not something you buy, but something you design. You can buy products that boast integration, both within the product itself and with other vendors’ specialized packages. But unless you design your institutional workflows to actually produce meaningful integration, the data will not transform your service and management environment.

Integration takes the same kind of participatory, inclusive, collaborative, cross-functional effort that implementing an ERP system takes. It demands a clear understanding of how one area creates information and how another department consumes it. It requires paying attention to the customer’s own workflow, and asking those most basic of questions: What is the client trying to get done, and what information or access d'es the client need to be successful and happy at it?

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