New Player in the SIS Space, can they shift the SPIN in a new direction?


As some of you may have seen the article about Columbia University and Unifyed bringing a new SIS to the market. Competition always creates better quality for the market so while I try to understand the potential impact of this, it is still always good for the consumer. This happens to be my wheelhouse for the last 30 years and I’ve seen the past 8 years of linear trajectory and little transformation in the student market.  I know Gaspare, I put him in the rarefied air of one of the smartest CIO’s in higher ed.  Put it this way, I’ve known him since his coding days and saw what he’s capable of. For this reason, he was not easily sold the cloud spin many have been. So, this move is really interesting to see. While I believe he’s incredibly smart, I do have my own perspective on if this could transform a student market beyond the traditional approach of digitizing back-office processes.   

This a great time to reflect on the following questions:

  • Does Higher Ed need another SIS Provider who will only digitize your 1990 processes?
  • Will they change the spin and move schools from the cross hairs of the pandemic?
  • Will they bring true ROI for the investment schools will have to put in?

Like a plow in a fleet of equipment to manage snowstorms for a city, ERP /SIS are just equipment for many Chancellors, Presidents and Provosts and really never considered it to be a brand differentiator.

News flash… students don’t care which plow is used or which SIS you use.  

They only care when it’s not functioning during peak times. For this reason, I believe no SIS will solely transform colleges or universities, it will only enable them to do their respective tasks during peak periods.

In a post pandemic era, below are the 4 factors that will keep schools sustainable.

  1. Academics that is designed ‘fit for purpose’ 
  2. Increase online presence
  3. Create a digital culture and learning that will rival online gaming
  4. Create an educational marketplace that will unbundle, personalize academic paths and foster greater access for all.

If you go through my list, none of those are driven by an SIS. The SIS just manages the back-office processes of them. Prior to 2020, all SIS were designed around core antiqued institution centric processes of the 1990s. Yes, 1990 when next-generation technologies were not available. Yet, folks are asking their modern solutions providers to replicate legacy.

When the so-called modern student solution providers decided to embark on designing a SIS they boasted about:

  • Better user interface
  • On single line of code for better reporting capabilities
  • Oh yeah, cloud

While the mantra was a modern student, none of them actually transformed universities or colleges. None of the schools that adopted these modern platforms withstood the impacts of the pandemic in March.  However, colleges who did adopt an online strategy invested in digital learning and made their offering accessible beyond the four walls of a campus fair far better.  This is what post-pandemic student systems should be addressing.  So, if Columbia and Unifyed can help foster these innovative approaches in an affordable way, they can change the market.  If not, they are just managing the back-office processes of old.

Three Mistakes

For a new player to make an impact, let’s recognize the mistakes of the past decade.

The first mistake the cloud vendors made was they made moving to the cloud as the transformation, which we all know is really not game-changing, it is just outsourcing infrastructure to reduce operational costs.

The second key mistake is they asked institutions who are not “future thinkers” to help them design a product for the future, many of these institutions where still managing processes manually so they were riding bikes when many others were in a Honda. You are now asking them to design an airplane. So, what you got was a modern Toyota driving on the same expressways as the Hondas.

The reality is none of them had a future of lens on. We just need to look at the recent engagements, the ones that went live and the ones that were paused. It’s evident that these schools were/are requesting what their legacy systems did. Check out the Client Gap (Blocker) list that the vendors were asked to design around. Many of the requests on the list do not differentiate campuses. Sadly, many of these list stalled projects and only increased the cost of the migration.

The final mistake is that the SIS vendors, underestimated the complexity of designing a Student System from scratch so the roadmaps painted an unrealistic picture of the transformation. Which also costed many early adopters dearly.

A modern system has to change what you do and not repave the same path. So, what I’ll be looking for from these campuses, who adopt this new sis, how will they enable the new normal. If it’s just to digitize pre-pandemic processes to remain on the same path, I recommend campuses save their money as you won’t move yourselves from the crosshairs of the pandemic. But if you are truly ready to change what you do and how you do it, this new player could be just what the market needed.