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Making Enterprise Systems Work for Everyone

No matter how small or large the campus, sizeable IT projects can significantly challenge today's college leaders. Successfully implementing and supporting a large IT endeavor, such as a campus enterprise system, is daunting enough; when you toss declining budgets, reduced staff, and greater internal and external accountability into the fray, the challenge becomes even more overwhelming.

Many higher education administrators have argued against developing an enterprise system during the current economic climate. They would sooner fold up their tents and wait for budgets to improve before embarking on such a challenging endeavor.

But to visionaries, this period is pure opportunity, ripe with possibilities. If college and university visionaries can bring the campus administrative and IT decision makers together to build internal consensus for important IT projects, they will find that this period provides the chance for tremendous growth and development at significant cost savings. Additionally, leveraging these opportunities to build capacity and services can yield tremendous competitive advantages now, as well as strategic positioning for the future when things improve. Finally, waiting for better conditions to begin these projects denies the reality that today, more than ever, organizations need systems to support the growing operations of the campus—from administering human resources, handling student records, and managing financial affairs, to teaching in the classroom.

Internet Architecture
One issue that hinders campuses from executing new IT projects is a lack of understanding of pure Internet architecture. Until recently, organizations—higher education and otherwise—were forced to limit the scope of their IT services to "mission-critical" areas, primarily due to networking and physical infrastructure constraints. However, with the advent of Internet-deployed or Web-based applications, schools can broaden their services to meet demand both on and off campus, making this the era of anytime, anywhere, anybody technology.

Prior to this era, schools could justly view themselves as somewhat immune to demands for better access to "real-time" data. But now, in addition to providing mission-critical operations for administrative functions, schools must consider their students' cravings for access to accurate class schedules and grade reports. In addition, faculty members seek new tools for teaching and research, and staff desire self-service access to human resource services. Pure Internet architecture is the key to enabling this real-time access to information.

Hosting and Consulting Services
If an Internet-enabled architecture is not enough to rally schools to move forward, the option of a fixed-cost IT solution might be the answer. In the past, negative press has been the reward for higher ed IT projects that exceeded budgets and schedules. While flawed implementations may have been prevalent yesterday, today's schools can turn to external vendors that will deliver services to their campus for a fixed sum. In fact, many institutions are realizing the benefits of using a single vendor for both the IT applications and for the implementation of those applications. Such services offer experts with both technology and field experience who can help speed implementations and reduce the need for system customization.

Consensus Building and Project Champions
With all these possibilities, one might believe that campuses are lining up to take advantage of these external resources, but that is far from the case. In reality, transforming a campus from a mission-critical operation to a full-service operational organization is not easy. Since this metamorphosis will touch and change the entire campus, involving key groups and university leaders is important. This involvement can best be described as a consensus decision-making process wherein the principals of a campus—academics, students, staff, and administration—agree to this new vision of services.

Identifying the Principals
Consensus decision making relies on representing the needs of all the principals. As you enter into this process, identifying the principal players becomes critical for several reasons. First, you will reach critical mass before you run out of interested parties. Therefore, properly selecting five to ten principal team members to work on an IT project is paramount. From my experience, the principals include the President, CIO, VP Finance, VP Academic Affairs, and faculty members. In a perfect world, students should also be included.

Realizing the apparent administrative overload of this mix, it is clear that without the complete trust, buy-in, and unconditional support of these players, IT modernization projects will die on the vine. However, this is not to imply that these projects are driven from the top down—quite the opposite. Support must begin at the grassroots level with the development of curricular plans, faculty expertise, experimental classes, and industry support. If these are not accomplished, it is impossible to clearly and honestly address the plethora of questions that will be asked of the project before it gains administrative support. Consensus decision making begins locally and only when core support is developed should it be moved across campus.

If consensus decision making is a challenge on your campus, a successful initiative for improving mission-critical services can be launched from the administrative side of the campus. Take the case of student administrative software. A campus could select PeopleSoft Inc. or Datatel Inc., both of which offer such products. Keep in mind that whatever your choice of vendor, you will undoubtedly have internal supporters and detractors. But the bottom line is that this will be a mission-critical operation, and all parties will be eventually relegated to using the applications, no matter whom the vendor. These projects are needed by everybody and are essential for everyone to perform their function. Therefore, these projects are easily mandated and are often rolled out with surprising success. Besides, any IT modernization will be a vast improvement to an institution's antiquated legacy systems.

