Leveraging Cloud to Cultivate Talent

By Yvette Brown, VP-Technology & CIO, Barry University

Yvette Brown, VP-Technology & CIO, Barry University

Higher education CIOs must demonstrate an ability to stay focused on introducing and supplying technology services that directly support the institution’s strategic initiatives and educational mission. This requires a very careful balance between caretaking or sustaining operations and innovating or supporting institutional growth—an especially challenging feat for those of us in the independent sector where operational funding is largely dependent on tuition dollars.

"Cloud computing supports innovation and growth for business units, academic programs, and other revenue producing initiatives"

If we are to maintain our status or credibility as trusted advisors while attempting to satisfy constituent expectations, our back end operations must be cost effective, efficient, and reliable to support the “running” of the academic enterprise or keeping the lights on. The true value proposition comes from maximizing the institutions capacity for “growth” and “transformation” through the implementation of solutions that support the institution’s strategic priorities—whatever they may be—revenue growth, launching new academic programs to meet market demand, improving academic quality, enrollment growth, or improving retention rates. The less time spent on server updates, software patches, and fixes means more time spent on supporting faculty, supporting student entrepreneurship efforts, and bringing academic programs to market faster. Cloud computing supports innovation and growth for business units, academic programs, and other revenue producing initiatives.

For those of us with conservative and often slow growing budgets, a strategic cloud sourcing strategy might afford us the opportunity to provide best of breed solutions that can help increase revenues, achieve stated educational outcomes or even improve our overall ability to comply with the growing list of onerous requirements from governmental, regulatory and accrediting bodies.

Any cursory review or casual discussion about the benefits of cloud services often include the usual industry agnostic references to a reduction in long term infrastructure and IT costs; increased collaboration with peers; improved accessibility and access to software resources; scalability for peak processing needs; ability to pilot new programs quickly; and improving productivity. While there are ongoing debates about the true ROI of cloud, we can probably all agree that there are probably some benefits to be realized by subscribing to services as-needed when-needed versus the typical over-provisioning of infrastructure to satisfy peak needs.

Our decision as an institution to adopt cloud services happened very early on without much fanfare. We saw the move to the cloud as a natural progression away from traditional hosting providers. As early consumers of ASP hosting for some of our key business systems, we had already dealt with some of the angst about who would have access to our data, the best ways to hold providers accountable for stated service level agreements, and implementing single-sign on for authenticating against our on premise directory service. In fact, the early messaging to our on campus constituents was that the cloud was the natural next step for sourcing because of our earlier successes with hosting.

Our early cloud strategy was also fueled in part on our sense that the growing “consumerization” trend required an entirely different approach to the implementation of IT solutions and IT Governance. When the consumerization of IT first started to materialize as the new normal, it quickly forced a significant shift away from the traditional “we provide it” service models towards new services and solutions in support of a “bring your own” model or BYOx.

When cloud services became more mainstream, we migrated student email and eventually faculty and staff email services to the cloud while many of my peers were still debating privacy and security concerns. We engaged the services of a partner to assess our readiness to adopt cloud solutions on a larger scale, for as much as we were comfortable with the concept of having services run by others, we also wanted to take the time to carefully document and assess our key business systems, end user profiles and preferences, and our current disaster recovery and business continuity posture.

Pretty soon “cloud friendly” gave way to “cloud first.” From my vantage point, cloud services leveled the playing field for those of us seeking creative alternatives to leverage best in class services that we could not afford to buy, implement and support–certainly not as quickly as we could negotiate, procure and deploy.

The journey was certainly not without its challenges. We discovered the harsh realities of cultivating good talent to manage a hybrid world of on-premise and cloud based systems. The staff hired to run server farms in data-centers were not always the best equipped to manage the delicate balance of coordinating multiple service providers and troubleshooting access problems. Those who identified more with the servers they were hired to maintain instead of focusing on the solution or service that we needed to provide to our end users, often grappled with the concept of losing control.

We got better over time with negotiating service contracts and responding to financial auditors not familiar with anything other than on premise and/or corporate owned system audits. We worked hard on architecting the right network infrastructure with failover capabilities, built out our network storage solutions, and focused efforts on virtualizing applications for remote delivery to any device. We worked proactively with our legal affairs office to establish privacy and security protocols for data classification, data retention and incident management. We established workflows with our Business and Finance unit to build in IT reviews and approvals for cloud based and on-premise solutions.

There is no tolerance for network interruptions and service outages when you are operating in the age of cloud storage, running cloud-based productivity software and accessing key records and services online. Capital investments for network upgrades and security infrastructure are ongoing concerns.

My peers and I at the executive table view the strategic deployment of technology as something that we can use to strengthen our core competencies and achieve better outcomes. This line of thinking requires us to continue taking bold steps towards weaning ourselves off of legacy server platforms requiring specialty expertise for data access.

We recently embarked on a fast tracked aggressive migration of our university ERP to the cloud after more than 20+ years with a legacy solution–all while simultaneously designing and implementing a custom CRM solution. The CRM will drive our chosen cloud marketing automation solution for multi-channel engagement with prospects, applicants, parents and other influencers, current students, alumni, faculty, staff, benefactors, community supports and others. This effort is further complicated by the fact that much of the ERP for our student information system doesn't even exist today.

For us, everything is on the table for consideration including telephony upgrades. We are already investigating desktop-as-a-service as a viable option for rapid deployment of physical classroom spaces in remote locations and when the time is right, we will pilot it.

If sourced correctly, cloud computing solutions can provide educational institutions with a wide variety of options that support staying focused on the things that matter the most– achieving educational outcomes in support of the institution’s mission. Software as a Service (SaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS) deployments can increase end-user and IT administrator productivity, simplify ongoing management, and ultimately contain costs through cloud-delivered software applications and subscription-based pricing.

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