Jun 24 2024

What Universities Gain from Centralized Application Modernization Programs

Managing a decentralized app environment is difficult for higher ed IT teams. Could they convince campus to consolidate?

The argument in higher education between centralized and decentralized IT has been raging for at least a decade. Pitting the two organizational philosophies against each other is an oversimplification of a larger philosophical debate. However, the core issue is how much decision-making power and influence should rest with the IT department and how much should be left to individual academic programs and business teams.

Certainly, the people who best understand what is needed are those closest to the affected students, faculty and staff, which is the primary argument for decentralization. IT teams, meanwhile, unquestionably know the technology more intimately and can better steer decision-makers toward choices that most closely align with universitywide or systemwide goals, making the case for a centralized solution.

We won’t be settling the centralization versus decentralization debate here. But we will try to better understand the benefits and drawbacks of a centralized or decentralized approach. We’ll do so using a frequent sticking point on campus: application modernization.

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Understanding the Benefits of Application Modernization

Organizations, including but not limited to higher education institutions, are well aware of the drag legacy applications can place on overall systems. Outdated and incompatible software frustrates users when it doesn’t behave properly. It also creates security vulnerabilities if the software is unpatched or no longer being supported by the vendor, and it can create major headaches for managing, understanding and securing data if systems don’t communicate well with each other.

The use of legacy applications is part of the broader higher education challenge of technical debt. And while attempting to modernize at decentralized institutions is likely to be a long and complex journey, it’s one that’s not going to go away without action. Failing to address technical debt is likely to compound that debt, and it creates a world where IT and other university leaders continuously postpone app modernization projects because they’re too complicated, too expensive and too time-consuming.

Cole Camplese, now CIO at the University of Texas at Austin and one of EdTech’s 2023 Higher Ed IT Influencers to Follow, told us last year where institutions are likely to encounter technical debt and why they may be reticent to address it.

“A lot of IT organizations get stuck maintaining the technical debt because it’s often in critical enterprise areas or underlying infrastructure,” he said.

Those enterprise areas include things on the business side, such as HR, payroll, purchasing and benefits. Others are on the teaching and learning side, such as learning management systems, registration, financial aid and student lifecycle management solutions that track progress toward graduation.

RELATED: Here’s how colleges leverage data to retain students as the enrollment cliff looms.

In most cases, applications to serve those functions were likely all purchased and implemented separately. A quality application programming interface is almost certainly in place to help them work together, but navigating those disparate systems can be frustrating for the user, and it’s likely there’s a kink somewhere in the line that is leading to errors.

In an era when students are increasingly questioning the necessity and value of the college experience, and tuitions have risen to jaw-dropping heights, giving a student a less-than-ideal experience as they navigate your application ecosystem is a mistake. Put bluntly, if you’re charging students $80,000 a year to attend your university, they should be getting a quality user experience when navigating applications.



The Benefits of Centralized Versus Decentralized App Modernization

IT leaders can make a case for a centralized application modernization strategy to deliver that optimal student experience. The best way to ensure apps and systems work seamlessly together is to bring them all under one roof. That doesn’t necessarily mean using the same software developer for all of your apps. But it can mean engaging with partners such as CDW and Enquizit, which can assess your current application environment and recommend which applications are due for upgrades and which ones should be ripped and replaced. At the end of the process, there should be a congruent experience for users.

That may be the greatest benefit of centralization, but it’s not the only one. Here are three other pluses to a centralized app modernization plan:

  1. IT support. No IT team, no matter how large, has the time and expertise to understand and troubleshoot all of the world’s applications. By centralizing application deployment and management, IT teams can become experts on the tools that are approved, ensuring users are getting full value and limiting downtime if something goes wrong.
  2. Reduced cost. Depending on your role, this might be the biggest factor for centralization. There are likely to be enterprise purchasing discounts available for universities that buy in bulk, and if there are opportunities for software consolidation, savings can be found there as well.
  3. Enhanced security. The more entry points there are to a network, the more vulnerable it is likely to be. This one goes hand in hand with IT support, as bringing unfamiliar apps into the ecosystem means CISOs and IT teams will be less knowledgeable about how to protect it.

Decentralization, meanwhile, offers its own array of benefits that can be just as significant as opting for a holistic approach. Here are three benefits of a decentralized approach to app modernization:

  1. User choice. For years, professors, department chairs and business office leaders have been able to pick their own apps. Presumably, these were chosen because they best fit the needs of their users and, over time, have become something these users have learned well.
  2. User comfort. The comfort of users is nothing to scoff at. People are generally reluctant to change, and there will be a learning curve if teams are forced to switch from their preferred applications. It’s vital to consider the intangible consequences of such a switch before deciding.
  3. Less red tape. Centralized approaches mean bringing a lot more voices to the table when choosing or upgrading apps, which is a net positive but does tend to slow things down. If users are used to picking an app and downloading it in a matter of minutes, there will undoubtedly be frustration if approval is required from a central office.

KEEP READING: These three ways tech consolidation improves the digital experience.

Where to Start on Your App Modernization Journey

Getting started is sometimes the hardest part when it comes to updating legacy applications. For all the reasons mentioned above, undertaking this type of project can feel daunting, and some leaders might be inclined to ride out whatever systems they have in place to avoid conflict and confusion.

When the time comes to start an app modernization project, however, the Strategic Application Modernization Assessment (ed note: link to What Is SAMA article when posted) offered by CDW provides you with a roadmap. It can help answer the question of whether modernization is needed and, if so, how to go about doing it.

Once you get rolling, there are offerings from ServiceNow and Salesforce that are especially helpful in taking various enterprise functions and rolling them into one place. Utah State University did this with ServiceNow to glowing reviews from staff, despite some early hesitancy.

And one last note on the topic of the moment in higher education: artificial intelligence. If it isn’t already, AI will soon be a part of most, if not all, applications you’re using on campus. Consider and consult with experts on what the AI future could look like and what it could mean for your application environment.

This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.

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