Who’s In the Enterprise?

Not a Star Trek post…

Every college now has a broad array of enterprise software, a set of computing tools that helps to organize the business as a whole rather than the individual productivity of its members. The two that are most visible are the learning management system or course management system (LMS/CMS), like Blackboard or Moodle, that allow for the work of individual courses to be posted, shared, and recorded—and the information management system like PowerCampus that retains student and faculty data. But there’s related management software all around campus:

  • in admissions, to plan recruitment and track expressions of interest and applications (it’s the same software that car dealers use to check in on people who visited the lot a couple of Saturdays ago)
  • in financial aid, to track individual borrowing, lending limits, and institutional default rates
  • in advancement and donor development, to track the invitations and communications and contacts that convert friends into donors
  • in accounting, to organize the endless array of accounts payable and receivable, of contracts and partnerships
  • in facilities management, to record construction and maintenance and scheduled interventions
  • in security, to enable the card swipes that open doors and gates, record entries and exits, archive endless hours of surveillance video

It’s often difficult to get these things to talk with one another—they were often bought at different times, often from different vendors. And converting from one system to another is so daunting that they tend to become perpetual; the accuracy of data transfer from one platform to another is fraught with danger.

This stuff is crazy expensive. I’ve not seen a strong economic analysis that honestly compares the relationship between the actual costs of option a (enterprise software, and the IT personnel and resources required to run them) and option b (added staffing of administrative assistants equipped with PCs and Microsoft Office), but progress cannot be questioned. For today, let’s just grant that it has business benefits, even though colleges operated for a long, long time before enterprise software existed.

In the face of our humble acquiescence, the question I have for the day is: with all of this information at our disposal, why don’t we do a better job of making it available? Information, unlike water, tends to flow upward rather than down, and “the Enterprise” who benefit from this organized data is reduced to a scarce handful of its members. I was working with a faculty group a couple of weeks ago, and their union had actually hired a forensic accountant to understand actual expenditures. In the absence of data, we’re left to guess at how much (and why) we spend on some things and not on other things. We shouldn’t need to subpoena the line-item budget; it should be two clicks away from the home page.

I recognize issues of privacy, but that’s easily managed by installing password protection on certain domains of data. In the absence of meaningful need for protection, the default should be open data doors to members of the community. A budget is a statement of values, but we need more transparency to have real operational conversations about those values on any individual campus. How much do we actually spend, overall, on adjuncts? Where are they deployed, by department and by course level? How many have been with us for how long? What do their workloads look like? What could we do without, in order to bring on more full members of the community?

It’s easy to point to executive salaries or climbing walls or food courts as easy culprits, but that’s all just guesswork in the absence of data. And the whole point of enterprise software is the seamless integration of tons and tons of data. We’ve invested in the tools; why not let any number of people be involved in secondary data analysis, using the data sets to ask questions they find meaningful? I’ve often thought that questions about one’s own campus might form the basis for powerful undergraduate research projects, for instance. We ought to be able to learn more about our own environments, the case study we know best.