Biggest cloud challenge? Hint: It’s not the technology

As universities migrate enterprise applications to the cloud, change management—not technical challenges—is proving to be the biggest hurdle of all.

cloud-IT-change[Editor’s note: This article is part of our eCampus News August/September Digital Edition. Read more features in the Digital Edition here.]

Go ahead and call it: 2015 is the year when higher education finally accepted that the cloud offers advantages its institutions simply can’t match. Gone is the suspicion that the cloud is a Wild West of drive-by FERPA violations and nonexistent security; gone is the fear that schools will lose ownership of their data.

Today, schools are focused on the upside of cloud deployments for everything from LMSs to SISs—and that upside can be truly significant. But even as earlier fears about the cloud have subsided, new challenges have arisen. These challenges tend to be more organizational than technical, but they are nevertheless forcing complete rethinks in campus IT departments nationwide, and causing major upheaval along the way.

“The challenge that we’re hearing from all of our campuses is change management,” said Shel Waggener, senior vice president of Internet2, a nonprofit consortium of higher ed institutions, companies, and education networks focused on advanced networking technologies. “Even those institutions that were early cloud adopters are really struggling with the pace of change management and the impact it’s having across areas that haven’t had to change for a very long time.”

Ignoring these looming changes is not really an option, however, since few IT university shops can afford to pass up what the cloud has to offer: Cost savings, better performance and uptime, increased flexibility, and tighter security are all quantifiable benefits offered by cloud deployments that are handled properly.

” I don’t want to make too blanket a statement, but we just know the cloud works,” said Ted Dodds, CIO and vice president for information technologies at Cornell University. “The value is almost unequivocally there and it’s just a matter of how you harvest that value. That doesn’t mean everything fits in the cloud, but when we contemplate a new service or business process, we look to the cloud first for a solution.”

Reorganizing IT

But migrating enterprise IT services to the cloud—and managing them there—is far from a fire-and-forget operation. It requires different skill sets, different knowledge, and a different approach. Helping IT staffers—as well as those in departments ranging from legal to finance—manage this transition may have as much impact on the success of an organization’s migration to the cloud as the technological underpinnings themselves.

“The technology side of things is really not the issue,” said Dodds. “The impact on campus is much more around how you handle changing from an approach where you build or buy your own solutions—and run them—to basically brokering services provided by others.”

(Next page: Changing the mindset)

Obviously, the biggest impact of any cloud migration will be felt in the IT department, which at most institutions is currently built around such tasks as server administration, database administration, and desktop support.

“The skill sets we need today and tomorrow are different from the ones that we have in great abundance on campus today,” said Dodds. “It’s not that we don’t need these skills anymore, but we need a different sort of category. We probably need a smaller number of more senior, deeper technical resources than in the past, and some roles and responsibilities will probably phase out.”

Talk like this inevitably sparks anxiety among IT staffers about job security. “You have to really help people see where the department is heading, otherwise they just see their jobs going away,” said Sue Workman, CIO and vice president of information technology services at Case Western Reserve University, which recently transitioned its PeopleSoft ERP to the AT&T cloud platform. To facilitate the university’s transition to cloud-based services, Case Western is developing training plans to help staffers shift to new positions, as well as a strategic plan that shows what new positions will become available. “Being as proactive as you can is really a good thing,” added Workman.

Cornell recently asked all 700 of its IT staff to do a self-assessment of their skills and then compared those with a list of the skills that the university thought would be needed in the next five years. “There were some significant gaps between the two,” recalled Dodds, adding that the university is now launching professional development and training programs “so that we can move as many of our staff as quickly as possible into this new environment without breaking our operational services that we have to maintain at the same time.”

While staffers can often be retrained to fill new roles, IT departments must also recognize that, in some cases, the new positions will simply not be a good fit for them. A cloud environment requires a new breed of service owners who are responsible for everything from conceiving the scope of a service to developing a P&L, writing a business plan, and then marketing the service. “You can’t take superb technical people—people who know how to keep a product tuned and functioning—and suddenly expect them to sprout those capabilities,” said Dodds. “It’s a different dimension: It is a horizontal dimension to what traditionally in IT has been a vertical specialization in technology.”

While restructuring any organization along radically new lines is difficult, the problem is compounded by the tremendous speed at which these changes are occurring. “Three years ago there would have been no more than a handful of IT organizations on campuses that had job descriptions with explicit cloud responsibilities built into them,” said Waggener. “That is just no longer viable.”

Indeed, there is a certain urgency among colleges now to ensure they have the right staff in place for this new cloud-centric world. “If you don’t have quality people who understand how to inter-operate in cloud environments or in a hybrid environment, that’s a problem,” said Waggener. “In the cloud, if you don’t do it right you can really run into difficulties.”

