Monday, November 2, 2009

Improved Content Management and Communications Solutions Coming to Educause 2009

An HMO’s radio advertisement captured my attention this morning, most likely because it didn’t appear to be about healthcare. Instead, this provider touted the benefits of their new electronic medical records and the advantage this change provided trees…and patients. While this may seem like a minor advance, I suspect that anyone who has struggled to complete medical forms for what seems like the hundredth time would be elated to have a portable EMR. These seemingly small improvements can fundamentally change the dynamics of industries like medical care and education as well.

When the leaders of our nation’s colleges and universities arrive in Denver for this year’s Educause conference there will be plenty of discussion about how to better employ technology to enhance the learning process. I’m hoping there will be can equal focus on improving the efficiency of these institutions as well. During the past decade we’ve witnessed dramatic improvements in the classroom through the introduction of web technologies. Now may be the ideal time to leverage the know-how and infrastructure many institutions have developed to get these same campuses functioning more like businesses.

Content management technologies could be a good starting place for colleges to build on proven teaching practices. Today, virtually every campus uses a learning management system to manage and share content between faculty and students. In fact, these systems are often extended to serve a variety of other groups and functions across campuses. The technology and skills required to use these systems are practically identical to those needed to manage business information. As a result, many campuses could be better prepared to move their business processes to the web than they actually recognize.

So, if migrating to web enabled content services can be relatively easy for academic institutions then why are so many still trapped in inefficient business processes? One argument is that unlike many commercial organizations, colleges and universities haven’t been forced to modernize practices as quickly. Instead, they’ve focused on upgrading facilities and services, which has been more appealing to faculty and students anyway. Unfortunately, declining enrollments, reduced tax revenues and an inability to increase tuitions indefinitely is changing the economics of “do nothing” when it comes to the business side of education.

While the presence of technology alone isn’t likely to jump start business improvements, I believe there are some missing components withholding business process improvements on campus in general. One important item is a common ECM tool set. This could be addressed with a shared web user interface to access course content or business information. Recognizing that most content is still developed on the desktop, the ideal solution would also need to provide seamless access from within administrative, research and teaching applications. Shared access to a common content repository could also pave the way towards storage virtualization, helping improve content discovery and re-use as well.

Of course, just making content easier to access and share probably won’t be a catalyst by itself. High value, measurable projects need to be identified and assigned champions to ensure they succeed. Most importantly, security issues have to be addressed. After all, worries about content security and control have often been the reason that vital information has been locked away to begin with.

Common user interfaces and collaboration methods don’t have to mean uncontrolled access. Unique web services and storage “pools” combined with advanced identification technologies can ensure that business and class content don’t mix. Role-based authentication methods can even present different information based on the task an employee or student is performing. This can help ensure that information is only accessed by those who need it, and only when they’re supposed to.

As institutions have grown more complex and diverse process inefficiencies have increased. The combination of unrelenting economic pressures and the potential promise of improved web technologies may actually create the environment for change beyond the classroom in 2010. Possibly, Educause 2009 can be real starting point for practical discussions about extending the benefits of the web into administrative processes where measurable ROI can be achieved.

I suspect that a key ingredient for measurable success will be the degree to which technology vendors embrace “openness” or, a general willingness to support open standards and offer easy to use API’s to connect various solutions together. This could accelerate the transfer of knowledge and technology across the institution permitting schools to truly leverage their computing investments. It could also promote the use of shared resources from electricity to storage resulting in further cost savings and environmental benefits.

Open, customizable platforms also facilitate the migration of content and communications to new devices. Just look at the mobile ecosystem that has grown up around the iPhone for proof. (Granted, it’s an Apple-managed environment, but that was probably necessary to get things starts quickly). This can create a compelling environment for technology developers of all sizes. Those who embrace it vigorously will likely see their investments multiply.

I’m confident we’ll see signs of improved systems interoperability at Edcause this year and I’m even more excited to learn how developers are planning to leverage this opportunity both within the academic and vendor communities. Most of all, I’m looking forward to learning more about how clients are planning to get the most from their own content, communications and mobile technologies. Please drop by the Blackboard or Xythos booths this week and let me know how you’re doing it!