Technology Implementation >> The Power of TWO

Nobody ever said that campus technology implementation were easy, but some schools are finding that for the toughest challenges, two pedaling in tandem are infinitely better than one.

There's no shortage of great pairings throughout history. George Washington and John Adams, James Watson and Francis Crick; Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. In all of these cases, both parties teamed up for a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. Without exclusion, the results were exceptional. The same types of benefits can be seen in academia, where college and universities have similar opportunities to partner with vendors to tackle tough technology implementations. Over the last few years, a handful of schools big and small have greatly benefited from situations like these, partnering closely with vendors to prove that two heads are indeed better than one.

Open Source ROI

Perhaps one of the best examples of a successful school/vendor partnership is the case of the University of Illinois, where an ordinary ERP implementation turned into a groundbreaking partnership with SunGard SCT (www.sungardsct.com). The alliance began back in 2000, when the 68,000-student public university embarked on a project to replace more than 160 of its core administrative systems more contemporary set of applications from SunGard SCT.

The search for a commercial integration solution that could utilize standards such as XML and JMS began with a traditional request for proposal (RFP). When that went unfulfilled, school officials became proactive, approached SCT, and asked the vendor to collaborate on an approach that would expose the data in the Banner system using these standards. The specifics of the deal were unusual: Illinois would pay for the development of the gateway, and in return would receive a royalty for the first ten sales once the product was commercialized. According to Rich Mendola, associate VP for administrative Information Technology Services, the deal would be a “win-win” for everyone involved, provided that the technical staff from both organizations were willing and able to pull it off.

So You Want to Partner?

 PARTNERING WITH VENDORS can be pretty much like learning to drive a standard-shift car—getting it right takes time, focus, and coordination. Of course, most things in life are easier with a little inside information. With this in mind, Mike Cooper, program coordinator of the Technology Support Center at West Virginia University, shares some advice for schools thinking about formalizing a relationship with a vendor they already know and appreciate.

Communicate. The first step toward any successful partnership is honesty. Form a committee to state goals and expectations clearly. Put the expectations and goals in writing, perhaps in the form of a mission statement. Openly communicate that statement to the vendor so that everyone is on the same page.

Divide tasks evenly. The whole notion of a “partnership” implies that both entities— school and vendor—will work together for a greater good. This d'esn’t mean relying on the vendor for everything; instead, it means working to divvy up the task list so both parties can pitch in.

Get it in writing. Once you’ve communicated goals and distributed tasks, it’s important to put everything into a contract so responsibilities are clear from the get-go. Chances are that once you draw it up, you won’t need to refer to this document again. But if there’s trouble with a contract, you’re covered.

Benchmark. No partnership works without consistent checks and balances. Set performance goals and reevaluate as you reach them. This kind of benchmarking motivates both parties, and keeps everyone abreast of how the project is progressing over time.

Celebrate success. Once the project is finished, don’t ignore the accomplishment: Announce the milestone to the community at large and “eternalize” the effort with a case study or recap. Reward participants with a dinner or day off. Remember: The best way to keep people interested is to reward them when they merit the favor.

“In a best-case scenario, we were hoping for something we could use that would also serve as a revenue generator for us,” he says now, looking back. “There was some risk involved because nobody had ever done this before, but we figured we had nothing to lose.”

In reality, though, the partnership wasn’t so cut-and-dry. As things got going, the code that the university programmers contributed worked well, but the code that SCT wrote to accompany it was problematic. Convincing SCT programmers that the problems resided on their side of the code, says Mendola, was a challenge; in the end, it took some weeks, and the situation was resolved only when both parties met for two days in an off-site “summit” to iron out the problem. At that meeting, Mendola and his colleagues at UI presented SCT programmers with more than 200 pages of documentation addressing details of the problem. Understandably, SCT programmers were skeptical of the claims, and laboriously walked through the documentation before they realized university’s argument had merit. Correcting those problems took months.

