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There is a an old joke (or is it delivered wisdom?) in the software industry that God could create the world in just seven days because there were no legacy systems and no legacy users. That might be the best way to frame yesterday’s announcement from Workday that the company plans to release a Cloud-based Student Information System (SIS) for the higher education market.

In recent years Workday has established a small but growing presence in the higher ed market with its Cloud-based HR and financial software applications. But student information systems are the “mother of all administrative applications” in their size, scope, complexity, and the level of institutional dependence. Aside from the continuing efforts of the collaborative Kauli Foundation to develop an Open Source SIS (named KauliStudent) for the higher ed community, the Workday SIS will be the first newly designed student information system for the higher ed market in about a decade. (And much has changed over the past decade!)

Make no mistake: the Workday SIS announcement reflects truly great aspirations and intentions. The firm plans to build in a number of increasingly essential features and functions that are, at present, largely bolted on to what many campus officials view to be the aging SIS applications offered by other technology providers. The Workday announcement claims that the firm’s new SIS, scheduled for full release in 2016, will be more than just a resource for keeping student records; rather the Workday SIS will serve as “a mobile-first system of engagement designed to help students make informed decisions at each step on their educational paths and accelerate progress toward their desired outcomes.”

Reflecting the rising role of analytics in higher ed, the Workday SIS application will also include an imbedded “Big Data Analytic foundation that will empower institutions with instant access to real-time data and analysis, helping to guide decision-making and demonstrate accountability.”

The issue of Workday’s “all in” move into higher ed was not one of if, but rather of when. The firm’s current HR and financial applications allowed it to develop working relationships with institutions – and institutional leaders – across several sectors. Workday’s higher ed strategy reflects the one used some 20 years ago when PeopleSoft, now owned by Oracle but then led by Dave Duffield, the co-founder and co-CEO of Workday, entered the higher ed market: begin with HR, gain the confidence of your clients, and then work your way in and up.

Credit Workday with an ambitious plan for its new SIS application. By offering a newly designed Cloud-based SIS, Workday has the potential to create some disruption in the higher ed market for administrative information systems. For example, the Workday SIS could be a catalyst for disrupting the general tendency of individual institutions to turn to just one technology provider for all of its administrative/ERP systems – SIS, finance, alumni/development, etc. And the Workday announcement will likely accelerate efforts from its major competitors – Campus Management, Ellucian, Jenzabar, and Oracle – to redesign their ERP applications and to move them to the Cloud.

But the SIS announcement also reflects a long-term strategy for Workday, and by extension, for the higher education community. The full, newly designed Workday SIS is “expected to be completed by the end of calendar 2016.” Production schedules slip; the campus sale and decision cycle can be very long. Moreover, the implementation cycle once campuses decide to migrate from one administrative system to another is also long, often upwards of two years for a new student information system. Consequently, it may not be until 2020 that Workday begins to see significant traction and gains significant market share for its new SIS application.

And there are other challenges that loom large: even with strong leadership and significant alliances, the path to success is not certain. Data from the 2012 Campus Computing Survey (video link) reveal that although some 60-70 percent of CIOs and senior IT officers some believe that Cloud Computing will play an important role in their institution’s IT strategy, at present there is very little deployment of Cloud applications for administrative systems: in aggregate just 5.9 percent of US colleges and universities have moved their ERP/administrative applications to the Cloud. Moreover, just 6.5 percent of the CIOs and senior campus IT officials who participated in the 2012 Campus Computing Survey report that it is "highly likely" that their institution might migrate to a Cloud-based SIS from any provider in five years -- by fall 2017.

There are several ways to explain this slow migration the Cloud: the current ERP providers have been slow to bring forward Cloud-based ERP/administrative system applications; campus IT officers want to retain control of their IT resources (and some might say their IT empires) on their campuses; and many campus IT officers want others to go first – to have other (peer) institutions make the “Columbus-like journey of discovery” into Cloud computing before they lead their own campuses into unchartered terrain.

But again, credit Workday for making the (big!) plunge into the SIS market in higher education. The Workday SIS announcement presents a challenge to both campuses and to higher ed's other administrative system technology providers regarding what institutions want from big system, Cloud-based administrative computing. The Workday announcement will also challenge the current reticence of campus IT officers towards migrating to the Cloud-base administrative systems in the coming years.

Disclosure: Five firms that provide ERP applications to higher education -- Campus Management, Ellucian, Jenzabar, Oracle, and Workday -- are corporate sponsors of The Campus Computing Project.

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