Optimizing the cloud on college campuses

Cloud computing is becoming commonplace these days. Whether with personal software downloads, Amazon or iTunes purchases, use of the cloud has increased to the point where it’s a viable, everyday option.

Cloud computing has proven key to IT offices with stagnant budgets.

In higher education, where budget constraints and demand for IT resources often limit choices, cloud computing can add real value, especially in the areas of Admissions and Enrollment.

As with any technology purchase, the extras make all the difference. Most cloud vendors can guarantee a secure hosting environment as well as the timely patches and upgrades that go along with it.

The benefits of remote hosting also offer an assist to disaster recovery plans. As the platform has matured, the way cloud computing is implemented has become as important as the security and dependability it delivers.

Exploit the Opportunity

It has long been said that a system implementation provides the best opportunity to revisit business process and introduce new methods and services. Unfortunately, outcomes often fall far short of the expectations generated by all the sales hype.

There is a distinct difference between adopting a pre-made solution and partnering to create one tailored to the strategic goals and priorities of your organization. Beware of vendors that tout the virtues of cloud-based product but provide an implementation experience identical to the typical on-campus install.

The cloud allows for continuous updates, enabling frequent and incremental enhancement—and this should be key part of your competitive strategy.

While some may make the case that the only difference is where the software is run, we beg to differ. The cloud discussion should be about efficiency and agility.

See page 2 for the keys to technological “agility” on college campuses…

Because of the virtually unlimited “horsepower” available to support applications and databases, the expectation should be that the cloud environment makes for a far more agile business response.

Agility in higher education takes on different connotations at every institution, but often includes the following:

  • The capacity to introduce new concepts and technologies in a short timeframe
  •  The ability to respond rapidly to unforeseen circumstances such natural disasters or on-campus events.
  • A reporting infrastructure that can respond quickly to shifts in student perception or other market forces.

These concepts are not fully addressed just by plugging in a new system, wherever it might be housed. If there is a downside to the broad-based adoption of cloud computing, it’s that the platform itself can be viewed as a panacea.

Since some challenges are solved just with the relocation of the database, other far more impressive opportunities are sometimes overlooked.

A “well-rounded” implementation not only re-points existing interfaces and feeds, it standardizes data content and positively affects downstream systems. The impact can extend well beyond a front-end system such as Admissions to impact Registration, Records, Finance, and Residential Life.

This is as it should be, although the time and attention required to resolve issues and come to consensus can be a daunting task for in-house IT resources. A vendor with Higher Ed resonance should recognize this and present a credible plan to achieve the objective.

This is the least of what one has a right to expect. If time and effort are being expended to move to the cloud, then additional services should be investigated.

One should seriously consider incorporating useful technologies and services not available on campus as part of an overall strategy. When seeking out a cloud vendor, be sure to assess the extent to which the company is willing to collaborate with you to achieve an optimal solution that may include such items.

Here are some points to consider. Cloud-based tools can allow for incremental enhancement, though a reliable and efficient change-management process is essential.

Sophisticated document management solutions make use of cloud technology to reduce application and credential acknowledgement times from weeks to days, or even hours. Once a database is housed on a platform with virtually unlimited capacity for expansion, it makes good sense to use the same environment for advanced communication and tracking.

With all that horsepower and data in one place, isn’t that an ideal space for some degree of operational and strategic analytics? You’d be surprised how often these opportunities slip through the cracks.

These decisions are unique to the institutions that make them. There is no single, “right” solution, but the best vendors should be able to offer choices that deliver the shortest route to greater efficiency.

Not “One Size Fits All”

The most successful companies offer a variety of products and services that scale to an institution’s volumes and needs. When one considers the service side of things, tremendous opportunities for process improvement and return on investment (ROI) present themselves.

Let’s look at a case in point. A large urban university went from 40 temporary workers to zero after they implemented the cloud and eliminated paper with a leading cloud provider offering a full range of services.

This reduction in labor cost was carried out while simultaneously improving and focusing communications. It’s a perfect example of an immediate return on investment—significant in the short run and impressive in the long run.

Add to it the ability to free up prime office space on a crowded urban campus, and you have the kind of results that would make the toughest CFO smile. What’s more, the combination of remote document management and web-status check held fulltime staffing constant even as application volume increased exponentially.

Process is the Key

There is a significant difference between buying and installing a system and revitalizing a process through an implementation. In the past, the focus was typically on “configuring” the system to function within the existing environment.

Perhaps the best way to describe this approach is that “something always had to give.” Some expectations were met, some were partially met, and others abandoned entirely as the software’s limitations took their toll on efficiency and forward momentum. Much like a balloon struggling to clear a mountaintop, the closer the ground (or in this case, the deadline) became, the more had to be jettisoned.

In contrast, the best cloud-based implementations achieve their final product from enhanced processes as defined by those who know them. The system isn’t imposed on the process—the process builds the system. And to repeat; there should be opportunity for incremental enhancement.

Define Success

The most successful cloud-based implementations have one concept in common—partnership. The concept of shared risk and success should hold sway in your deliberations.

A vendor that delivers a software package and soon departs avoids the most important part of the implementation—the point where the system and processes are refined and enhanced. Companies who see your success as their own—and are willing to stick around for the results to come in—are by far the better choice.