Finally, the integration project was finished at the end of 2001. Not only did the parties come together to iron out their differences, but they also seized the opportunity to donate the resulting code to a new organization they created for the purposes of promulgating the benefits of standards-based enterprise application integration: the OpenEAI Foundation (www.openeai.org). Yet, OpenEAI was only one positive by-product of the UI/SCT alliance; though Illinois paid $250,000 for thecode from SunGard SCT, today Mendola says the school will earn up to twice that amount in royalties from its vendor partner as a result of the alliance.

“They sell products and we get money,” Mendola concludes. “Everybody wins. That sounds like a good partnership to me.”

Making Wireless Happen

Schools are partnering with technology resellers and integrators to succeed with their implementations, too. At Hiwassee College (TN), for instance, a five-year, $1 million grant from the US Department of Education served as the impetus for officials to partner with education technology and services provider CDW-G (www.cdwg.com). Mark Moore, activities director and academic network administrator at the college, says that the school had been contemplating a wireless network for years before submitting its grant application in early 2003. When the federal funding came through that November, Hiwassee went through a lengthy RFP process and chose CDW-G as integrator, largely because of the vendor’s commitment to work with the school to put a plan into action.

The plan began with three or four conference calls, during which representatives from the CDW-G technology team questioned Hiwassee officials about precisely what they wanted. What were their expectations? What were their concerns? How did they want the technology to impact campus life? What was their budget? CDW-G listened as Hiwassee technologists responded in turn. When all was said and done, the solution provider had a solid sense of what technology would work best, and how the CDW-G team might go about implementing it. When asked about this preliminary process, Moore remembers that the barrage of questions was actually reassuring.

“It was more than just a questionnaire,” says Moore, looking back. “The way those initial discussions went, CDW-G gave us the sense that they really were interested in building a solution that was unique to Hiwassee.”

The solution, which ultimately revolved around products from wireless vendor Proxim Wireless Networks (www.proxim.com), was not without its challenges. For buildings on campus with fiber-optic Ethernet connections, the implementation was straightforward. For those structures without hardwired Internet, however, CDW-G had to rely on strong wireless antennas to broadcast the signal into hard-to-reach areas. In the end, CDW-G farmed out some of the actual installation work to a handful of local solution providers. Still, Moore says that because the integrator involved these resellers from the very beginning, there were no surprises as the job unfolded, and the trio of implementation teams was able to strategize the deployment of 56 Proxim Orinoco access points in all.

The University of Illinois/SCT deal was unusual: U of I would contribute code for its open source gateway, SCT would blend it and code of their own in a proprietary solution, and the school would get a royalty the first 10 times SCT sold the gateway to other clients.

To say the $100,000 implementation went well would be an understatement. Today, Moore says that wireless coverage on the school’s Madisonville, TN campus is actually broader and more reliable than local cellular coverage. Behind the scenes, the school was so pleased with CDW-G that officials already have contacted the integrator about using more of the grant money to launch a laptop refresh program as well. Moore expects that CDW-G will approach this next implementation the same way it tackled the first—by asking a ton of questions and actually listening to the answers. “We can’t wait to partner with them again,” he says, “We want to develop a broad relationship that lasts for years to come.”

Living with Laptops

A laptop refresh program already is in place at San Juan College (NM), where it has been part of a much broader technology initiative with hardware vendor partner Gateway (www.gateway.com). When San Juan expanded to multiple campuses, the school required a solution to refresh outmoded technology without adding buildings and increasing wiring and cabling costs. Because of previous problems with multiple vendors, school officials wanted to standardize on one provider. San Juan officials also wanted to reduce total cost of ownership.The school had had positive experiences in the past with Gateway, so officials invited the vendor to offer a technology solution. Following formal presentations and detailed conversations about the college’s objectives, the partnership launched in early 2002.

While this collaboration has yielded everything from servers to wireless access points, the predominant phase has focused on PCs and laptops, and it kicked off that first summer when San Juan officials purchased a new Gateway laptop for every faculty member. Since then, with discounted education pricing from the vendor, the school has updated 25 percent of its computers every year (the most recent batch consisted of Gateway 450Es and M275s). San Juan administrators have extended this environment to students, with laptop carts that convert any classroom into a computer lab. According to Shah Ardalan, VP for Technology Services, the solution works because it fosters flexibility and keeps students interested.

