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The ABCs of ECM

Enterprise content management isn't an oddity on college campuses-but the question now is, does it belong there?
University Business, Jan 2008

ENTERPRISE CONTENT MANAGEMENT isn't the awkward stepchild it used to be when it first hit the college scene at the beginning of the millennium. When Jennifer Tysse, manager of Hyland Software's higher education division in Westlake, Ohio, first began making sales calls, her pitch was focused on managing the files in a very specific department. In fact, one of the first implementations the company worked on was a physical plant facilities area, managing the project files that incorporated everything from accounting records to large format drawings.

Today, ECM and the use and storage of hard copy files are old buddies. It's the tool of choice for admissions, registrars', and financial aid offices as they move to online, paperless processes that the current generation of freshmen know and expect. Alumni relations teams were also quick to see the benefits of accessing content across the entire university system. Recently, Tysse has begun conversations around linking in chancellors' and provosts' offices with their archives and correspondence loads.

And then there's The University of Oklahoma, where director of web communications Melanee Hamilton just selected ECM to handle not only the graduation department's files but also the video, blogs, and other Web 2.0 activities in the journalism school. She's committed to 4 terabytes of storage, and plans to build from there.

"What's exciting is that tons of universities no longer think about this in terms of meeting a need of one particular department," Tysse notes. "Five years ago, people were focusing on 'Let's get rid of our paper,' and that's still where some people's thoughts start. But if you're just going to replace a paper filing cabinet with an electronic filing cabinet, it's probably going to be a wash in terms of cost."

Certainly a campus can reap huge benefits in terms of not having misplaced or lost documentation and in having simultaneous access from desktop computers. That was the whole sales point when document companies first eyed the IHE market. Today, vendors say, higher ed institutions are more interested in using the technology to automate their processes. "At the end of the day, it's all about doing more with less," says Tysse.

It's also about customer service, as the latest wave of college students is not only computer savvy but certainly well used to being catered to. Admissions department staff who can process applications faster rake in more students and the fees that come with them. But they aren't just taking a vendor's word for it-they're measuring results for themselves.

Columbia University, for example, saw its undergraduate applications jump from 18,000 to 22,000 over a recent five-year period. The admissions staffers relied on ECM to review the files faster than they did in 2002-even with the 20 percent increase-without increasing staff. Previously, the process required sorting, alphabetizing, photocopying, converting electronic media to paper, filing, cross-indexing, assembling, error checking, tracking, and distributing these application files, each of which has a minimum of 10 pages. Admissions office officials say they've reduced annual data entry by 40 percent and saved thousands of dollars. Meanwhile, advisors can view purged files of matriculated students from any location.

The Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis campus has begun to add automated workflows to its financial aid department, relying on imaging to enter tax forms, grant papers, and consortium agreements. The administration plans to manage and route its quality inspection of financial aid decisions from the ECM system in the near future.

They can take a page from the University of Louisville (Ky.) two hours south. Its admissions staff processes more than 11,000 financial aid applications annually, a process that requires completion of a student verification form and many times a parent verification form as well. Before ECM, the department compiled the forms into a "missing information" packet and mailed it to the applicant for revisal. It was then up to the financial aid department to reconcile the changed data. Today, by integrating Hyland's OnBase ECM with its PeopleSoft (now Oracle) Student Administration module, Louisville students can access their to-do lists from the university's web portal. Not only has the admissions department solved its time crunch by chopping out 24 hours per week mailing the missing information letters, but it also saves $2,000 in annual postage costs and creates an audit trail that fulfills its federal reporting requirements.

It's no wonder Louisville realized a 150 percent return on investment in the first year.

Then there's Park University (Mo.), where vice president of finance and administration Dorla Watkins needed to bring together 43 locations in 21 states as part of the university's 10-year strategic action plan.

"It never entered our minds to just replace a physical file cabinet with an electronic file cabinet," Watkins says. What started off to include "just" the admissions, financial aid, and registrar's offices grew to include university advancement, alumni, the board of trustees, academic affairs, and the president's office. Before bringing documents from all of these offices into a centralized hub, it used to take more than 30 days to process a student's application. When students called in for an update, it snarled the workflow still more as personnel tried to hunt down the actual piece of paper.

