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Deferred Modernization: Penny-Wise and Pound-Foolish

min read

When colleges and universities delay systems modernization, they create an environment in which users see "different" as "better." Too often, this results in a far larger investment that delivers less than the technology they already own through their maintenance dollars.

In working with colleges and universities to make smart technology investments, I run across the same problem time and again. It's an issue that arises most often with smaller, tuition-dependent institutions, but it impacts larger schools as well. They put off modernizing their applications to conserve resources in the short term and then end up paying much more down the road — and not just in terms of dollars and cents.

Modernization ensures that institutions are leveraging the latest and greatest versions of the software and services that students, faculty, staff, and administrators rely on every day. It is what delivers consumer-grade experiences and ensures that IT is always supporting operational efficiency to the fullest extent. But when it comes time to introduce a new version or update, schools opt to wait because of a lack of IT resources, the add-on costs of adoption, or the fact that there are just too many competing priorities.

So, rather than implement updates or new versions they already have access to through their maintenance dollars, institutions end up settling for legacy systems and their constituents' apparent apathy (which is often confused for satisfaction with the status quo). The problem is, when that apparent apathy turns to open frustration among the users, the institution is already far behind — and the sudden urgency can lead to drastic measures and poor decisions. Here's how that scenario unfolds.

An inevitable and precipitous drop in user satisfaction leads to the belief that "different" means "better." Because the solution has been left to languish so long, its brand has lost all credibility. Imagine comparing the original iPhone with the Samsung Galaxy S9. Even the most ardent Apple fanatics would be lining up for Android and ready to drag their entire technology ecosystem along with them. What happens on campus is no different.

Then, cue the downward spiral. Because the legacy solution has lost user support, the institution is further disincentivized to modernize. And when things finally get bad enough, it moves to a brand-new solution [https://edscoop.com/the-three-most-common-causes-of-edtech-breakups] because the campus community believes anything different is better than what it's got. The institution ends up spending more (sometimes by as much as a factor of 10) for a new solution. And here's the kicker: it often ends up with features and functionality that are inferior to what it already owned and could have adopted for a fraction of the cost.

What should you do to avoid a similar fate?

The good news is that technology providers are starting to wake up to the fact that it's their own brands that are most imperiled by deferred modernization. And as such, they are taking steps to help their customer institutions make the most of what they already own.

Paths to modernization (both in terms of adoption and integration) are becoming simpler. The total cost of ownership is diminishing. At the same time, technology providers are more aggressively communicating the benefits of modernization to institutions that might not even be aware that new versions exist because they haven't been conditioned to expect them.

So, the first step is to talk to your technology provider.

A few months ago, I sat down with the president of a small, private institution in the Northeastern United States and her cabinet. Her institution was running old versions of its enterprise applications, and she had a simple request: "Tell me what we already own that we aren't using, and which upgrades would have the biggest impact on our campus if implemented." We assessed her portfolio and looked at options like self-service applications, student planning systems, and enhanced mobile capabilities that put these solutions where students need them most. Now, the institution is in the process of transforming its student experience for a comparatively small investment — and it all started with a conversation.

Second, explore options for securing the resources you need.

A comparatively small investment can still be an investment that needs to be funded and supported. So explore the options available. Some providers offer grant-writing assistance that can deliver the dollars needed for digital transformation. And some offer technology management personnel and expertise that can supplement the institution's IT staff during adoption, so that they can stay focused on other projects.

Third, be a champion.

If you've weighed the latest and greatest that each provider has to offer and you feel your current provider remains the best bang for the buck, get out there and advocate for it. Make your constituents believe in the brand again; that "different" is not, in fact, "better"; and that drastic measures like "rip and replace" not only squander resources and create change management issues — they often result in an experience that just doesn't match up to what simple modernization can achieve.

Finally, start with the students and work from there.

If you have multiple systems in need of modernization, begin with the systems that matter most to students. They are the largest, most important constituency you serve — and their experience ultimately impacts the metrics all your other constituencies are judged on. The clamor to prioritize back-office systems such as HR or finance might be loudest, and those systems are certainly essential to effective institutional governance, but when looking to make the most impactful change possible with limited resources, it's always best to put the customer first.

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Kari Branjord is Senior Vice President for Strategy and Product Management at Ellucian, where she sets the vision for the company's enterprise resource planning and student information systems.

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