the great unbundling

There has been a lot of discussion on “unbundling” of traditionally single-vendor, monolithic systems, especially the Learning Management System (LMS) and the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solutions.Essentially, rather than relying on a single solution that does 100 things, why not break out the functions into perhaps 20 products that are all efficiently and seamlessly tied together? Those 20 would be chosen because they meet operational needs better than that single solution could.

This is different than a straight “Best of Breed” approach. Gartner handles it pretty well in their discussion on the “post-modern ERP.” Best of Breed is focused on selecting products that are best in industry, in any given field. Being purposely black and white, it’s the best of that type of application, and that’s what we’re going to use. A post-modern ERP approach is based on business processes. The results might be the same – the best product in the field might be the one that fits your business processes the best. But one institution might do something very differently than another, and while both might be looking for “best fit,” the result might be two completely different products. Perhaps a subtle difference, but one that I think is important.

Unbundling an ERP, especially in higher education, is pretty straightforward. Perhaps the admissions module that came with the ERP isn’t an effective CRM. Let’s go out and find one, and spend our time integrating the two systems. We might see similar decisions with Advancement and its CRM needs, or perhaps analytics and data visualization.

At first ,the ERP would be the hub with other systems attached to it. Over time, the ERP is completely broken up, and all the systems revolve around a data warehouse. Energy is spent on governing the data integrity of that warehouse and on maintenance of the flow of data. The ERP (which by this point is probably just a Student Information System) is actually attached to the data warehouse, rather than fueling it. The great thing about using the data warehouse as the hub is that all reporting stays consistent from group to group.

This isn’t remotely my idea, by the way. I can’t seem to find the trail but I know I first heard of it from Theresa Rowe (@oucio) who was in fact retweeting someone else. I’ll provide the reference if someone can send it my way. Also, all you (what, 2 readers?) should note that I’m in the middle of a comprehensive ERP roll-out right now. Just because I get the idea of the unbundled ERP doesn’t mean it’s the right time for me to pursue it for my specific institution.

The data warehouse could be the center for the components that make up an LMS, too. I get the idea – find the right assessment tool for the learning outcomes your institution has chosen and integrate that, rather than using one that came from a vendor. Do the same with e-portfolios, quizzes, cloud storage integration, just about anything. If student data is all managed effectively in that warehouse, and all the systems are connected properly, you could have a pretty powerful solution.

My concern, however, is that whereas an unbundled ERP likely won’t lead to a lot of user confusion, an unbundled LMS could. The finance office uses its software and Admissions uses theirs, and rarely shall the twain meet. But students all use the LMS components, and this could lead to confusion. Sure, we can implement single sign-on so at least it’s one portal and one login, but how do we manage this user experience?

This remains to be answered. I’m eager to see what comes of all this unbundling.