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Plotting a Pathway to the Cloud Through User Engagement

CRM implementations are never easy; but choosing one that's cloud-based brings its own unique challenges.

cloud computing

When the Project Management Office in the Information Technology Services organization at Gonzaga University went out to stakeholders to interview them on the challenges they faced in the admissions process, they learned that the amount of minutia handled in onesies and twosies was staggering. Staff members talked about using six or more systems each day to do their work; typing out e-mail and phone requests; putting little notes on calendars to remember to send reminder e-mails to students; hand-counting appointment totals; and spending an entire day nursing the e-mails sent individually to students regarding acceptance, waitlisting or regrets. Just scheduling campus visits, as one example, was arduous. People would enter information on multiple spreadsheets to track appointments and rely on manual processes for getting visits on the calendar and doing follow-up.

No more. In mid-February, most recently, the Spokane institution's admissions office was able to send out some 7,000 responses to all of the different students who had applied. Nobody had to babysit the e-mail process. Surface mail went out at the same time. Going forward, messages to students can be automatically customized based on what the university already knows about them — that they come from a "Gonzaga family," or that they have a specific academic interest. Now, when somebody signs up for a campus visit, that activity will set off auto-creation of a communication plan intended to keep everybody involved in that process informed without manual intervention.

Getting from there to here has taken time, effort and patience. And the implementation work is still going on. But over the last couple of years, the institution has mastered two useful skills that have led to success:

  • Executive-level buy-in comes more easily when the project priorities align with the university strategic plan; and
  • Involving the whole campus community in tech transformation with IT oversight in key areas ensures broader campus support.

Walking Users Back

When CIO Borre Ulrichsen joined the institution four years ago, adoption of a new constituent relationship management system was already in the works — sort of. Three units — undergraduate admissions, graduate admissions and university advancement — had picked different technologies for themselves, "and they were all basically looking at me, going, 'OK, can we have it live next week or next month?'" he recalled. He spent a lot of those early days "walking them back a little bit" from a technology focus to more of a focus on the outcomes they were looking for.

The more the various groups talked, the more they realized that by sharing data and working together, "we would all end up with better data, which would mean that we would actually do a better job in each of our different areas."

CRM work tends to be an "expensive proposition," noted Ulrichsen. "It's a multi-year engagement where we're taking a lot of people's resources, time, money and focus to really work on this." But the outcome was that senior leadership gave its support "when everybody started talking the same language and telling the same story."

The Choice of Cloud

On the technical front, end-user departments had accepted that there were advantages to choosing a cloud-based application.

As Ulrichsen explained, there was already "a fair amount of comfort with the fact that our software doesn't run in our data center anymore." After all, Gonzaga uses Microsoft 365 and it has moved its learning management system (Blackboard) and its enterprise resource management system (Ellucian Banner) to the cloud.

And besides, cloud is where it's at. "That's really where all the vendors are going," he pointed out. For the leading candidates, "that's where investments are going to be made going forward."

But those initial deployment requests clued Ulrichsen into something: People don't always realize that adopting a cloud solution limits customization. "It's a cultural thing," he observed.

So, he began talking up the idea that cloud-based applications tend to reflect best business practices from a multitude of institutions, which means Gonzaga might want to consider changing its own business practices "to really take advantage of the best practice that comes with the [cloud]." In that context, "customization" is replaced with "configuration."

"As we're growing and becoming a larger, more complex organization, there's an increased understanding that we can't always all go and do our own thing in isolation because it has such ramification across the institution," Ulrichsen said. Now there's a governance structure in place with "wide representation" from across campus that works with IT "to make sure we spend our technology resources in the most efficient and effective manner."

Giving the Lead to Users

Getting over that hurdle was just the start. In the next stage, IT wanted to make sure it wasn't dominating the conversation with stakeholders. That's when the Project Management Office (PMO) took over the relay. Led by Director Stephanie Schut, who joined the staff two years ago, the PMO reached out to more than a hundred people to do interviews as part of a "requirements gathering process" on CRM requirements that would flesh out the request-for-proposals (RFP).

Users also participated in developing use cases, assessing vendor responses to the RFP, sitting through demonstrations, filling in vendor scorecards and assessing how well the responses meshed with strategic priorities of the institution.

In an Educause presentation last fall, Schut and Ulrichsen, along with co-presenter Alex Faklis from Huron Consulting Group, which worked with Gonzaga on the CRM project, shared a slide showing how the CRM priorities aligned with the "strategic commitments." Whenever those involved in the project faced a crossroads, they referred back to the strategic plan "to ground" themselves and bring the work back to what mattered.

As Schut explained, "When we were looking at something like, 'Utilize a central platform across multiple channels' and 'Deploy strategic messaging to segmented groups,' those were commitments to 'academic excellence,'" which shows up as a strategic commitment.

Going through those paces, as Schut noted, made the whole process "valid" for the stakeholders. "This was their opportunity to get their voice into the product we were going to select."

Not that IT didn't "have a vote," said Ulrichsen. It was his department's job to perform a "thorough security check" and make sure the solutions used "the same authentication and infrastructure components we have in place to support the different software we have." In other words, the university wasn't going to allow the users to choose a CRM out in left field; it had to work with what was already in place.

Two Winners

By the end of the race, out of 10 early contenders, the university picked two CRM solutions: Slate, a tool used by Gonzaga's undergraduate admissions and law school admissions; and for every other unit, Campus Management CampusNexus Engage.

Slate is already in use, put in place in the fall of 2019. And now IT is working on three high-level implementation projects for Engage: in marketing communications, university advancement and graduate enrollment management. The PMO is also doing a small pilot for student affairs. Beyond those, said Schut, "We'll be doing road mapping to figure out where we'll continue to roll out; we have a lot of other areas that are very interested in moving forward and we can only do so much at one time."

To keep data in sync among the CRM and ERP programs and other applications in use, IT has also implemented Dell Technologies' Boomi, an integration platform "that sits in the middle of all these different systems," Ulrichsen explained. That tool is also cloud-based.

"It's making more and more sense for all these solutions to not live here on our infrastructure," he said. Besides the many preconfigured integrations included in the box, the choice of software-as-a-service also delivers the values cloud companies have long talked about: quick deployment, resilience and ready capacity and scalability. "We want to make sure that we can handle the volumes, and we're just finding it's much easier to scale the infrastructure in the cloud than if we have to implement physical servers and so forth on premise."

Too Early for Outcomes

It's too early to identify what kinds of improvements have come about with the introduction of the CRMs. But the initiative has a "number of key performance indicators" that will be used to measure the success of the project, said Ulrichsen. One referenced in the Educause presentation was this: "On Aug. 14, 2019, GU's Undergraduate Admissions launched its first Communication Plan via the CRM to over 50,000 people." As a result, Schut told the audience, that single communication "will save up to 15 hours a week through automation of formerly manual tasks." Now that the undergraduate application process is "fully online," she noted, ease-of-use is improved too.

"Our staff are able to provide much more of a personalized experience for the prospects — all the way down to doing things like scheduling personal phone calls, to really make sure that the students understand how much we're looking forward to having them here on campus," added Ulrichsen. "It's still early but our expectation is that by keeping [students] engaged in the way that they want to be engaged with us is going to make a difference when they make that final decision of where they go."

In these kinds of extensive projects, it's important for IT to continuously focus the conversation back on the big picture and required outcomes, advised Ulrichsen. "Our users have mobile devices where installing and using new applications is fast and easy. They don't always appreciate that enterprise software is a lot more complex. If you can invite the community into a conversation around what they are trying to accomplish and then get into exactly what technology to use to support those outcomes, you've come a long way."

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