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networking - eBusiness in education

Campus Review, 10 July 2002

The report eBusiness in Education, case studies on the effective use of electronic business in the education sector was released recently by the Commonwealth government. The case studies in the report provide managers in the education industry and other stakeholders with information on the current and potential use of electronic business (eBusiness) to improve efficiencies in the administration of education delivery.

The report was prepared by John Mitchell from Sydney-based John Mitchell & Associates (www.jma.com.au) on behalf of the National Office for the Information Economy (NOIE). The Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST) also provided support and contributed to funding for this project. The report is available online at http://www.noie.gov.au/Projects/ecommerce/Sector/Education/index.htm

Scope

Mitchell's report broadly identifies the current use of eBusiness in each part of the education sector in Australia, including plans for the future. It identifies how eBusiness can improve efficiencies in the principal industry processes and supply chains operating in each part of the sector. It highlights gaps in and impediments to the take-up of eBusiness and provides a range of case studies. The report also cites examples of leading practice; and identifies the best opportunities for action by stakeholders to enhance the use of eBusiness in administering educational institutions and programs.

The focus of this report is on the higher education and vocational education and training (VET) parts of the education and training sector, but it also covers the schools and adult and community education parts of the sector. It concentrates on the administrative or 'back office' aspects of online educational functions, rather than online learning applications. The back office of an organisation performs functions in relation to fields such as finance, human resources, information technology, general administration, purchasing and stores. Hence, the report does not cover the use of online technology to facilitate learning outcomes, which is an educational "front office" activity.

Definition and methodologies

The author, John Mitchell, defines eBusiness as conducting business electronically, both within an organisation and externally, with clients, communities and partners. eBusiness involves re-designing business processes and the use of information and networking technologies. Business goals made possible by eBusiness include improving efficiencies, reducing costs, increasing speed of transactions, expanding markets, enhancing business partnerships and, most importantly, providing additional value for clients.

The main methodologies used were the preparation of seven case studies and the undertaking of national consultations and research to inform an appraisal of the sector. The seven case studies included two from higher education, two from the vocational education and training (VET) sector, two from the schools sector and one from overseas.

Major findings

While eBusiness in education is in its early stages worldwide, a small number of Australian organisations have reached an advanced stage and there is a range of important eBusiness projects and initiatives starting up around the sector. eBusiness developments in educational organisations overseas are similarly in their infancy. Australia's leaders in eBusiness are on the pace internationally.

The Australian education sector has much to gain from embracing eBusiness more extensively, but the gains will only be realised after considerable planning and management effort. While the benefits of eBusiness are many, its implementation is complex. It requires considerable work to implement thoroughly and the risk of mistakes is high unless adequate planning is undertaken. Most educational organisations that adopt eBusiness practices take a number of years, not months, to implement the required processes and technologies.

An important early requirement for the successful implementation of eBusiness in the education sector in Australia is for educational administrators to be clear about user concerns, not just focus on technology selection.

If eBusiness is to form deep roots in education, the important focus needs to be on users rather than on the availability of technology for eBusiness. Powerful business-to-business technology is available for educational organisations and is applied by leaders in the field. However, some users, such as suppliers, partners and educational organisations, are reluctant to adopt eBusiness. This could be due to reasons such as the conservative culture of their organisations, funding limitations or the perceived lack of business imperatives. Similarly, powerful business-to-customer eBusiness technology is available, but end-user (student, community) demand and access to technology are uneven.

Educational managers are coming to a better understanding of the strategic business issues surrounding the successful use of eBusiness. The pace at which these issues are addressed will determine how quickly the benefits of eBusiness can be realised in the education sector. These strategic business issues include:

  • identifying the customer service imperative for eBusiness for each organisation involved in an eBusiness initiative;
  • appreciating the advantages and disadvantages of incremental implementation of eBusiness versus a wholesale implementation;
  • examining other organisations' cost benefit analyses for their eBusiness initiatives and developing a cost benefit analysis for one's own organisation;
  • understanding the value of national, integrated approaches to eBusiness in education versus local initiatives in eBusiness;
  • understanding the need to develop user support systems, to underpin eBusiness developments;
  • identifying equity concerns and the emergence of the digital divide;
  • working within infrastructure limitations, such as low bandwidths in remote areas.

