Today’s economic volatility puts pressure on every kind of organization—be it a publicly traded corporation or a state university system such as mine. Despite our outward differences, the response to current economic conditions from the private and public sectors has been similar across industry and organizational type: we all need to get the smartest return on our investments in terms of innovation and effectiveness. The push is on to show how software can be used to help us forge ahead in unprecedented conditions, without a huge new investment.
At the University System of Maryland, we are approaching the problem from the point of view of managing IT costs while still promoting innovation and efficiencies. Three concepts have been important factors in meeting these challenges:
1. Stick to vanilla software implementations. Whenever possible, avoid customization projects. They aren’t a one-time deal and will only make it more difficult and more expensive to upgrade and maintain the software. The reason we buy vendor-supplied software is so that vendor can continuously supply us with up-to-date technology and functionality. To make this work, we need to stay current on new versions of the products, and implementing and upgrading systems that are as vanilla as possible means that the vendor does more of the work for us. For example, higher education uses industry-specific software from Oracle that controls everything we do relative to a student—recruiting, admitting, registering, awarding financial aid, billing, and more. It’s a complex system and subject to frequent, time-dependent regulatory changes and upgrades. What we do not want to do is customize that software, institution by institution. We want to keep our hands out of it as much as possible and let Oracle do the work. Oracle sends out the upgrades, and we load them without extensive changes. The flexibility that is built into the software is enough for us to make some adjustments without changing the software involved.
2. Look for creative ways to use existing software. The Higher Education User Group (HEUG) provides a venue for our members to exchange ideas on how institutions have used the software in some very creative ways. Many times, software we already have in-house may work well in another context. For example, we found that a customer relationship management system can serve more than one need. Universities use it for external customer relationships, such as managing donations or recruiting students, and have gotten even more value by using the contact management capabilities for the existing student base—the internal customer. Students have contacts with many people on campus, and tracking who made what commitment to what student helps us manage student retention, as well as giving us a consistent, centralized record that can cut down on misinformation. For example, conflicting advice about issues such as course requirements can be resolved quickly. User groups of all types, from industry-specific to horizontally oriented groups, provide enormous value in educating members on how these applications can be used in new and creative ways.
3. Look for ways to improve with “edge” products. Managing a major university is in many ways the equivalent of running a city. Many of these organizations are multibillion-dollar enterprises with massive financial and physical infrastructures. While no one software vendor can supply all the controlling applications needed in this diverse setting, Oracle’s commitment to service-oriented architecture and a standards-based integration strategy is an important development. This strategy enables us to integrate multiple vendor and in-house software applications into our enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems with greater ease than before. Solutions such as Oracle Application Integration Architecture and Oracle Fusion Middleware mean we can pick and choose specific software elements that will help us now, without having to spend time writing complex interfaces between multiple systems. End result: we get business value and return on investment (ROI) that much more quickly.
A not-for-profit university’s ROI may not be characterized in terms of increased profits or revenue, but higher education faces many of the same issues as the commercial world, where any decision to commit resources has to generate a significant positive return. By finding more-efficient and more-innovative ways to use our resources, we can anticipate the maximum return on each dollar. Oracle’s emphasis on finding ways to improve both the upgrade process and the ERP software integration process goes a long way toward achieving that maximized return.