Assessing Needs
Making an accurate assessment of the principals' needs will help determine whether a project consensus can be reached. However, making those assessments can be an elusive process. Specifically, determining decision criteria, such as return on investment (ROI), can be challenging as "ROI" means different things to different principals. In the case of administrators, ROI may include reviewing mutually exclusive projects in isolation to determine which is the better investment, and relying on that as the benchmark for decision making. On the other hand, faculty might gauge ROI based on the impact of IT use in the classroom or the number of internships secured by students because of their experience with the applications. A vendor might use the metric of new prospects as an expression of ROI. Any number of these needs can play a critical role in gaining the principals' consensus for the project. Determining which needs are key determiners for your administration and the other principals will help you work with each party as you step through the IT modernization process.

Vendor Selection
When one reaches consensus to move forward with an IT project, vendor selection becomes the next issue. A college administration often leaves this process to those who manage the IT operations of the campus. However, this approach is nearsighted in that it fails to recognize the body of expertise and understanding that the academic side of the house brings to the table. Further, it fails to recognize the teaching potential of a new IT project.

Decision makers should consider the academic promise of a new enterprise system, looking beyond using new IT for strictly administrative purposes. Many schools are integrating enterprise technology into the classroom, helping business school students win hands-on experience with real-world technology. What better educational opportunity exists than to build a teaching sandbox for academics using the same technology employed by the campus? Academics working in concert with administrative IT can produce limitless learning opportunities for students and faculty alike. I am consistently shocked at the number of academic departments forced to duplicate an existing administrative IT project for classroom use.

An IT director's decision to go with a particular platform he or she may prefer—without consulting with academics—may run counter to the curriculum being taught. Therefore, excluding academics from the vendor selection process challenges the validity of faculty expertise and may deny internship and employment opportunities for students. Additionally, it forms barriers and riffs to developing mutually beneficial links between academics and IT. We eliminated this flawed decision-making process on our campus by keeping the administration involved in academics.

From my experience, relationship development with industry needs to be managed by the academic side of the institution, working in concert with the development office. The outcomes of an industry relationship will primarily benefit the academic principals. Benefits can include scholarships, internships (student and faculty), employment, curriculum development, and other gifts.

Vendors and Shared Vision
The first and only rule to vendor selection is to find a provider that feels good to you. During the course of your provider relationship, you will explore visions and synergistic opportunities, and you look to vendors for resources and expertise. The vendor that you can talk to is the one who will most likely work with you to develop and realize your technology vision. For me, it began with a phone call to PeopleSoft to find out about its industry-academic partnership, On Campus. That fledgling relationship has grown into a flourishing, symbiotic partnership. As I look back, PeopleSoft has allowed me to think big and then build those dreams with unwavering support. Along the way, we worked together as a team with industry partners such as Mutual of Omaha to create and implement a vision around enterprise systems. I made that initial phone call not knowing the ins and outs of corporate/academic relationships. Today, I know that both our institution and our solutions provider are striving for the same thing—the opportunity to work together on projects. No matter which vendor you choose, talk to them, and partner with them.

Finally, the reality of visioning and dream building is that they take time and come with certain costs. To build a successful, sustainable IT project, one must allocate enough time for research, training, development, deployment, understanding, and inculcation into the culture. Entering such a project with a short timeline is a recipe for failure, as is starting a project with no sources of revenue to support your vision. As with all projects, the issue of cost must be considered throughout.

Provided appropriate time is allocated, real resource costs can be factored over time and secured through any number of avenues, such as course release time, summer support, curriculum and special project grants, corporate sponsorships, and others.

Increasing Harmony
In reality, even in an era of economic tightening, visionaries believe opportunities abound for manifesting IT visions at colleges and universities. Further, contrary to what some believe, this is the time to move forward with the expansion of campuswide IT services, leveraging new technologies to launch these projects. This can be accomplished by using the consensus decision-making process, beginning with building a grassroots coalition within academics, assessing the principals' needs, and partnering with industry, before going to administrative principals for their buy-in.

Once the administration is onboard, selecting a vendor should be a mutually beneficial process between academics and IT. Finally, allotting adequate time to grow the project and secure diverse funding will make the implementation process less stressful for all parties. While this is no guarantee of the long-term success of a project, following this process can increase harmony on campus and can mean big returns for a school in the short and long term.

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