“Our enrollment has grown 10 percent a year every year for the last five [years],” says Ardalan. “In order for us to stay a leader, we need a technology supplier who is a team player, and Gateway truly is.”

In other areas of the college, Gateway representatives have worked with San Juan officials to deliver additional technology solutions. In some of the school’s administrative and high-end computer labs, for instance, San Juan is using Gateway r-Series PCs. For campus information and internal network messaging,several 42-inch and 46-inch Gateway plasma displays have been placed in the student lounge, the data center, and in meeting rooms. Finally, to keep campuses connected, San Juan implemented more than 30 Gateway 955, 975, and 995 rackmount servers. Ardalan says that combined with the Gateway 840 SAIA storage enclosure, this hardware enables the college to continue to expand while saving space, time, and money.

Today, due in large part to these hardware initiatives and partnerships, Ardalan says that San Juan has created a stable, expandable, and reliable technology infrastructure. With the laptops in particular, faculty members have integrated technology into their coursework like never before. By connecting their notebooks into a classroom’s multimedia system, professors can access projectors, cameras, and DVD players that they can incorporate in any way possible. One biology faculty member has taken the technology even further, and has launched a project in which she uses her notebook in an undeveloped area of campus to observe the wildlife, and to record data to share with her class. According to Ardalan, similarly innovative uses for the school’s new laptops are in the works constantly.

Providing Top IT Resources

Ardalan himself is the byproduct of another winning partnership—a partnership San Juan has with SunGard Collegis (www.sungardcollegis.com). Collegis provides colleges and universities with on-site technology management services across a wide range of IT operations. In essence, the provider exists to partner with schools and help them strategically apply technology to support their objectives. The firm d'es this by sending consultants out into the field and engineering change from within a school’s IT department. To wit: Though Ardalan’s title at San Juan is VP/Technology Services, he receives his paychecks and health insurance from Collegis. Across the country, there are literally hundreds just like him.

At Valencia Community College (FL), for instance, where school officials were concerned that they were not doing enough to communicate with students, Collegis consultants responded with a Web-based campus portal designed to give students a broad view of all of the campus info they need. The “Atlas” portal debuted in Summer 2002. Based on Web technology from Campus Pipeline (www.campuspipeline.com), Atlas serves as a learning community where members share a common e-mail domain, access to college news and events, calendaring functionality, and targeted messages. The portal also features a suite of applications to support a developmental advising model that helps students navigate a customized path to success.

“We didn’t go in and say, ‘Let’s do this and this and this for you,’” explains Jan Baltzer, Collegis senior VP of Client Services. “We went in, we listened to them tell us that they wanted to be more student-centered, and after a dialog about how we could solve their problems, this was the result.”

Then there is the recent partnership that Collegis brokered with Brookdale Community College (NJ). In this project, a decentralized and disorganized Brookdale turned to the service provider to completely overhaul its approach to information technology. Funded in part by a student technology fee, the $10 million technology improvement plan called for replacement of Brookdale’s antiquated hardware and software, the improvement of the campus network, and the establishment of new computer labs and a new help desk. The long-term plan also included the formation of a bona fide IT office with dedicated IT staffers, something the college had lacked for decades.

More recently, according to Vincent Gorman, the school’s executive VP for Administration, Operations and IT Services (and a Collegis employee), the partnership’s academic components have become more prominent. First, each fulltime faculty member is now equipped with a desktop computer and asked to maintain a Web page. Second, the school has launched a new distance learning facility in nearby Wall, NJ, complete with three computer labs and 10 classrooms. Finally, the partnership even has had an impact on enrollment: Whereas previously, only one in four local collegebound graduates decided to enroll, Gorman says that today, that figure is one in three, and it’s rising steadily—strong evidence of the competitive edge an improved IT picture has given the school, and proof positive that when it comes to IT improvement on campus, two heads are often, in fact, better than one.

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