The end of the monolithic admin system?

Going straight from one event to another isn’t much help in clearing a backlog of blogs. I’m now at the joint Leadership Foundation/JISC event “Building the university of the future: people and IT in partnership”.

The day so far has raised some interesting points. I’ll start by picking up on one raised by Ted Dodds’ (CIO at British Columbia). There is perhaps a move towards “open education”. What is “open education”? We are starting to see collaboration, communities and movement across borders, open access to scholarly research, open textbooks, all underpinned by open standards and, to some degree, open source software. However institutions rely on their legacy systems for their admin processes – as such perhaps they are less open but largely closed to the institution’s main customer base, the student body. So perhaps this move may spell the end for these systems? They have generally grown over time to respond to different demands and are increasingly complex as a result. Consequently rapid change presents something of a challenge.

Ted proposed that it is now time to move to a more user-centric model – a modular approach with flexible, loosely coupled standard based components, based on service oriented architecture. This would allow institutions to implement their preferred practice rather than attempting to tailor their processes to meet “best practice” defined by their software supplier. It has become clear, from the various discussions I have been involved with on the possibility of sharing administrative computing services, that there is much merit in moving down the modular route. We are already seeing institutions starting to commission modules in areas where they believe they can gain competitive advantage; it is a logical extension that those same institutions are going to want to pick and choose components from different software suppliers to develop a system that fully meets their business requirements.

The barriers are substantial – an admin system is a significant investment and it is going to take a brave person to discard that investment in favour of a new approach. There is also close to a monopoly in three of the key areas where a modular approach might seem to be beneficial and so less incentive to suppliers to move to a new approach. But new approaches are emerging that might change the picture. The Kuali Foundation is currently developing an open source student system. The system is based on a “concierge” approach – the concierge being the person in a hotel that you would ask for any information about the locale, having the local expertise about others’ experience – but essentially placing the student at the heart of the system. The Foundation is backed by some key players but only one in the UK – it will be interesting to see what sort of impact the Kuali student software makes when it is released.

There is some concern amongst institutional executives about systems failing to meet institutional needs and failing to be responsive enough. This may be enough for one or two to take the lead and plan to move away from their legacy systems. Alternatively Kuali may provide the impetus for suppliers to change their software and adopt new business models.

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