Here we’d like to introduce a caveat: when discussing what constitutes success in these terms, language can become difficult. Core phrases such as “best practice,” “workflow,” and even the term “partnership” itself can sound hackneyed after the fourth software demo. What’s worse, these buzzwords can be self-serving, constraining customer deliverables to ensure the successful “fit” of the pre-defined product.

Let’s take “best practice” as an example. When accurately defining this term, there’s actually a question of whether you are imposing from the outside in, or building from the inside out.

Depending on which angle you consider, there can be two completely different definitions: In the first example, best practice is a way of standardizing usage according the norm and across institutions—some of whom may be your competitors. In the second definition, best practice becomes more specifically aligned with your institutional needs. As your processes are articulated and enhanced by the system, not constrained.

It’s the difference between a suit off the rack and a custom-tailored one, but the irony of cloud-based implementations is that the custom job can often be the most cost-effective.

How do you get to Optimal?

A well-considered cloud-based implementation relies on increased flexibility to deliver higher satisfaction. A capable vendor will review your current process, prototype the agreed upon “new” process, and leverage their experience at other schools to deliver the best, first effort at a truly innovative solution. The vendor should produce a roadmap that follows your business cycles, with plenty of room for adjustment. Most importantly, they should be able to implement quickly.

Not in years, but in months—or preferably—weeks.

As the implementation unfolds, you should feel comfortable that your staff understands the new functionality and sees how the pieces fit. If the process has been collaboratively redesigned to maximize efficiency, and solutions have been tailored to your specific business needs, that resonance should be a given.

And now, the most telling way to ascertain a high-quality implementation partner: the best companies anticipate that, after a year, there will be even more opportunities for expansion as users become acclimated and additional opportunities present themselves.

Given this, it becomes incredibly important to be sure your vendor is going to be around once the dust settles. Be sure to “kick the tires” by investigating their support record and getting a sense of proven, long-term commitment. If they don’t realize that continuous improvement is a cornerstone of your recruitment efforts, kick them to the curb instead, and keep looking.

This is so important. The process of “tweaking” a newly implemented system is often where you achieve your greatest competitive advantage. Once staff is familiar with the system, and new roles settle in, numerous opportunities for additional improvement often appear. Be sure your vendor plans for this.

In the competitive world of admissions, you don’t want your recruitment strategy defined by the same webinar that everyone else has already attended. This last five percent— that typically is identified after the first year of use—makes all the difference.

What Does it All Look Like?

While no two cloud-based implementations are—or should be—alike, an optimized implementation would look something like this: inquiry, application, test score, and miscellaneous data feeds are designed, implemented, hosted, and supported by the vendor.

In addition to the robust, remotely hosted database, sophisticated communications vehicles are executed against the system with minimal extracts or interfaces. Reporting—in particular that which monitors operational progress—is available within the same environment, allowing counselors, along with mid and upper-level managers, to monitor outcomes and track anomalies on a daily basis.

Document management and web-based application status checks should be part of the offering, allowing human resources to be focused on personal contact and support.

There should be a significant return on ROI, measured both in tangibles such as reduced temporary staffing and repurposed space, but also in job satisfaction, employee retention, and improved student satisfaction. Most importantly, you should have the confidence that your vendor/partner has the aptitude to keep your operation on the cutting-edge next year—and ten years from now.

Your Feet on the Ground—Your Process in the Cloud

With the maturity of cloud-based service, the nature of implementation and optimization is rapidly changing. Don’t let the common sense appeal of cloud-based solutions blind you to the nuances of process enhancement, creative solutions, and long-term commitment that should be the true hallmark of your effort.

The more commonplace cloud solutions become, the more these attributes will become key differentiators. With a cloud-based product, you are, in a sense, positioning your organization to break free of a number of vendor-imposed constraints once considered unavoidable.

To highlight one example, you may encounter pricing models for cloud services that are different and often more flexible than traditional software packages. Work closely with the vendor to be certain which model is best for your institution.

In today’s recruitment market, the extent to which an institution demonstrates personalization, agility, and resonance distinguishes it from its competitors. Students are technically savvy. Their perceptions are shaped by their virtual experiences, and that trend will only increase with every new application they download from the cloud.

In the virtual marketplace, these differentiators are as essential as security and disaster recovery, though perhaps not as widely understood. Take all facets of your institutional requirements into consideration during your selection process.

Consider subsequent “downstream” opportunities for the same platform. Be ruthless in determining current weaknesses in your virtual services and seek out a true partner who will help craft solutions with you, not impose their own upon you.

Take full advantage of the opportunity. Look long and hard before you leap into the cloud. You’ll be very glad you did.

Bob Burke is president of FolderWave, Inc. (www.folderwave.com), a cloud-based company offering products and services designed to significantly improve complex, high-volume time-dependent process and data management operations in many areas of higher education. Bob can be reached at bob@folderwave.com.

Arthur Mahoney is the former Director of Enrollment Services at Northeastern University where he implemented numerous administrative systems and was a major contributor to the design of their strategic enrollment research efforts. Having worked both in Information Technology and Administration at Northeastern for more than 25 years, he is now the principal of HomePort Consulting, providing support for higher education in the areas of enrollment technologies, analytics, and business processes.