"The people who were supposed to be approving the applications were spending their time telling students why their applications were late and when it would be done," says Dave Kurt, a managing principal in the business process services division at Xerox. At Park, its ECM solution reduced application time to an average of 2.5 days, put status reports online, and reduced phone call time from 17 minutes per application to 3 minutes when the student chose to pick up the phone instead of the keyboard. That, in turn, boosted class enrollment from 70 percent capacity to between 90 and 100 percent. According to Kurt, Park University ultimately added roughly $1 million in additional revenue streaming in every single term.

The University of Louisville realized a 150 percent return on investment on its ECM system in the first year.

Of course, results will vary, Tysse admits-not only from campus to campus but department to department. "Even in admissions it's highly dependent on which scenario we are walking into," she explains. One school may be on a rolling admissions schedule while its neighbor is a highly selective, deadline-driven school.

But before you finish the final tally, don't forget the cost avoidance factor. For instance, noncompliance in admissions for international students carries stiff penalties in an audit, Kurt points out. ECM is like an insurance policy to keep you right with the Patriot Act.

Hamilton has measures in place to determine the savings she'll see first by freeing the University of Oklahoma's web developers to build rich interactivity to department sites instead of constantly updating content, and second by taking down some of the servers and redundant solutions parked all over the University of Oklahoma campus. If it's anything close to what the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas, experienced, she'll be pleased.

The University of North Texas, like many IHEs, has servers sitting in department basements to hold local storage-260 terabytes' worth, according to Computer Systems Manager Dave Gerlach's recent campus study. "That server is just sitting there generating heat that requires air conditioning to cool it down, and it's only using about 25 percent capacity. You pay more for the electricity to power on the server and storage than you actually paid for the server itself to keep it running for three to five years at that percentage," he says. Consolidating to put all content on a system that enjoys 95 to 98 percent utilization of its capacity automatically makes financial sense. This is not to mention that when Gerlach needs space, he can purchase slower-and therefore cheaper-drives.

But the best reason to consider ECM may just be one of those forehead-slapping revelations. Arguably, all universities are content related, points out Matt Asay, vice president of business development and general manager of the Americas for Salt Lake City-based Alfresco. "Everything the professors do, from creating tests to distributing assignments to posting grades, happens online. The latest alumni fundraising campaign is there. It's hard to do at any degree of scale without a content management system," he says.

That makes the real question even simpler: Do I want an enterprise solution?

If you are part of an isolated department within a large university that just wants to get something up and running quick and dirty, Asay believes the EMC version of shareware will suit. But if you're working within the IT department trying to manage campuswide complexity, you need to go upstream a bit instead of using the lightweight publishing tools that make up a chunk of the content management systems on the market. At this juncture, the decision is between proprietary vendors or open source, although some vendors will try to skirt the question, while others flat out deny open source options exist.

But the choice, in Asay's experience, shouldn't be that black and white. Yes, open source is available. What have vanished are the days when a university IT department needed to shoulder the entire responsibility of creating the system. Count MIT and Michigan State University among the IHEs to opt for a commercially supported open source system.

"With proprietary product, you are kind of forced into a vendor-customer relationship and you take what the vendor gives you. It's written for the economic benefit of the vendor," Asay says. "If you don't like it out of the box, you pay to have the vendor come in and customize it, and no proprietary content management system is built to be modified." It can be a never-ending circle that leaves both parties frustrated. The hybrid Alfrescos of the world, he believes, have a product that's 80 percent complete but flexible enough to customize the final 20 percent.

Meanwhile, Tysse says IHEs of all sizes are sizing up OnBase's hosted solution precisely because the infrastructure is already in place. Administrations don't need to add staff or hours to their existing personnel budgets, and this type of product offers point-and-click, user-friendly interfaces. Likewise, Hamilton just wanted scalability; the idea of doing different versions and installs all over campus made her shudder.

