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Digital transformation in a time of uncertainty:  Boise State and Baylor CIOs share their tips for success when moving to Oracle Cloud

Our clients often confide that while they appreciate the many advantages of cloud computing — cost savings, ease of use and automatic software updates, to name just a few — they’re not sure how or where to start digital transformation across their institutions.

During the EDUCAUSE webinar “Digital Transformation in a Time of Uncertainty,” two experienced and forward-thinking higher education executives leading their campuses to the cloud shared their stories. Jon Allen, chief information officer (CIO) and chief information security officer (CISO) at Baylor University; and Max Davis-Johnson, CIO at Boise State University talked about lessons learned before, during and after their successful Oracle cloud implementations; you can watch the entire presentation here.

During the webcast, the speakers polled the audience members about their own cloud journeys. Not surprisingly, the audience was excited about the potential of cloud software to continue their digital transformation. According to one Baker Tilly poll, 24% of institutions will make their cloud transformation within two years; and 68% will within five.

In the beginning: Don’t move to the cloud before your organization is ready

As a higher education leader tasked with moving your institution to the cloud you may be convinced that going digital is a “no-brainer,” but many professionals in your organization, who are not yet familiar with what’s involved, may be hesitant. Their concerns will include the costs, time and effort involved in implementing and learning new systems, as well as changing long standing business processes. To help build support, leaders should learn as much as you can about your institution’s business process challenges. Then develop specific benefits and solution talking points to educate your colleagues about the cloud’s role in digital transformation.

At Boise State, Davis-Johnson recalled, the ability to frequently and automatically update software became the convincing capability that swung the discussion to the cloud. The campus was an early PeopleSoft adopter and, at the time, users loved the idea that they could, “customize the system out the yin-yang”, quipped Davis-Johnson. Over time, however, they learned all that customization made software updates a time-consuming “adventure.” Campus leaders rightly reasoned that a cloud system, with its capabilities of continuous improvement through quarterly software updates, would better support the university’s back office administration.

Allen credits Baylor’s chief human resources officer Cheryl Gochis for originally sparking interest in a campus cloud conversion. Gochis and her HR team were endlessly frustrated using three separate recruiting, learning and employee tracking systems to do their HR work, forcing them to enter the same information over and over again, and leading them to introduce errors. The repetitive and mundane work “stole our joy,” Gochis said.

Allen also saw the need to marry Baylor’s HR and finance systems to advance the university’s mandate to attract and hire the best and brightest faculty. “We wanted to be sure that we were meeting the goals of the organization, but our HR and finance data were in two different places,” Allen said. “The impetus of our move to the cloud really started from a business leader who had a need that wasn’t being met by our existing platform.”

Allen explained that Baylor ran an official request for proposal (RFP), and asked each vendor to recommend technology for a unified HR and finance cloud system. The Baylor team was well aware the proposed software solutions the competing vendors demonstrated were “not what we’d be going live with 12-18 months later,” Allen said.

Nevertheless, the Baylor leadership team took a leap of faith and decided to replace its fragmented HR system with the Oracle Cloud Human Capital Management (HCM) platform and its aging financial system with Oracle Cloud Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP).  Baylor launched its new, seamless HR and finance system in a so-called “big bang go-live” on June 1, 2020.

“With personnel being the highest cost for our institution, we needed to make sure we have a connection across staffing, salaries and benefits,” Allen explained. Also, as Davis-Johnson pointed out, a unified system would put human capital and financial scenarios at the fingertips of decision-makers, creating more efficient and effective processes.

During implementation: Don’t be afraid to ask for help

As early as 2015, Boise State began moving its financial systems to the cloud as an early adopter of Oracle Cloud ERP. Davis-Johnson recalls those early years as like following a playbook that hadn’t been written yet. Even so, university staff members were excited about moving to the cloud because they had been reading early reports about cloud computing that promised lower initial and ongoing costs, faster time to deployment and greater flexibility. Obviously, the Boise State team wanted the same benefits for their institution, but, as very early adopters, the cloud software marketplace was complicated – products, especially what the campus calls “financials,” were in their infancy and rapidly changing.

Through partnership with Oracle, as an early adopter, Boise State was able to procure software and gain access to Oracle product developers and implementation engineers — those individuals who were most familiar with the early version of the Oracle finance cloud. That approach helped match vision to reality, and the university’s new Oracle Cloud ERP system went live in 2015 – the first live instance or Oracle Cloud ERP in Higher Education.

Fast forward to 2018, when the university was prepared to implement HCM to align with its ERP system. This time, Boise State sent out a formal RFP to major cloud implementation partners and ultimately hired Baker Tilly based on their Oracle Cloud and higher education industry expertise. The combined team of Baker Tilly and Boise State worked diligently to design new processes with common models across departments and colleges, as well as managing change through campus liaisons. Boise State’s new Oracle Cloud HCM platform went live in September 2021.

The webcast speakers stressed that the key to winning user acceptance of cloud computing is to tie the advantages of cloud technology to existing institution goals and initiatives, then demonstrate how the cloud helps staff automate routine tasks, finish projects faster and make better use of rich data that’s available in real time.

The speakers offered the following tips for beginning the implementation. Davis-Johnson noted Boise State found that Baker Tilly’s strategic, transformational approach, along with the flexibility to run a milestone-based fixed price for the project was important: “it might cost a bit more, but it’s worth it,” he said. Allen offered that “if you enter into these initiatives as a technical IT project, you are destined to fail.” Functional business champions — rather than the IT organization — must own and drive these changes, Allen noted.

Go live, Frankenstein and new beginnings

The speakers cautioned that getting to go-live is not the end goal of a cloud implementation. Once new cloud systems are operational, there will be continuing updates and new capabilities for users to learn and for organizations to take advantage of to further enhance your institution’s digital transformation. A campus-wide organizational change management program prepares users for long-term innovation. The pace of change is much faster with the cloud.

As Davis-Johnson sees it, the more familiar people are with new ideas, the more supportive they’ll become, he cited Frankenstein as proof of this concept. “Frankenstein was built in secret in the castle, and when he came out, people didn’t know what to expect and they panicked. When you build something in the public square, people can see it. It may be ugly at first, and it may be missing parts initially, but people won’t be afraid of it since they were part of the process. So just engage your users in the cloud process as much as you can,” he said.

For cloud governance, Boise State created an “Office of Continuous Improvement” to manage the innovation that comes on a quarterly basis, evaluating potential enhancement relative to current and future business processes, and preparing the user population for changes and training. , Davis-Johnson explained.

Allen agrees, saying, “We can't use systems to mask challenges in the organization. I think historically that's what we did, and it ended up taking 26 steps to hire an employee because one time 10 years ago there was this situation, and so we put in an error case to stop it.  Going forward, when building and managing business process, they need to be streamlined.  As we're doing continuous improvement it's about staying tight and sleek and making sure exceptions remain exceptions, don't unnecessarily overcomplicate your business.

In conclusion, both leaders agreed, that go-live is really a new beginning.  The work is not done – it’s just starting: functionally executing on the important processes the cloud enables continues the digital transformation journey.

Jeffrey Haynes
Mike Cullen
Taking notes while working at a computer
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