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A Shared Technology Ecosystem Approach for a Modern Digital Campus

min read

The key to delivering a truly modern digital campus is a common data model underpinning a fully featured technology ecosystem.

In talking with higher education CIOs from around the world over the past four years, an increasing number are highlighting very similar and untenable technology contexts in their institutions.

They talk about struggling to keep up with cost-constrained budgets and maintaining and connecting aging siloed systems whilst trying to create coherent, modern user experiences on top of these discrete systems built up over many years.

For most IT leaders, this feels like an impossible task.

Clearly, the challenges aren't failures of digital strategy or the result of poor technology decisions but are the culmination of years of siloed systems approaches that have created a data and user experience nightmare across the sector.

Add to this the changing expectations of a diverse set of stakeholders, and a perfect storm has been created—one in which it feels like the only option is to lower institutional expectations on user experience and accept not delivering the experience IT leaders would like.

Luckily, there is another way to build a truly connected digital campus.

To quote David Kellerman, a faculty member at the University of New South Wales, in his October 13 blog post: "The future we want is not an LMS and an SIS; rather it is built on top of the most modern enterprise productivity platforms, and it is powered by the most modern cloud and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. It is a place for people to create and collaborate. The dozens of siloed data systems at universities need to be, one-by-one, unified on a Common Data Model (CDM), with a common authentication system, on a common cloud, with a common API. This is the foundation of the digital campus."Footnote1

There is a compelling case that an institution can now deliver most of its digital campus within a single technology ecosystem. This approach has many benefits, including rapid delivery that automatically takes advantage of shared data, integration and reporting models. It also relies on skill sets that are readily available.

The University of Surrey is achieving these outcomes using Microsoft's technology ecosystem. This shift in approach, which underpins the university's 2022–2027 Revised Strategy, has contributed to improvements across the institution, including increases in national and international league tables and a 103-place student satisfaction move from the last quartile to the top ten in the UK.

Why do IT leaders need to change approach?

Changing technology approaches is exhausting, risks service issues, and can leave digital leadership exposed! The more I talk with peers, though, the more apparent it is that the status quo is not working for most of us. Most leaders I speak to say that things are getting harder, and budgets and resilience levels are being stretched close to breaking. Yet, sector-wide, education leadership is increasingly looking for more from digital leaders, particularly around user-centricity.

From my conversations with digital leaders in higher education, five common factors seem to be coming together to create this growing crisis.

Five Factors: The Perfect Storm

  1. Changing economics: Colleges and universities are increasingly squeezed and either need to do more with less or the same amount of money and resources.
  2. Changing user and leadership expectations: Increased technology ecosystem maturity outside the sector has shaped expectations on delivering more user-centric, data-driven experiences to an increasingly diverse population of learners.
  3. Complexity and inefficiency of current system approaches: It is increasingly difficult to connect data and processes between siloed systems, which slows down or halts attempts to create truly user-centric experiences. This is particularly visible in the Student Information Systems/Student Records Systems (SIS/SRS) that, for many institutions, have gone from enabling processes to holding student data hostage and disabling progress.
  4. Increased capability of alternative options (single ecosystem solutions): The value of a virtuous cycle of doing more and more inside singular, connected technology ecosystems from providers like Microsoft is increasing, as is the number of business problems that can be solved in ecosystem without needing to buy specialised, best-of-breed tools.
  5. Talent attraction and retention challenges: Institutions are struggling to recruit and retain employees in an increasingly competitive talent market. Many sector-specific technologies rely on people with niche skill sets. This is leading to an in-sector "cold war" in the UK with institutions competing for resources in a very limited talent pool of people with those skills (e.g., SIS/SRS talent). Education digital leaders are also finding themselves in cross-sector talent wars brought about by cost-of-living challenges and hybrid/remote working changes in thinking.

Unfortunately, very few IT leaders in education have the ready-to-go technology landscape to solve these problems or a common data layer or a technology platform that we can rapidly build on without creating even more mess. Or do we?

The key to delivering a truly modern digital campus is a common data model underpinning a fully featured technology ecosystem.

David Minahan, CIO at Goldsmiths, University of London talks in some detail about these challenges in a blog seriesFootnote2 on the topic. In correspondence with a number of UK CIOs in September 2022, Minahan reflected: "The main challenge most institutions have with the second wave of digital transformation (personalisation, automation, analytics) is the lack of a consistent data model and data layer, as it currently exists in different formats in siloed applications."Footnote3

A shared data model and data layer is the key!

Most colleges and universities have the tools already in play to solve this, and it is disarmingly simple to do so—wherever you can, build as much as possible in a single fully featured technology ecosystem.

At the University of Surrey, we are doing this with Microsoft. We noticed in 2020 that more and more of our new digital needs could be met within the Microsoft ecosystem, and as we implemented this approach, our architectural complexity reduced. We have also begun realising data, integration, reporting, workflow, and security benefits, as well as simplification of our talent challenges.

Our users were already familiar with the interfaces and technology, and as we deliver more in this way things are becoming increasingly coherent. Using a physical campus analogy, most colleges and universities today have a relatively disconnected campus of standalone buildings (our applications) which leave our faculty, staff, and students with the job of having to join the dots, walk between them, and reintroduce themselves at the door of each building as they land into a new experience. By contrast this new approach moves toward most of our work happening in one big shared facility that is context and personalisation aware.

