Dec 13 2023
Digital Workspace

4 Challenges for Outsourcing in Hybrid Higher Ed Environments

Managed service providers must consider privacy, culture, customization and communication when working with remote higher ed teams.

Higher education’s embrace of hybrid work environments began slowly years ago but picked up steam in 2020. Now, many higher ed institutions have a mix of staff, faculty and students engaging in remote work, teaching and learning a major percentage of their time. These hybrid work and learning environments present unique challenges when it comes to outsourcing IT tasks. Understanding these challenges is a first step to overcoming them and driving forward a successful outsourcing project.

Outsourcing Challenges Specific to Higher Education

Any large IT outsourcing project will have its difficulties. The following four specific challenges differentiate higher education hybrid environments from typical enterprise and corporate customers. Putting these four challenges on the table early will help to smooth every aspect of outsourcing.

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1. Data Protection and Privacy

Although higher education isn’t the only environment that regulates sensitive data, keeping the specifics of higher ed data protection top of mind is important. It’s not just the Federal Information Security Management Act, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, although those are the big three that most higher ed IT managers are familiar with.

The Higher Education Compliance Alliance tracks nearly 300 federal laws and regulations governing colleges and universities. Hybrid environments increase the difficulty of compliance because remote workers are more difficult to authenticate and authorize, and their working environment is more difficult to secure. Outsourcers that do not have substantial experience in the higher education space may not be aware of the different regulatory environment, the training requirements and reporting issues.

2. Culture

Higher education presents a culture that’s distinctly different from other workplaces. Culturally, a top 50 research university doesn’t look anything like a Fortune 50 business. Respecting this culture’s values and goals requires attention and care. The hybrid environment makes things even more difficult, as communications that aren’t face to face are easier to misconstrue and misinterpret out of context. Outsourcers that are accustomed to dealing with enterprise-type customers will find that their standard operating procedures and policies can conflict — sometimes dramatically — with higher education cultural norms.

3. Customization and Integration

Although higher ed has also jumped on the Software as a Service bandwagon, there are often important applications that are homegrown or highly customized. Hybrid environments may not be 100 percent compatible with existing applications, creating potential performance and security issues. An outsourcing organization that expects to find everything running on standard SaaS or enterprise application platforms will need to adjust expectations and consider carefully if they are willing to make the investment required to properly service a higher education customer.

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4. Triple Communications

Higher education environments don’t follow a standard single hierarchy. Most schools have at least three major constituencies: students, faculty and researchers, and staff and administrators. Hybrid environments are even more complex, as remote users may not have access to traditional communication channels. Any outsourcing project that touches all three groups needs to consider that each of the three will require their own communication and support channels, which will involve redundancy and additional effort, especially in reaching remote users.

Overcoming these challenges in outsourcing projects isn’t simple. However, a combination of careful vendor selection and continuous performance monitoring, well-constructed service-level agreements run by dedicated internal experts and — most important — a collaborative approach from both sides will help increase the chances of a successful engagement.

What Services Are Best for Higher Education Institutions to Outsource?

Higher education can take advantage of outsourced services whether the end users are local or remote. However, some types of outsourcing work particularly well in a hybrid environment.

For example, security operations centers have little reason to be directly on campus, and the IT staff that an outsourced SOC would interact with could be anywhere in the world as well. It’s rare that a SOC will require hands-on access to devices.

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Because of the specialized and expensive expertise required to operate a SOC, this is one of the first outsourcing options that higher education IT teams should consider, even if there is considerable local knowledge already in place. By redeploying local security experts where the SOC can’t deliver service, IT teams can retain the knowledge and experience but get out of the day-to-day drudgery of SOC operation.

Technical support and help desk services are other good candidates when much of the campus user base is either remote or spread out across many buildings — not only because you can deliver more support faster across multiple time zones, but also because outsourcing creates a sense of fairness with remote users. They are no better or worse off when it comes to support than their on-campus colleagues, because an outsourced service provider handles all support.

Other commonly outsourced services — such as application development, cloud management and network management — are not as affected by the hybrid environment as those that directly touch end users. While these types of services still come up against the four challenges discussed above, the presence of a hybrid workforce doesn’t tip the scales in favor of outsourcing.

As with any decision, determining which parts of the IT workload to outsource is affected by local environment: in-house expertise, budget, the institution’s size and available resources, and how critical the service is. By adding the hybrid environment of working and learning from home into the decision matrix, IT teams can better assess benefits and constraints when outsourcing is up for consideration.

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