Just like their corporate cousins, colleges and universities have been playing catch-up with the consumerization of IT trend that has left many IT shops scrambling to provide their employees with the secure, ubiquitous access to the applications they need.
Meeting this challenge is an individual effort often limited by the organization's maturity on many levels: process management, change management, CMMi score, openness to new technologies, ability to let go of entrenched legacy systems, culture of collaboration and many other scores that are hard to measure. Rest assured: If there are people involved, they will find creative ways to make things difficult.
Where you won't find argument is in the need to stay current, thanks to the undeniable benefits that today's consumer technology brings to the table. The big questions revolve around what technologies and which providers in what configuration will offer the most ROI and lowest TCO.
For Phil Komarny, CIO at Seton Hill University in rural Pennsylvania, answering those questions came down to completely rethinking the role of IT in the organization. "We took our IT department and consumerized the whole model," he says. "So we're really worried about the user experience rather than control."
When Komarny arrived in 2009, Seton's 2,500 students were being served by just 25 25-megabyte per second (Mbs) Wi-Fi access points (APs) and a legacy infrastructure. This did not fit Seton's vision of a modern college campus.
The university's goal was a mobile learning environment. To do this, it first had to educate everyone about the technologies they were going to field, the potential of these technologies, and how IT was going to accomplish the mission. Before buying anything, IT put faculty through a year-long tech training program.
The result was an able and willing population of early adopters that allowed Komarny to quickly roll out technologies that were immediately put to use by the folks they were intended to serve.
All for One, an iPad for All
In 2010, the project kicked into high gear when everyone—students, faculty and staff— got either an iPad or a MacBook Pro to take advantage of the more than 360 new Enterasys broadband APs dotted around the campus. Seton was the first school in the country to do this.
Since rolling out the mobile campus concept, Seton Hill has had three of the best enrollment years in its history, while Komarny has cut budgets between 15 and 22 percent over the past three years. In other words, while enrollment is up, the cost of managing those students continues to go down.
Roughly 100 processes that used to leave a huge paper trail, from issuing parking tickets to registering for classes, are now all done on iPads. This enabled the school to drop Microsoft Exchange and move to Google for email and document management; even in the board room, instant access to critical documents is now the norm.
Commentary: The iPad Goes Back to School
The change was so quickly embraced that it took Komarny by surprise. He knew Exchange wasn't popular, but he figured an entrenched technology such as email would be hard to move away from. He gave everyone a year to move to the new system. It only took four months.
Because the campus is now mobile, Komarny runs 70 percent of his infrastructure on Amazon Web Services and plans to move more. He's also taking advantage of his new mobile infrastructure to run Seton Hill's LAN though a social layer provided by Enterasys called isaac, a machine-to-human social interface that lets Seton's IT team manage its network remotely and intuitively. The university has also teamed up with four other colleges to share log files and data on factors such as latency so all can benefit from each other's knowledge base.
"When it comes down to it, [the network] is the only that's going to be left here," Komarny says. "Probably in a year, all I'll have here is a network and Internet connection. Everything else is going to be in one or another cloud."
Everything students do now is on the iPad. Teacher evaluations are submitted before the student even leaves class if they want. The school's portal lets all databases report through a single interface, flattening silos and saving time and money across the board.
"We're able to monitor and communicate with our community so efficiently. Things that used to take weeks, to get data back from our students, faculty and staff, we can get it back in a few hours because they go through the same interface to get to all their resources," Komarny says.
Despite Technology, It's Still a People Problem
These benefits, as great as they are, are not just a matter of expanding your use of Wi-Fi or buying everyone an iPad, warns technology-change consultant Michael Krigsman, president and CEO of Asuret. You have to actually change the underlying process to make it a social/collaborative experience. "You don't buy 'social'," he says. "It's a verb. You have to drive a change in the organization that social will help enable."
If there is no behavioral change to coincide with adding social capabilities, then you're just wasting time and money to fix a business process that was probably working. This is why Joanna Young, CIO and associate vice president of finance at the University of New Hampshire, looks to put together "collaborations of the willing" to help drive change—technology and otherwise—at UNH.
Young's challenge four years ago upon joining UNH was much different than Komarny's. For Young, it was about flattening silos and getting the most out of a legacy infrastructure in new ways.
With 18,500 students, a law school and extension campuses in 10 counties, there was no way everyone was going to get an iPad. "In my experience, all businesses suffer from some degree [of] thinking that technology itself can solve a particular problem," she says.
One of the ways Young is able to make UNH more social is by opening up the school's single SharePoint implementation to partners in state agencies, other colleges and select business partners. "You're not dependent on just knowing someone's email address or things flying around in that space," she says. Meanwhile, UNH uses Blackboard for student-faculty collaboration so everyone can share IP securely and know where their data is.
Young is also embracing mobile apps more and more. When she arrived, there weren't any. Now, UNH uses about a dozen. "All of this stuff used to happen in these silos with one-off technology solutions, and it was very difficult to know what was going on, what was working and what didn't," she says. "Now, we're moving to a place where it's more open and there's more analysis available."
Since Young comes from the business world and came into UNH to help it run in a more business-like fashion, she understands the challenges that most companies face as they try to transition from old-world legacy systems stove-piped into silos to the flatter, more open world of today, where people just expect things to work the way they want them to.
"That's something I would frankly love to be able to do —a giant rip and replace…something very greenfield and very cool like [Komarny] did—but I'm also a very pragmatic person," Young says. "Social for us at UNH, for a lot of reasons, is not going to be that leap frog jump that [Komarny] was able to do. We have a lot of legacy systems that are tied to a lot business systems. And, for us, our leaps forward are really going to be in these new product areas where we can say, 'Okay we are going to put a new platform in place.'"
Allen Bernard is a Boston native now living in Columbus, Ohio. He has covered IT management and the integration of technology into the enterprise since 2000. You can reach Bernard via email or follow him on Twitter @allen_bernard1. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.