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Striving for Interdependence: Transparency Considerations when Expanding Globally

Rob Sparks

Rob Sparks is vice president of Product Management and Strategy, Education, and Research, UNIT4 Business Software.

The challenges in education and the opportunities education provides as the enabler for economic growth and employment remain a critical priority globally. Educational institutions across the world are under increasing pressure to produce high levels of student satisfaction, successful outcomes, and competitiveness on a global scale despite the current backdrop of cost cutting. These pressures, plus rapid growth in student populations, are driving intense reevaluation of people, programs, partners, and services that will transform higher education unlike anything before, often with a strong focus on technology as "the" solution to administrative costs and gaps.

Brian Voss wrote recently about the future of administrative technology. He outlines reasons why organizations may be looking for new systems and urges them to consider how they can reduce the cost of administration supported by technology, rather than looking at technology as a solution to all troubles. A change in mindset and a change in the way administrative functions run are already underway.

These changes are vital considerations for colleges and universities looking to expand their services, whether within their communities or even globally. Most importantly, to enhance quality and foster competition, higher education must be transparent and accountable in all its interactions — which technology can enable. Higher education will also discover benefits (in addition to the risks) from developing interdependence between institutions looking to expand beyond their national borders. Facilitating those institutional links and the open sharing of information required to maintain them can challenge most colleges and universities, however.

The Importance of Transparency

Higher education institutions today face a shift to a consumer-driven model, with students and parents demanding greater clarity on the value and return of higher education, while government and the general public seek greater transparency of organizational efficiency and spending. At the same time, higher education institutions have the same complexities, or more, as businesses in terms of talent management, finance and inventory management, and the services they provide. The increasing governmental and societal pressures impel educational institutions to find ways to provide information online, such as detailed performance data about programs available to students, which will be invaluable for students deciding the programs to undertake and will increase competition among institutions, promoting efficiency. However, transparency around areas like funds and grant management, and the associated reporting, remains insufficient or even nonexistent despite their importance to higher education stakeholders.

Availability of information plays a vital role not just to students but also in the decision-making process on campus, and enterprise resource planning software can help increase the flow of information among departments and organizations involved in plans for institutional expansion. Those institutions that succeed in their expansion plans will be those that implement world-class processes to address the multiple areas relevant to students, faculty and staff, and governments. Enterprise software is the primary means of automating processes and delivering accurate information to stakeholders, hence Voss's plea to look at technology as support rather than solution.

Institutional Interdependence

One of the biggest challenges for institutions that have historically worked independently will be interdependence. As universities and colleges expand into new markets, they have an opportunity to collaborate with other institutions to cross-pollinate ideas and create higher quality education for students and better research services for funders. Successful institutions will be those that manage those connections most effectively and transparently.

Information technology can help multiply and maximize connections among people, data, processes, and systems. Ambitious institutions are looking to increase revenues from efficient student inquiry management and business engagement and to compete for a larger market share, nationally and internationally. New options for delivery including shared services, remote hosting of systems, outsourcing, and software-as-a-service (SaaS) should all be considered in the drive for greater institutional efficiencies. Budget cuts and changes among funding sources continue to necessitate flexible relationships with suppliers, as well.

International Expansion

When considering expansion beyond national borders, educational institutions must determine where an existing value chain can be globalized and where local differences must be catered to. International expansion is a major undertaking, and there are several possible routes. At the high risk, high reward end of the scale is the independent establishment of educational faculties and research facilities by the expanding institution (legally prohibited in some countries). Then there is a strategy somewhere in the middle, such as piggybacking on an established partner’s expertise. Branch campuses located on the campus of a domestic institution are a way to maintain brand control and quickly establish operations. At the other end of the scale a number of institutions have, as part of their international portfolio, also obtained franchises abroad, essentially buying the local infrastructure for a rapid start.

An integrated business solution operating across distributed campuses is perhaps the greatest single advantage an institution can have over its competitors. Whether it is on-premise, in the cloud, or a hybrid of the two, the right solution can keep business processes up to date throughout internally or externally driven changes. This means an institution can be as transparent in all its interactions as needed. The problem today is that institutions depend too heavily on a few monolithic software programs that don’t communicate with each other. As a result they cannot collaborate successfully. Institutions that don’t consider integrated systems will find it difficult to meet transparency requirements of the various stakeholders, from governments to funding sources to students.

Admissions representatives, registrars, financial aid officers, student life staffers, and career counselors who can share data and insight about matriculated students based on a consistent data set can make advising students more effective and faster — major benefits for distributed staff and students, in particular. Strategic performance measures and predictive analysis are also necessary characteristics of an interdependent, transparent approach. Extend that vision into strategic partnerships with potential employers and international collaborations, and we start to glimpse the possibilities for all our students, nationally and internationally.

© 2013 Rob Sparks. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review Online blog entry is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 license.