Changing the Mindset

Without doubt, some colleges are experiencing difficulty moving IT services to the cloud because their staffs are clinging to an old mindset of how things are done. “I see a lot of institutions mess that up,” said Lige Hensley, chief technology officer at Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College, which is saving millions of dollars in the area of analytics alone by utilizing the cloud. “Their brains aren’t wrapped around how to use the cloud. They’re taking an on-premise approach and trying to apply it in the cloud. It doesn’t work that way and it’s going to cost a whole lot more. You have to shift your thinking.”

To assist in this shift, Ivy Tech brought someone from Amazon Web Services to Indiana to do a training session with 15 staff members. “We actually took a fair number of steps to get our folks to understand how best to utilize the cloud technology, because it’s not going to get you anywhere if you use it the way you use traditional technology,” said Hensley.

Changing campus IT mindsets is a problem encountered by vendors, too.

“At the same time institutions are facing changes in the model for higher education, IT is facing similar challenges. Clearly, IT plays a critical role in enabling institutions to leverage technology to enable business change. It will be interesting to see how IT organizations are able to make the necessary changes as they adopt to new business models,” said Connor Gray, Chief Strategy Office of Campus Management. “Campus Management has already helped many of our clients transition to the cloud by offering a robust set of options – from simple out-of-the-box solutions to more robust cloud solutions that allow for advanced integration with third-party applications. We have also added cloud training at our annual users conference – CampusInsight – to provide IT professionals with actionable insights regarding how to effectively leverage the cloud and to sharpen their skillsets.”

Mark Armstrong, Oracle’s vice president for higher education product development, noted that it can be difficult for college IT departments to give up the sense of control that comes from maintaining their own systems. He’s seen this firsthand as schools migrate their Oracle ERPs to the cloud. “A hands-on approach doesn’t work in a cloud environment,” he noted. “If an administrator requests a feature change, you cannot just go in and create a patch.”

(Next page: The need for standardization; focusing on mission)

The Need for Standardization

The level of standardization needed in the cloud is one of the most difficult aspects for campus IT shops to accept, according to Armstrong. Before a migration can even begin, the data must first be cleaned up, which can involve significant effort depending on how it has been collected over time. And once the service is in the cloud, IT staffers must recognize that they cannot simply customize it as they see fit.

In the view of Cornell’s Dodds, the propensity of IT shops to customize applications for the perceived unique needs of their institutions is a mistake. “There is a tendency for universities to emphasize how they are different rather than how they are the same—we all want to be our own snowflake,” he said. “But, underneath it all, a lot more is the same from university to university than really is a differentiator.”

Encouraging universities to accept a level of standardization in the cloud is one of the goals of Internet2’s Net+ initiative, which strives to provide its members with access to a suite of scalable cloud offerings specifically tailored to the needs of higher education. Blackboard, Azure, Canvas, and Box are among the dozens of cloud services and applications currently available through Net+, all of which are peer-reviewed by other higher ed institutions for security, accessibility, and performance. “Instead of having universities deploy services with huge diversity locally, they can consume cloud services in a much more common way,” explained Waggener.

While some IT shops may chafe at efforts to standardize technical cloud specs, standardization can actually help minimize the upheaval felt in other departments on campus. For instance, Net+ expends a lot of effort negotiating baseline contracts for each cloud service, which can be a real boon for university legal offices that often have little or no experience dealing with cloud contractual issues.

“Once a cloud service is on Net+, it really helps speed up the negotiation phase of a contract,” said Workman. “Net+ goes through a really huge workload to get the contract to a point that they think is sufficient. Universities, on the other hand, don’t have a whole team of negotiators available to work six months on every contract.”

Whether a school works through Net+ or not, cloud deployments will inevitably cause some disruption in departments that work closely with IT. At Ivy Tech, for example, the finance department struggled with the concept of costing in the cloud. “Internally, our folks were used to us buying an asset like a server that they could list as a capital expense and depreciate over three or five years,” said Hensley. “But it doesn’t work that way in the cloud—you pay as you go. It took some time for our finance folks to understand the concept of utility computing.”

Focus on the Mission

While the organizational changes required by the migration of enterprise services into the cloud can be daunting, the alternative—doing nothing—is not a viable long-term strategy. External pressures for greater security, better performance, and lower costs will ultimately push even the most heel-dragging naysayers into the cloud. As painful as these changes may be, schools must also recognize that the cloud offers a way to free themselves of commodity IT in favor of initiatives that ultimately benefit their institutions even more—and help differentiate them from other schools.

“Seventy percent of our cost structure is people,” said Dodds. “If we can find ways to take that 70% and apply it as closely as possible to the mission, then we are doing the right thing for the university.”

Andrew Barbour is a contributing editor for eCampus News.

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