The University System of Maryland (USM) consists of 12 four-year and graduate higher education institutions that is a public corporation with a single Board of Regents. The organizational model is institution-centric with inter-institutional coordination by a small System Office. It is a cross-section of American higher education and has residential campuses, commuter campuses, and the world’s largest public online institution. It includes research institutions (among which is an institution consisting only of professional schools), selective admission institutions, and totally open access institutions. The institutions span the state from rural to suburban to the inner city. This article will explore the opportunities and issues related to coordinating IT enterprise services in such a diverse context.

“The USM Feels There Is an Opportunity to Raise All Boats by Working Cooperatively In Introducing Data-Driven Decision Making Into Academic and Administrative Processes across Multiple Institutions”

How to Add Value

While the institutions may be highly diverse, there are some clear common needs that can be leveraged. At the lowest level of the technology stack is networking, which every institution needs. There are many benefits of working together to interconnect the institutions, share resources, and leverage ISP connections. In this regard, the USM hosts the Maryland Research and Education Network (MDREN). Since networking becomes more valuable with more participants, MDREN has evolved to be open to all educational entities in Maryland.

Another universal need is procurement of IT products and services. Again, scale is important so the USM hosts a consortium that negotiates on behalf of all educational entities in the state--K12, Community Colleges, four-year higher education; public, private, and federal; as well as libraries. This unique consortium represents 1.25M students, 250K faculty and staff and negotiates highly leveraged contracts for a wide range of enterprise software, hardware, and services.

ERP and Other Enterprise Systems

Given that within the USM one size rarely fits all, leveraging ERP presents special challenges. Some other university systems have historically tried a centrally hosted model. While these have often worked out over time, the overhead of implementation, priority setting, and governance has been substantial. The implementation questions run from, “Do you first implement parking for a commuter campus or housing for a residential campus?” to “How do you have a chart of accounts that supports activity based costing for research campuses without totally overloading the staff resources for a small, teaching-centered institution.” Working all these issues out for a single-instance implementation is a long-term and expensive matter that often obviates the benefits of centralized hosting. The USM opted for the seemingly inefficient path--let each institution do the local implementation, but leverage the whole in ‘soft areas.’ These soft areas included negotiating a leveraged licensing and maintenance contract with a single vendor and sharing the implementation consulting services across institutions. With a few exceptions, driven by local considerations, this worked well and quickly. The projects were on time, on budget, and prioritized by local needs.

Now that SaaS is the new technology model, leveraging needs to be rethought. An additional consideration is that some institutions have drivers to move quickly to SasS and others want to continue getting value from acceptable premises-based systems. These issues tend to be aligned with the size and complexity of the institution, with larger institutions driven to move early and smaller institutions willing to wait. This alignment informs the strategy. With larger institutions being better-resourced, the USM is letting them move at their own pace but asking them to negotiate contracts that other institutions can use and thus finesse the need for the multiple competitive procurements that have substantial costs. While the early movers get underway, the smaller institutions are analyzing differences in their business processes to promote an efficient move to SaaS as a group.

Other Enterprise Investments

While fitting diverse institutions into a common ERP instance is difficult, there are areas of common need where diversity of size and complexity across organizations need not be a barrier. Higher education is late to the game in many areas of applying analytics to teaching/learning and running the enterprise. This is becoming widely recognized by higher education leadership that said, the resources of skills, tools, and consulting needed to come up to speed in this competitive area, an area beyond the reach of many institutions. The USM feels there is an opportunity to raise all boats by working cooperatively in introducing data-driven decision making into academic and administrative processes across multiple institutions.

Finally, IT security is an enterprise where diverse institutions operating under policies established by a common board will benefit from cooperative approaches. While every institution has a CISO, in many instances this may be a single person, or perhaps two people. They tend to be heads-down in reactive mode. This does not align well with a dynamic area where new attack/defense strategies are continually occurring. Establishing a community of practices across institutions and leveraging the purchase and use of common tools benefit all.

One would hope several of the lessons of the value of cooperation in this case study would be transferable to other contexts. The bottom line is even highly diverse enterprises can find synergistic approaches to common needs.

Founded in 1988 and headquartered in Baltimore, University of Maryland manages academic programs, supports planning and resource management, facilitates private fund raising, and offers financial stewardship.