Software as a Service (SaaS), Part 2 of 2: Changing Relationships, Changing Roles

Posted on November 26, 2011

In Part 1, I defined the declining value proposition for campuses of an older paradigm in which developers develop systems locally or acquire vendors systems but host them locally. I also asserted the increasing value proposition of Software as a Service as a make-sense strategy for campuses everywhere. The dictum of the new paradigm is: If you can, just run the service from the cloud.

[Note: This blog is based on a presentation I gave at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers Technology (AACRAO Tech) conference on July 10, 2011. It also relies heavily on my article, ‘The Soft Side of SaaS: Implications for IT in Higher Education,’ ECAR (EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research) Research Bulletin 6, 2011. (Please read this blog in conjunction with Part 1, posted earlier.)]

Relationships and Roles

If these assertions are correct, what then is the role of systems personnel on a campus? If everything is to be replaced by cloud-based services, do we even need technologists on our campuses? My answer is yes, but technologists’ relationships will change – to people on their campuses, within the greater higher education industry, and with vendors supporting higher education. This role change in turn demands that technologists play a different role with different skill sets than were required by the previous paradigms.

Changing relationships

Obviously, vendors and institutions both enjoy greater advantage when they authentically cultivate mutually beneficial relationship. This needs to be a greater industry focus than it has been, however. Some institutions like Stanford University are making it clear to vendors that those who strive to work more in active partnership – both to push the adoption of new technology and to leverage it for more functionality – have preference over those that do not.

The opportunity to partner must be viewed as an opportunity to create value for an institution and extend that value to other institutions in the higher education sector. Vendors that connect with this opportunity will garner a better reputation in higher ed circles than those that sit back and stand pat or focus exclusively on ROI and market share. And institutions that present vendors opportunities to increase their product value across education will likely enjoy greater vendor attention, as well. This means working together a lot more than has typically been the case. And for an educational institution it translates to kicking its addiction to the one-off – that costly, fixed belief that we are unique at our school and therefore we must have things exactly our way. When it comes right down to it, institutions don’t differentiate themselves very much dreaming up special ways to enroll students!

Changing roles

As SaaS becomes more prevalent in higher education, it will have a profound impact on the roles of technical staff (programmers, business analysts, and systems analysts). Successful innovation, such as moving to a SaaS model, is like an arc to a new, hopefully higher level of institutional capability. (See Figure 1.)

The disruptive force of innovationFigure 1. The disruptive force of innovation.

A new role of system facilitator is required. For some institutions, this role is already emerging. Facilitation is ephemeral, leading up to and lasting in some cases temporarily beyond the push from one stasis, or equilibrium, to another. However, the role can be generalized, extended, and re-applied time and again to various institutional change efforts.

By facilitator I mean one or more staff on a technical team with a portfolio of the following skill sets. As you will see from reading through my description of these skills below, this means the technical staff will spend their time very differently than the way they spend it now: doing less, and facilitating a rapid uptake of technology into the institutional bloodstream more through adoption of more SaaS services. Here is my list of skill sets of the new technologist:

Weatherman. Someone on your campus must anticipate what is needed. This does not mean developing consensus about what is needed; instead it means anticipating a value opportunity. It is like a golfer who throws a few blades of grass in the air to see how the wind is blowing. The weatherman must see into the institutional zeitgeist and assess its need. The standard by which the weatherman will be measured is different than that by which an operational role is measured: The former is expected to exceed institutional expectations by noticing institutional needs and actually defining them. This is also the mark of an innovator who is a risk-taker.

Scout. Someone on your campus must scour the marketplace for solutions, arrange for vendors to show their products, learn from other campuses about their experiences, translate those to your setting, and conduct rapid purchasing and deployment processes. The scout also has to be on the lookout for a vendor willing to partner, or co-create, with your institution.

Leader. Your institution needs to cultivate individuals who can develop and articulate a vision of what technology can do for your campus and who can become catalysts and free-agents for change. While the day-to-day grind and challenge of running operational units preoccupies many, it is a travesty to over-commit technical staff to business as usual. Someone is needed to challenge status quo and light a fire in the institutional belly.

Partner. Someone on your campus must learn to be effective in influencing vendors to make needed changes. This individual must become skilled in creating authentic partnerships with vendors for significant change – i.e., change that pushes the entire educational sector forward. Similarly, someone is needed to create partnerships locally among service units to collaborate on technologies whose impact spans organizational boundaries and to accept new capabilities coming their way.

Influencer. Institutions will want, and need, to benefit from the explosion of marketplace applications and technologies. Individuals are needed to represent your institution’s needs more broadly across our industry, both to understand and to influence. I believe this is true for all of us in higher education. It will no longer be adequate for institutions to exist in relative isolation, focusing mostly on their own settings with merely a casual and friendly relationship to each other. We have important work to do together, building upon our long history of sharing knowledge. Technology in the 21st century is streaming forth like hot lava from a volcano. We need leadership to face these volcanic technological eruptions. They will not subside, we cannot ignore their impact, and we must ‘up our ante’ by partnering more and more. Someone will need to represent your campus in a wider systems and technology dialog that includes both other institutions and vendors. This will need to entail more than talk and it will need to be about much more than small increments of change that dog many vendors who in fact want to do more.  It will require active doing and collaborating. This will get vendors’ attention and the best vendors will want to assist you in this mission.

Team builder. Someone on your campus has to convene local stakeholders, stimulate questioning and dialog, foster teamwork, engage policymakers, build positive vibes, and locate funding sources.

Integrator. Some campus technologists on your campus will have to shift from being in-house developers or on-premises providers to being like quilt-makers who stitch together a variety of vendor and local applications into a (hopefully effective) patchwork quilt of functionality supporting your institution. These people have to become proficient, or at least conversant, in the enabling technologies such as web services, RSS feeds, XML, JSON, SOA – the sewing kit and cloth, if you will, used for this purpose. They must learn to perform their stitchery with quickness and agility, since more will be asked of them, not less.

What to do?

My answer is to work with vendors and each other more strategically and successfully. Two clear ways come to mind: developing strategic partnerships to provide greater value and letting vendors do the heavy lifting of running our software.

Each of us in higher education technology should seek ways to partner with vendors and each other to raise the level of conversation from small to large. These conversations should pose and answer the question, What is the appropriate technological response to the challenges of higher education in the 21st century?

When it comes to letting vendors do more of the heavy lifting, while no change is without risk, Figure 2 summarizes the nature of the change at hand with the SaaS approach and the potential it represents.

The Saas paradigm

Figure 2, The Saas paradigm

When thinking of the massive changes that confront higher education in the 21st century, the analogy of evolution seems apt. As scientists observe, the environment always dictates the nature of the change of the species within it. SaaS is one of those technological forces changing our environment. Our task is to understand the nature of the change required and adapt.

© Tim Flood, 2011

Share and enjoy: