Transforming Higher Ed with Cloud Technology: Smoothing the Transition to the Cloud
Since the ’90s, cloud computing has evolved and made its way into organizations and industries of all types, including higher education.
The subject has become so important in higher ed, that EDUCAUSE has a Working Group dedicated to the topic, and even a conference track this year on “Innovating in IT Infrastructure and Cloud-based IT Environments.”
In this EdTech Times series, Transforming Higher Ed with Cloud Technology, we speak with higher ed tech leaders who have successfully transformed their institutions to the cloud, companies providing cloud-based solutions for schools and research, and consulting organizations helping institutional leaders navigate this evolution effectively.
In this first episode, we speak with technologists from Huron who specialize in cloud transformation for higher ed.
It’s 2017. By now, you might have heard of the cloud. You probably use the cloud without even thinking about it, whether you’re uploading files to Google Drive or Dropbox, or backing up your iPhone photos when you run out of space.
So what is the cloud, really? To break it down in the simplest of terms.
TED: “Cloud technology is any application or software that is being run outside of your organization by a third party.”
That’s Ted Simpson, Senior Director of Huron, a consulting group that helps universities and other organizations modernize for the digital age. Ted’s job is to help these institutions plan and implement enterprise cloud solutions—basically, software systems for multiple departments within a business that all connect in one place: the cloud.
So why are universities undergoing this transformation?
TED: “There’s a couple of reasons why. One is that the transfer is a lot of a lot of administrative work and a lot of risk outside of the university, onto a third party. And then the other is it allows the university take advantage of new features and functions in software without going through costly upgrades.”
Joy Walton, Managing Director and founding member of Huron, thinks that the cloud presents an unprecedented opportunity to connect different departments within a university.
JOY: “So many of the organizations that we work with are looking for ways to better streamline their business processes and to get better data out of all of the information they are collecting and processing across every function of a university. And cloud, cloud implementations offer a great opportunity to get people who typically might be working very autonomously in different silos across an organization to come together.”
According to Randy Hendricks, Senior Managing Director at Huron, transforming to the cloud is simply a matter of catching up to today’s technology.
RANDY: “Overall, we’ve seen that deploying cloud technologies can transform and modernize universities, so that they’re able to to better meet the needs of their students and stakeholders broadly, and achieve their mission well into the future. So we’ve seen cloud technology, broadly speaking, as an enabler to help universities modernize.”
Because of the outdated systems many institutions are using, updating technology is a burdensome process, that can sometimes require years of planning and implementation.
According to Ted Simpson, the cloud can change all that.
TED: “I think as more universities transition to the cloud applications, I think that the universities themselves will get better at adopting new features and functions. In the on-premise world, that was more of an every-two-years kind of an exercise. With cloud applications, it’s usually an every-six-month kind of an exercise.”
Yet cloud technology as we know it has been around for over ten years, and has now become a part of most consumers daily lives. So why are many schools starting this lengthy cloud transformation process now?
TED: “You know a few years back, universities looked at moving large scale applications to the cloud as something something novel or something that would be, you know, sort of the cutting edge kind of a move. And that has quickly turned into not the case. Many universities have gone live and with cloud applications and it’s you know sort of the proof point out there that it can be done.”
Randy Hendricks notes that as this technology has increasingly become more ubiquitous, many software companies have moved their applications to the cloud.
RANDY: “You see companies such as Oracle moving from on-premise offerings to now cloud-based offerings. Both Salesforce and Workday — Both companies born in the cloud, have very proven enterprise applications that are scalable.”
But the cloud element isn’t the only thing changing. With new technologies emerging, the software offerings themselves have also grown.
RANDY: “From a product standpoint, the portfolios are getting more broad. An example of that is in the student area. It’s not until recently that there’s been new student information systems available for universities to look at. It’s not until recently [that] Salesforce has really begun to focus in higher education with salesforce.org, their foundation, and tailoring their offerings to higher ed. So two things: the risk is going down from a technology perspective, and second the portfolios, in terms of offerings, that universities have to choose from are increasing.”
And what are these offerings that are applicable in higher ed? While there are many possibilities, Ted Simpson narrowed it down to three.
TED: “Typically what we see is universities are trying to tackle three big systems in a transition to the cloud. One would be financial management. The other would be Human Resource Management. And then third would be student information systems, which handle things like registration and student financials and financial aid, and those types of things.”
That might sound simple enough. But when combining these large, distinct systems that often date back years and years, it can be quite a process.
Ted: One of the main requirements of moving to the cloud is standardizing some business processes. And that doesn’t always mean standardizing them to the way that a software vendor might have it mapped out. But often it does mean standardizing them across an institution. There’s a lot of work a lot of coordination and a lot of change of management required with a university setting to align a university in a way that they can have a successful transition to the cloud.
