Tuesday Apr 30, 2013

The "Gold" in effeciency & effectiveness in higher ed IT

During this year's Alliance conference in Indianapolis (the North America conference of the HEUG - Higher Ed Users Group) the HEUG board decided to experiment with a new concept to enable some executive level strategic discussions among a select group of leaders from higher ed represented through the HEUG.  This group, billed for now as the "Executive Advisory Group" was made up predominately of CIO's but with a few non-IT leaders sprinkled in.  The goal of the group was to determine how the work of the HEUG can be leveraged to better position higher ed for the future, in other words, wrestling with the age old problem that exists in higher ed IT of translating the benefits of information technology and data into business value and real information (to aid in decision making).  This is a terrific ambition but will definitely be difficult to accomplish.  I'm delighted to be a part of the process and hope that we can foster real change in the attitudes and understanding of non-IT senior leadership at some of our colleges and universities.

Jerry Waldron, intrepid sole that he is, was drafted to lead this effort (Jerry is the CIO at the College of New Jersey). As part of the prep work (and follow-up) to the EAG meeting on the Sunday of Alliance, one article that he suggested as post-reading was a piece written by former Princeton president William Bowen.  Entitled Walk Deliberately, Don't Run, Toward Online Education, Dr. Bowen makes a number of interesting points regarding the lack of hard data proving (or disproving) the efficacy of MOOC's and other forms of online learning.  But it was some of his other points regarding cost containment that I found most interesting:

Academic leaders must look explicitly for strategies to lower costs. I am not saying that educational leaders lack courage (though, sadly, some do). The reality is that controlling costs is a hard sell, in part because strong forces are pushing in the opposite direction.

He's likely not talking about my next point, but it ties back very directly to some of the discussions during the Sunday EAG session at Alliance in March.  And let me make this caveat before proceeding: Oracle doesn't exactly have the best reputation across higher ed for being a part of the cost containment movement (most would argue that we're part of the problem), but this is where I think Oracle is most misunderstood.  We've been all too willing to sell higher ed a lot of software, hardware and services - in other words where there has been lack of discipline and governance we've been complicit in indulging our customers (big generalization here) in the creation of custom jalopies (IT systems made up of lots of parts integrated and maintained by the customer)  vs. selling complete automobiles.

Further, there is additional "gold" in striving for more streamlined, integrated systems from fewer suppliers: the information available in the data.  With so much emphasis on improving student outcomes (student success) and personalized learning (student experience), one of the keys to really enabling these strategic imperatives through better data quality.  Investing in a myriad of point solutions from different vendors, especially if that data is now in the cloud, is a nightmare that some in higher ed are already experiencing.  Even if I didn't work for Oracle, I'm certain I would argue for the same things that Nicole Englebert  of Ovum in her comments to the aforementioned EAG made during her opening remarks.  In a presentation she made to the group entitled "Tectonic chanve in higher education," she references as a major strategic goal the reduction in the number of information technology vendors with which institutions partner, with expectations for a different type of relationship.  She also talks about more standard approaches to enterprise applications, requiring fewer resources (i.e. lower cost) for maintenance and improved agility.

So I think in summary it's going to take some very very courageous CIO's (with willing co-conspirators in COO and CFO positions) to move the needle when it comes to transforming IT in higher from tactical to strategic.  And that's why I applaud what the EAG through the HEUG is trying to do.

Monday Apr 02, 2012

Impressions and Reactions from Alliance 2012

Alliance 2012 has come to a conclusion.  What strikes me about every Alliance conference is the amazing amount of collaboration and cooperation I see across higher education in the sharing of best practices around the entire Oracle PeopleSoft software suite, not just the student information system (Oracle’s PeopleSoft Campus Solutions).  In addition to the vibrant U.S. organization, it's gratifying to see the growth in the international attendance again this year, with an EMEA HEUG organizing to complement the existing groups in the Netherlands, South Africa, and the U.K.  Their first meeting is planned for London in October, and I suspect they'll be surprised at the amount of interest and attendance.

In my discussions with higher education IT and functional leadership at Alliance there were a number of instances where concern was expressed about Oracle's commitment to higher education as an industry, primarily because of a lack of perceived innovation in the applications that Oracle develops for this market. Here I think perception and reality are far apart, and I'd like to explain why I believe this to be true.

First let me start with what I think drives this perception. Predominately it's in two areas. The first area is the user interface, both for students and faculty that interact with the system as "customers", and for those employees of the institution (faculty, staff, and sometimes students as well) that use the system in some kind of administrative role. Because the UI hasn't changed all that much from the PeopleSoft days, individuals perceive this as a dead product with little innovation and therefore Oracle isn't investing.

The second area is around the integration of the higher education suite of applications (PeopleSoft Campus Solutions) and the rest of the Oracle software assets. Whether grown organically or acquired, there is an impressive array of middleware and other software products that could be leveraged much more significantly by the higher education applications than is currently the case today. This is also perceived as lack of investment.

Let me address these two points.  First the UI.  More is being done here than ever before, and the PAG and other groups where this was discussed at Alliance 2012 were more numerous than I've seen in any past meeting. Whether it's Oracle development leveraging web services or some extremely early but very promising work leveraging the recent Endeca acquisition (see some cool examples here) there are a lot of resources aimed at this issue.  There are also some amazing prototypes being developed by our UX (user experience team) that will eventually make their way into the higher education applications realm - they had an impressive setup at Alliance.  Hopefully many of you that attended found this group. If not, the senior leader for that team Jeremy Ashley will be a significant contributor of content to our summer Industry Strategy Council meeting in Washington in June.

In the area of integration with other elements of the Oracle stack, this is also an area of focus for the company and my team.  We're making this a priority especially in the areas of identity management and security, leveraging WebCenter more effectively for content, imaging, and mobility, and driving towards the ultimate objective of WebLogic Suite as our platform for SOA, links to learning management systems (SAIP), and content. There is also much work around business intelligence centering on OBI applications.

But at the end of the day we get enormous value from the HEUG (higher education user group) and the various subgroups formed as a part of this community that help us align and prioritize our investments, whether it's around better integration with other Oracle products or integration with partner offerings.  It's one of the healthiest, mutually beneficial relationships between customers and an Education IT concern that exists on the globe.

And I can't avoid mentioning that this kind of relationship between higher education and the corporate IT community that can truly address the problems of efficiency and effectiveness, institutional excellence (which starts with IT) and student success.  It's not (in my opinion) going to be solved through community source - cost and complexity only increase in that model and in the end higher education doesn't ultimately focus on core competencies: educating, developing, and researching. 

While I agree with some of what Michael A. McRobbie wrote in his EDUCAUSE Review article (Information Technology: A View from Both Sides of the President’s Desk), I take strong issue with his assertion that the "the IT marketplace is just the opposite of long-term stability...."  Sure there has been healthy, creative destruction in the past 2-3 decades, but this has had the effect of, in the aggregate, benefiting education with greater efficiency, more innovation and increased stability as larger, more financially secure firms acquire and develop integrated solutions.

Cole

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Comments, news, updates and perspectives from Oracle's global vice president of the education and research industry--which includes higher education, research, and primary/secondary education (K-12) organizations worldwide.

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