Way, way back in 2002, in an Educause publication, Gary B. Grant and Greg Anderson wrote this of CRM in higher education:

“The notion of effective customer information management as a productivity issue is being replaced by the need for effective customer management as a competitive advantage. Tomorrow’s systems will go far beyond productivity-related features (such as Web-based student registration) to the development of customer informationas a strategic advantage. The concept of students, alumni, faculty members, and staff members as “customers” will become a competitive imperative with profound impact on how colleges and universities attract, retain, and serve customers of all types.”

Has much changed since 2002? What is the current role of CRM in higher education? I’ve asked Lawrence Levy of Enrollment Rx to offer an update on CRM, but also to link CRM to cloud computing –  a service that has developed into a core element of the landscape in the years since the Educause article.

KCH: Given the way in which the term “cloud computing” is commonly used, I’m not entirely convinced that there is a clear and agreed meaning to the term. Care to try defining it for us?

LL: The very definition of cloud-computing is indeed under dispute.  I think the lack of clarity around the term is fostered, at least in part, because some traditional software companies claim to offer “cloud-based” products, when in reality, they have simply tinkered with their legacy systems in order to host their products remotely, rather than on-site at the client location. (Marc Benioff, Chairman and CEO of Salesforce.com, warns us to “beware of the false cloud”.) The “false cloud” is the mistaken idea that companies can simply host their traditional software products remotely, and thereby solve the same problems that were inherent in their products when they were installed on-premise at the client locations.

This is NOT cloud computing. Just because the product is being hosted remotely does not solve the typical pain-points, such as limited flexibility ability to customize the application.  Since these products were not architected as cloud applications that live within multitenant environments, they continue to be plagued by their own shortcomings.  The products are still not flexible, user friendly, or scalable. For example, you can’t simply create fields, automation, workflow, reports, dashboards, and other custom features on the fly.

With true cloud-computing, enterprise software is revolutionized because the entire environment is architected to empower end-users, system administrators, and developers to, amongst other things, create organization-wide transparency, create business logic, and build feature-rich applications in days or weeks, not months or years.  If your enterprise system can’t do that, then it is likely a dinosaur in cloud clothing.

KCH: In addition to explaining cloud computing, you are also faced with the challenge – if my sources are right – that the majority of managers in higher ed are not familiar with the acronym, CRM.

LL: We are pleased to observe that CRM is becoming a more widely used term in the Higher Ed world, although many institutions still remain largely unaware of the potential of CRM.  The acronym of course stands for “Constituent Relationship Management”, and in the Higher Ed world, that can refer to any person that an institution needs to interact with, including prospects, students, alumni, employers, faculty, staff, guidance counselors, recruiters, parents, etc.

People would be surprised by how many schools are using spreadsheets, paper records, and email inboxes to maintain these critical relationships.  There is virtually no transparency for each connection, with limited history of past communications, activities, and follow-up tasks.  Much of the data seems to be stored in the “heads” of staff members, with each employee left to their own devices to develop a relationship management process.

One step up from “spreadsheet anarchy” is when schools use their antiquated Student Information Systems (SIS) to manage constituent relationships.  These traditional SIS products, however, tend to be lacking in any real relationship management functionality, and often cannot handle all types of constituents.  Relationship building requires systems that intuitively track all interactions, communications, and activities, as well as provide workflow, automation, and security that maximize efficiency and govern transparency appropriately. And as far as business intelligence is concerned, it is often difficult for SIS end-users in each department to get the data/info they are seeking, without going to the already over-burdened IT Department to request queries and custom reports.

KCH: I suspect that one of the challenges of adopting its’ first CRM system is the need to change work flow and responsibilities. Is this often the case, or am I overstating the challenge?

LL: There is an old adage that the biggest barrier to implementing any CRM is user adoption.  Of course it is true that the best CRM in the world will be of no value if people do not use it.  If staff members continue to use antiquated systems, even after the new CRM has been deployed, then obviously the full value of the new system will not be realized.

We very seldom encounter this problem with our clients.  We provide the appropriate user training, as well as secure executive sponsorship to ensure an institutional/departmental commitment to the new processes.  But more importantly, we adopt the philosophy that one should not invent technology for technology’s sake.  The purpose of CRM must be to simplify, not further complicate, relationship management processes.  So we look for areas where we can eliminate tedious and time-consuming tasks from peoples’ job responsibilities.  We provide tools and features that HELP people do their jobs with intuitive processes that can be easily adopted.  We expect our solutions to be nothing short of transformative to the daily lives of our end-users.  As such, our clients are usually thrilled with the CRM we deliver.

Unfortunately, not all CRM vendors have been as successful in delivering targeted solutions for Higher Ed.  I would, of course, encourage any school to research the Higher Ed CRM market thoroughly before making any commitments; as it is with all fields of endeavour – not all CRM’s are created equal.

KCH: CRM technology has been used in a number of ways in higher ed: converting prospects into registrations, increasing student retention, managing alumni, managing event communication, etc. In your experience, what’s the most common or “baseline” use of CRM in higher ed?

LL: From a historical perspective, CRM for Higher Ed has the longest tradition in the areas of Enrollment Management and Alumni Relations.

Nowadays however, CRM for Higher Ed has certainly expanded into many different departments within the academic enterprise.  In our experience, the low hanging fruit for CRM adoption is the Enrollment Management departments (Marketing, Recruitment, Admissions, etc.), Career Services (Student Placement, Employer Development, Internship Management), and of course, Alumni Relations.  Our company provides several targeted CRM solutions for these areas including: Enrollment Rx (Enrollment Management), Placement Rx (Career Services), Alumni Rx (Alumni Relations), as well as our complete end-to-end Student Information System (SIS) called STUTRAX.  Our philosophy is that the best enterprise software systems should be CRM products at their heart, as every department, process, and activity ultimately includes constituent management responsibilities, with opportunities for increased relationship building.

We always stress that our company is particularly interested in talking with any Higher Ed personnel that are currently running their processes through spreadsheets, antiquated databases, and paper records, because we will rock your world.

As excited as we are about the enterprise software breakthrough that is “Cloud Computing”, and the remarkable impact that CRM can have on academic institutions, we do not expect to walk into schools and convince them to dump all their previous software systems overnight.  Typically, we are brought in by departments that are lacking adequate functionality in their SIS or legacy systems.  These departments usually have a certain degree of autonomy over their processes and budgets, and are able to adopt solutions outside of the school’s SIS (although we often provide SIS integration as appropriate).  Once these departments are able to demonstrate the profound value of CRM in the Cloud, other departments seem to follow shortly after.


Customer Relationship Management: A Vision for Higher Education in Web Portals and Higher Education. Retrieved February 13, 2011.




  1. Bravo to Keith for taking up the largely ignored subject of “cloud” vs. “hosted”. I’ve been working for true cloud software vendors for a very long time and have found an easy way to educate my clients: SaaS vs. premise solutions vs. hosted system.
    * A software as a service (SaaS) vendor has one instance (or multiple versions of the same instance) of its software that is used by its clients using only the web (i.e., no software to install or dedicated hardware needed).
    * A premise-based solution is one in which the vendor installs their solution on the client’s hardware at the client’s data center. The software and/or hardware may be maintained by vendor, but the product is ultimately at the client’s site.
    * A hosted solution is a premise-based solution where the client’s hardware and software are located at the vendor’s site. This is not a SaaS because the client cannot take advantage of the power and redundancy of the cloud.


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