That’s why, according to Ted, the entire process of cloud transformation can take some time.
TED: “The usual time horizon for planning purposes is usually time in the three to five year range.”
So what other unique considerations need to be made when implementing cloud technologies in higher education institutions?
TED: “I think one of the other things was an early area of concern specifically for universities was security, like data security in the cloud. If you think about it, universities have to collect a ton of information on students especially, and faculty and employees, and that data needs to be protected.”
Many cloud technology vendors specializing in systems for higher ed have made a point of protecting that data, one of the many reasons universities are now jumping on board with cloud transformation.
And according to Joy Walton, for many large R1 institutions, there are even more unique considerations around research and data.
JOY: “There are some unique elements, especially with the mission of a large or decentralized research organization, that need to be addressed as well. And those are some of the trickier areas of the cloud transformation.”
JOY: “When you start thinking about research, you’re trying to think about principal investigators, researchers, their assistants. These are people who, quite frankly, could be scattered around the world…yet need to access the basic systems of a university, whether that’s setting up travel, whether that’s routing around compliance request forms, putting together the data that they need across the institution for a proposal to get that research funding.”
JOY: “So much of that is ingrained in a core administrative system, and not typical with, you know, with industries outside of the research enterprise. “
Not only are considerations made for administrative tools to be globally accessible, but also to keep closer tabs on important data.
JOY: “In addition, when you think about some of the reporting and compliance elements of research—so you’re reporting to outside stakeholders, whether that’s the government, outside funding agencies—They typically have pretty stringent reporting requirements.”
JOY: “And so a cloud transformation really allows an institution to track that data and maybe slice and dice that data in a way that maybe their old accounting systems wouldn’t necessarily let them do that.”
JOY: “Some funding agencies have very strict rules around what types of transactions they will reimburse or will count as research, and some that will not. So when you’re thinking about how to set up your chart of accounts at the very beginning of this cloud implementation you really need to have some idea of the important research compliance consideration.”
JOY: “Those are the important elements within a cloud transformation when you’re considering a research enterprise.”
So what advice do these technologists have for university administrators undertaking the transition to the cloud? Randy Hendricks has a few steps to follow.
RANDY: “The first is to establish a business case in guiding principles early in the process. The second is to develop a governance structure and project implementation methodology with road maps, timeframes, work plans and certainly strong leadership in place. And third, implement a performance improvement assessment and that’s to get a baseline so that you’ll have the metrics that illustrate an inspective improvement and demonstrate a return on investment or can undertaking such as a large cloud-based implementation.”
Joy Walton emphasized the need to include all stakeholders in the process.
JOY: “I think for organizations that are undergoing cloud transformation…Be sure to consider all the unique businesses of a higher ed organization.”
JOY: “We always encourage folks to include stakeholders across the organization outside of I.T. Take some of the folks who are sitting in the research labs. Include them. Include some folks in the different auxiliary units–all the unique aspects of the university. Engage with those people early on to understand some of their unique requirements.”
And how will these changes affect universities long term? For one, the student experience will be greatly improved, Randy notes.
RANDY: “Today’s student expects an experience that that does mirror a consumer experience with their mobile phones. And as universities compete for top students, those universities that offer a student an experience beginning with recruiting, admissions, curriculum management, financial aid, the lifecycle of a student and their experiences. We believe the most competitive university will adopt cloud-based technologies and offer the students the experience.”
And for the university, the ability to quickly update and adapt new technologies could pave the way for future success.
TED: “I would say the major operational benefit to a university would be sustainability. In most of those systems that are currently run in private universities are very labor intensive and those resources and the human resources that go into running those systems tend to be very specialized.”
While the full cloud transformation process may not be complete for most universities right now, you can expect that many more will be overhauling their technology systems over the next few years, and using cloud-based systems for many years to come.
To find out what higher ed leaders, software providers, technology consultants, and resource organizations are doing to smooth this transition, listen in to the rest of our series, “Transforming Higher Ed with Cloud Technology.”
For EdTech Times, This is Hannah Nyren.
This episode is brought to you by Huron.
Huron is a global professional services firm with an extensive history in higher education. For nearly two decades, Huron has provided consulting services for over 500 educational institutions, including all 100 of the top research universities in the United States.
This year at EDUCAUSE, you can learn more about what Huron does by attending the panel, Reshaping the Future: A Guide for Preparing Your Cloud Migration, or by visiting booth 1552. And of course, you can always visit huronconsultinggroup.com.
Hannah Nyren is the General Manager of EdTech Times. A Texan by birth but a Bostonian at heart, Hannah is an educational writer, AmeriCorps alum, and one-time StartupWeekend EDU (SWEDU) winning team member. She started her career at a Pearson-incubated edtech startup, but has since covered travel, food & culture, and even stonemasonry in addition to education.