Mitchell believes that strategic planning for the implementation of eBusiness within an organisation or a system is critical. Mitchell's report provides individual organisations and education systems with a range of practical steps and theoretical models to progress eBusiness initiatives.

Australian good practice

Despite the complexity of eBusiness, Mitchell argues that it is possible to identify practical steps that educational administrators need to take in adopting eBusiness. As an example, the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) case study identifies a wide range of good practice planning criteria used by the University, including clarity of business drivers and goals, clarity about users' needs and a focus on return on investment.

Mitchell believes that these good practice criteria are met by an equivalent body in Australia-the Queensland University of Technology, profiled in the report- indicating that world class eBusiness planning and management skills are also possessed by Australian educational administrators.

Further examples of leading practice in Australian education are provided in the report, such as:

  • Western Australia's WestOne, the provider of online VET services, and
  • DEST's Internet-based communication system, called the Training and Youth Internet Management System (TYIMS). The TYIMS initiative is a comprehensive example of eBusiness for the delivery of online services between Government and VET providers.

International leading practice

eBusiness planning activities and implementations are occurring in educational organisations around the world. Generally the developments are ad hoc, occurring in single institutions or in part of the sector and not in others. As in Australia, most eBusiness activities overseas are in pilot or start-up mode, but some developments are proving successful and are extensive or highly innovative. International examples cited in the report include:

  • The London Universities Purchasing Consortium which models good practice in using a collaborative approach between different universities to achieve savings with online suppliers, for instance, for the supply of energy to universities.
  • McGraw Hill Education in Canada, one of the world's largest producers of print and electronic learning solutions, which is using Oracle's E-business Suite to provide one global system for all customer service, production, order fulfilment and business management functions.
  • The University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand, which is conducting a trial of eProcurement, developing student and staff portals, undertaking national research and conducting experiments with marketplaces and digital exchanges.

Understanding the business case

According to Mitchell, one of the clear messages to emerge is the importance of every educational organisation understanding their business case for eBusiness. This is true whether they are embracing a comprehensive approach to eBusiness, or just one component, such as Customer Relationship Management (CRM) or eProcurement.

Mitchell suggests that different business cases are needed for different eBusiness initiatives. For instance, a business case to implement eBusiness within a stand-alone, single campus university will be different to a business case to implement eBusiness within all TAFE institutes in one sState. Additionally, a business case to implement a range of eBusiness components within all TAFE Institutes in one system will be different to the case to implement just one aspect of eBusiness, such as eProcurement.

Valuing relationships with suppliers and vendors

Developing good working relationships between educational institutions on the one hand and suppliers and vendors on the other is a key success strategy, according to Mitchell. The seven case studies included in the report provide testimony to the value of educational organisations developing collaborative relationships with commercial parties such as vendors and manufacturers.

Opportunities for stakeholders to enhance eBusiness

The research for the report indicates that the best opportunities to enhance the use of eBusiness by stakeholders such as educational organisations will flow from:

  • educational administrators' development of a sophisticated understanding of the needs of customers and students for electronic services;
  • conducting an environmental scan of internal strengths and weaknesses and external opportunities and threats in relation to eBusiness;
  • understanding how the eBusiness technology will impact on organisational structures and staff development needs; and
  • addressing cultural resistance to eBusiness.

The above issues will come into focus early in an eBusiness project, during the strategic planning stage of scanning the environment, including internal resources. Mitchell suggests that stakeholders can add most value and have their major impact on eBusiness in education by focusing on the above concepts at the front-end of the planning cycle.

Compatible and interoperable systems improve efficiency

Mitchell cautions that comprehensive planning is essential in order to avoid the pitfall of creating islands of incompatible technologies. Efficiencies are realised when each new item of technology can be integrated with existing technologies to fit with an overall strategic plan for information technology in the organisation.

For example, if systems used for administrative purposes can be integrated with the systems used to provide student services, multiple processing of the same information can be avoided. The use of technical standards that ensure ongoing interoperability between systems is important for increasing efficiency from integrated applications.

Mitchell concludes that individual institutional initiatives need to be underpinned by a strategic framework and the ongoing development, propagation and maintenance of technical standards to ensure different systems are compatible and data can be transferred between them. The greater the extent of system interoperability at all levels, the greater the potential efficiency improvements.