I had the good fortune this year of being extended an invitation to the Leaders Circle at Oracle OpenWorld. On Wednesday I attended the inaugural Education and Research Summit, which proved to be an extremely engaging and interesting half-day. I will confess that on the way up the hill (the event was at the very top of Nob Hill; quite a hike) I was talking with another Leaders Circle attendee and wondering whether this was going to be more of the same #highered gloom and doom that, real as it may be, has become a broken record in some of the conferences I've attended in the last two years. Having also attended many of the same HEUG and EDUCAUSE events the last two years, he knew exactly what I was talking about. He said he thought there would be some of that, but he was optimistic that it would have a different tone. I'm happy to say he was right – this proved a thought-provoking and engaging three hours. The themes of the session had been stated as follows:
Building Organization Capacity for Student Success Initiatives
Oracle's Overall Commitment to the Education Industry
Addressing Transformation in Education Through Technology
Moving from Data Silos to True Enterprise Initiatives with Executive-level Support in Analytics
Why Systems Simplification and Standardized Infrastructure are Critical to Transforming Education IT from "Transactional" to "Strategic"
The overall facilitator was Cole Clark, Oracle's Global Vice President for Education and Research, who has been leading the executive engagement program for education for several years now. His opening remarks framed many of the familiar challenges for higher education – shrinking budgets, pressure to demonstrate return on education value, etc. But he also talked about how change and innovation require five things – the familiar three (people, process, technology) plus culture (a massive issue in higher education, of course) and leadership. The goal of the Education Summit was to introduce a leadership conversation into an event (OpenWorld) that has been focused traditionally on technology. The product strategy piece was covered by Mark Armstrong (Vice President, Higher Education Enterprise Development) and Paco Aubrejuan (Senior Vice President, Oracle Peoplesoft Enterprise Development). While "Higher education is the greatest hedge against poverty and inequality" (Armstrong) there will be 40 million shortage in skilled workers by 2020. To fix this you spend more money on education or become more efficient at delivering education. This leads to Oracle's underpinning strategy for higher education vertical applications:
Access anytime anywhere from any device
Continuous customer collaboration
Global practices, local relevance
Open and scalable architecture
Engineered to interoperate
Mr. Aubrejuan started his talk with a direct confrontation of the existential question he has been answering every day for the last 8 years – is PeopleSoft a viable solution for the future. This is fundamentally a Fusion question asked by people who (my opinion) stopped paying attention to what's been happening with the "Apps Unlimited" product lines for the last eight years. At this conference, the PeopleSoft roadmap clearly showed releases through 2019 – so that answers the question rather directly. But Aubrejuan noted that the viability of the product itself (unquestioned from his perspective) is not the same as the viability of the product for you. He made an important point that hit home for me and my higher education journey so far: the slower a customer is to upgrade to the latest versions, the less return they're getting on their maintenance dollars. Those oft-maligned maintenance costs are not intended to just fix bugs, but to introduce cool new features based on customer needs. But you can only get those features if you keep up. In the past, neither party in the transaction made that easy – customers are slaves to their customizations and PeopleSoft made their releases too big and complex. This changes with a continuous release model, where the vendor provides new features (almost) constantly and gives customers more flexibility to take the enhancements at their own pace. However, you have to meet in the middle – higher education will need to take more risks and get out of their own way. If the days of massive multi-million dollar upgrade projects are past, if you want to take advantage of your maintenance dollars, you need to adopt faster. A great quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson (quoted by a speaker from Cognizant, who sponsored the event): "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevancy a lot less." The last hour of the event featured a distinguished panel: Mark Becker (President, Georgia State University), Nicole Englebert (Global Practice Leader, Ovum Technologies), Steve Hahn (Interim Vice Provost, Enrollment Management, University of Wisconsin-Madison and President of Higher Education User Group), and Gordon Wishon, CIO, Arizona State University. They covered a lot of ground in a short period, including the dynamics of leadership, the pressures on culture, the recognition of information as a mission-critical asset for universities and the ability of modern analytics tools to derive value from that information, and "common human platforms to go with common IT platforms." In the end, the gloom-and-doom was appropriately a backdrop for a series of stories of what institutions are doing about it. That's exactly where we need to be.