At Surrey we call this "One Connected Digital Campus."

Figure 1. One Connected Digital Campus
Model of a campus building with walls cut out to see inside to the classrooms
Credit: University of Surrey © 2022

Rather than buying a new application to meet a specific need, our teams are beginning to assemble technology components inside our existing Microsoft ecosystem through low-code/no-code techniques, automation, workflow, and presentational technology such as apps and forms. For example, with the release of a new strategy, we needed to bring our core strategic objectives to life and track our progress against the goals in real time. Rather than go to market for a new business intelligence (BI)/reporting tool, our Planning and Performance team built on top of our existing Microsoft investment and added power BI capability, creating a fully featured dashboard that was available to all staff within weeks, not months.

To deliver this new approach, we are adopting the following principles:

  1. Move from a "cloud-first" to a "shared ecosystem-first" approach.
  2. Favour rapid delivery and iteration approaches where possible. (We sometimes say, "build it good enough, and then improve it fast.")
  3. Reuse existing components wherever possible and build capabilities with reuse in mind. We are consistently surprised by how few different forms, reports, or workflow templates our institution needs!
  4. Rely on our ecosystem data model and inbuilt automation and workflow rather than trying to link disconnected systems with integration.

By applying these principles as new digital needs arise, bit by bit, our technology landscape is becoming simpler and more agile. As more of our data is in one ecosystem, we can build faster, create more coherent user experiences, and move away from asking a student their name each time they initiate a process. As our architecture becomes simpler, we are freed up to make more deliberate and future-focused choices around our SIS/SRS and enterprise resource planning (ERP) rather than being limited by legacy and integration/data concerns.

For more information on University of Surrey's rollout of the Microsoft ecosystem, Dynamics and Power BI, see "University of Surrey Adopts a Data-Driven Approach to Improving Student Satisfaction, Powered by Microsoft 365 and Dynamics 365," Microsoft, August 9, 2022.

How Do I Make the Change?

Just Get Started!

Most institutions already have a footprint in the Microsoft ecosystem. Pick a project or problem with a strong supportive senior partner who "gets it" (if you can) and get started. Carve out some time for your technical team to explore Microsoft's Power Platform and set them loose on the problem. This might be a new dashboard in Microsoft Power BI, process automation of a finance process in Power Automate, a chatbot with Power Virtual Agents for student inquiries, or extending an existing CRM implementation with a workflow that adds new functionality. Aim to explore what's possible and start to see the virtuous cycle you get by layering capabilities on top of the ecosystem and data.

Mature the Capability and Evolve Your Operating Model

Systematically adopting this model typically involves moving to a new multi-delivery-mode operating model. (The University of Surrey uses the Business Technology Standard, but there are other good models out there to choose from).

You will also need to invest in the following skill sets:

  1. Low-code/no-code development (Microsoft offers courses on Microsoft Learn, such as these courses on Power Platform.)
  2. Rapid build and iterate/agile development approaches
  3. Data/enterprise architecture

Learning these skills is a win-win for you and your teams, as they are all modern and in-demand skill sets that improve their career choices!

Take Your Organisation on the Journey

Changing the way that your institution thinks about how it handles digital change is a vital part of this transformation. Every organisation is different, but most leaders are open to a conversation around trying something new that is faster and cheaper and will help create a better student experience.

A nuanced conversation is needed to talk through the benefits and trade-offs of the new approach. Moving from best of breed into an iterative ecosystem build model relies on digital leaders convincing senior leaders that not every system in the institution needs to be a stand-alone, best-of-breed system, and that the benefits of free-flowing data, faster delivery, and improved user experience outweigh best of breed. This is not a trivial task, so start as soon as possible!

Partner with Peers to Share Experiences and Code

Finally, one great aspect of this approach is that with so many institutions heading down a similar path, many of your peers will have encountered similar issues, and most are willing to share exactly how they solved them, including sharing code, processes, organisational structures, business cases, and even work with you on open-source solutions via the Graph API in Microsoft's Dataverse.

Because the higher education sector is so willing to collaborate, it is not fanciful to think that we can come together to build low-cost solutions to issues impacting all of us, leaving more room for us to focus on where we differ.

I will be co-presenting a session on October 26, 2022, at EDUCAUSE 2022 with David Kellerman from the University of New South Wales and Professor Osama Khan from the University of Surrey to discuss our vision for a student-centric digital campus in more detail. All are welcome.

If these topics interest you, whether you agree, disagree, or would like to discuss them in more detail, I welcome the opportunity to connect and talk with you at the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference, UCISA events in the UK, or on LinkedIn.

Notes

  1. David Kellerman, "How Can Higher Education Create a Next Generation Digital Campus? A Call to Build a Modern Digital Core in an Open-Source Alliance," Microsoft Education Blog, October 13, 2022. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. David Minahan, "Digital" LinkedIn, May 6, 2022. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. David Minahan, email correspondence, September 2022. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.

Nick Gilbert is Chief Information and Digital Officer at the University of Surrey.

© 2022 Microsoft Corporation.