At most institutions, the search for a new technology solution starts with a lot of noise. Responding to institutional initiatives like competency-based education or greater personalization often leads to countless vendor emails, phone calls, and product demos, all while contending with flat or shrinking technology budgets. Navigating the marketplace quickly devolves into a singular focus: finding the right product.
This approach to technology selection is what we call a product-level view: a focus on a given solution’s features, functionality, feasibility of implementation, and cost.
While a product-level approach to technology selection is the norm, we are seeing a growing number of higher education leaders take a step back from the noise. These leaders are balancing considerations around features and functionality with a solution’s fit within an ecosystem or with broader organizational goals. This approach is what we call a strategic view.
Our take is that the product-level view is important. But those who want to ensure technology alignment with institutional goals to address more aspirational purposes—like institution-wide innovation or a more vibrant student experience—must take a more strategic view of their technology selection. To do so, leaders must keep in mind three fundamental principles:
- The ecosystem is critical to determining success: Certainly, a solution must be right for the particular pain point it seeks to address, but it is equally important that it adds value to the entire ecosystem of technology at an institution. We’ve spoken to many leaders who have a plethora of different solutions, from constituent relationship systems (CRM), to student information systems (SIS), to enterprise relationship management systems (ERP). While each solution helps address a specific need, together they create a bloated and often redundant set of technologies that make it difficult to manage.
- Policy considerations are important: Viewing technology selection through an ecosystem lens reveals that institutions may need to consider non-technological concerns, such as whether a solution should serve as the engine of the ecosystem, supporting and empowering others, or whether it should be isolated and focused on one set of needs. Likewise, an institution’s policy might determine that its solutions should form a package that enables the ecosystem to be more “plug and play,” so that the ecosystem can be more adaptive and flexible.
- Technology should further institutional capabilities for student and operational success: Besides the question of whether a given solution has the features and functionality to solve institutional problems, technology also needs to support the drivers for student and operational success. These drivers, which we call “building blocks,” include such things as personalization, instructional management, and learner management, and link to outcomes (higher retention, improved student academic achievement, etc.). Linking technology to these building blocks helps institutional leaders understand which solutions would better further their institutional goals.
Over the next year, we will direct our research toward the strategic view. We will address the considerations institutions should take when acquiring backend systems such as CRM, ERP, and SIS, etc.
Given that most stakeholders see these systems as being important from a purely operational point of view—tracking students, allowing for financial transactions to take place, or enabling student outreach—it is reasonable to expect that the only considerations around acquiring these systems are limited to how they handled operational needs. Our take is that this approach is shortsighted because it misses two other important aspects of these systems:
- Anchoring an ecosystem: Backbone systems make up the core of a technology ecosystem, serving as its spine. They provide the foundation on which other systems can perform their functions, such as providing student data of record to systems like the learning management system (LMS).
- Indirectly driving student success: By anchoring an ecosystem, these backbone systems indirectly impact an institution’s efforts to promote student success, by providing core data for identifying questions around retention and student achievement or providing a coherent view of students throughout their life cycles.
Our research focus in 2018 will look to unearth the strategic considerations institutions should take when acquiring these backbone systems and balance them against particular features and functionality. Our goal is to enable colleges and universities to navigate successfully through the full set of decision points around the selection of backbone technology solutions so that they might have a higher chance of ensuring that their solutions genuinely support their needs.