For many IHEs, the argument may well come down to price. The freebies, naturally, add development time and installation fees to the bottom line. Supported open source solutions range from $15,000 to $200,000 on the upper end, but that's only a tenth of what proprietary systems cost, Asay claims. He's bid against solutions charging as much as $200,000 against his $20,000 offer, and his $200,000 jobs translate to $1.5 million in the proprietary space. His numbers are lower than Kurt's at Xerox, who has seen large universities deploying ECM over multiple departments spend several million dollars, with an expected return in four to five years. (The ROI on smaller solutions has been as quick as 18 months, he reports.)

Companies with multiple industry clients may lead their IHE clients to reap the rewards of what faster-adopting banking, insurance, and health care fields have pioneered.

At the University of North Texas, Gerlach's battle boiled down to space. His Legacy environment had issues with performance degredation, so although his Hitachi started out with 3.5 terabytes, adding another 3.5 terabytes didn't double the performance. "If you don't manually create new volumes and move your data around, you cannot take advantage of the new capacity," he says. The 70 Oracle databases-seven of those production databases for finance, accounting, and business administrative systems for student services-were the biggest space hogs, and each had several clones for folks to run their reports against.

It's an ECM tight spot any campus can find itself in immediately after deployment, Gerlach cautions. "Universities are decentralized by nature. Every college has its own budget, its own IT staff, its own influence," he explains. A tiered-storage solution offering thin provisioning worked at North Texas.

For starters, Gartner Group research reveals that most data becomes stale after 90 days, so e-mails, for instance, that pass their expiration date should be shuffled off to cheaper drives to wallow. "But without a feature that automatically does it, it's too expensive or too complex to try and move things around at the file level," says Gerlach. He contracted with Compellent, a company based in Eden Prairie, Minn., to handle those details.

The move saved him cold cash in the first nine months. Rather than expanding his Hitachis at a cost of $17,500 per terabyte, he is now paying out just $8,400 per terabyte for slower drives to hold the unimportant data. And he convinced UNT's departments to stop hoarding space for fear they'd never get it back.

Like with any major decision, selecting an ECM partner takes months of probing. Gerlach insisted on visiting Compellent's existing clients on their campuses, the better to probe the actual system for himself. Hamilton found solid advice by subscribing to CMS Watch. "We started downloading that report and I'd take it home every night. You should see it now: It has Post-It notes all over because it was like my Bible for six months," she says. "We even had conference calls with [CMS Watch founder Tony Byrne], which really helped us organize, plan, and learn what content management could and couldn't do."

Among the questions Tysse recommends asking:

Does the vendor have extensive experience implementing ECM through a university environment? "Extensive" in this case means hundreds of sites.

Does the vendor work in other industries too? "In higher education, we often are slow to adopt new technology," Tysse notes. Companies with multiple industry clients may lead their IHE clients to reap the rewards of what faster-adopting banking, insurance and health care fields have pioneered.

Does the vendor offer hands-on training? Asking faculty and staff to toss their paper systems is a traumatic culture change. It helps to have a vendor who will walk them through the steps and who even develops manuals for specific departments.

Still, Hamilton didn't want to find herself duped by pat answers to such questions. That's why she gave each vendor fictional scenarios to address. If they passed that test, she handed them a few pages of HML with instructions to put it in their software to allow Oklahoma to run certain reports. "That was completely valuable to really be able to see those products in action and whether or not they would work within the actual operations," she says.

The strategy certainly fits Gerlach's philosophy. "My advice is to research your problems first and the solutions that are available in the marketplace rather than let vendors dictate and tell you want you need," he says. "To not take advantage of new technology and new features that are available is really cost-prohibitive."

It's Not for Everyone

Some university administrators still insist on paper trails, claiming that ECM is merely a way to manage scanned documents in a digital file room. "You really lose a lot of the benefits," Kurt insists, "so it's not a good fit." Ditto if other departments have no intention of adding anything to the file after a student enrolls.

Finally, schools of Ivy League stature, who have more applications than they can deal with and aren't looking to fill more seats, can get by with sliding along on the status quo. Their reputations alone cancel out the customer service deficits.

Julie Sturgeon is a freelance writer based in Greenwood, Ind.

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