We’ve come a long way since the days of simply transitioning physical documents to digital ones. Organizations of all types have already sped ahead to moving digital business operations to the cloud to avoid regularly updating on-site, outdated infrastructure.

While most higher education institutions have made at least some updates, they’re decidedly slower in moving to the cloud than other industries. Financial burden and lack of personnel often present sizeable barriers, but transitioning to cloud-based services isn’t out of reach.

“Anybody can do this,” says Vince Battista, senior director of IT solutions and IT infrastructure at Collegis Education. “It’s really a matter of how far you want to take it and whether it’s a tangible, achievable plan.”

The benefits of moving to the cloud are impossible to ignore. The best way to reap those rewards while mitigating potential issues is to develop a robust cloud strategy. Before you start creating your plan, it’s worth identifying both the benefits and risks of transitioning to a cloud environment.

Advantages of cloud migration

What does your IT team spend most of their time doing? In all likelihood, their days are largely spent patching and maintaining the on-premises systems. One of the many advantages of cloud-based services is that needed updates occur behind the scenes. That allows your IT team to focus on other priorities.

“[Your IT team] is actually able to be creative and innovative and start working on things that can have a massive impact on faculty, students and staff.”

“They’re not just patching, sanding and keeping the lights on,” Battista says. “They’re actually able to be creative and innovative and start working on things that can have a massive impact on faculty, students and staff.” You could, for instance, rebuild your student portal to make it more user-friendly.

For some schools, meeting demand during peak cycles is an issue. This results in servers going down and portals freezing at key times like during registration. But cloud-based systems can typically scale in a way that on-site systems can’t, which helps circumvent these types of issues.

Another huge advantage that schools can gain by moving to the cloud is the capability to keep functioning during a catastrophe. Cloud-based services have built-in disaster recovery plans that keep everything from coming to a screeching halt. Battista says this is one of the main reasons an institution he worked with moved to a cloud-based learning management system (LMS).

“We may not be able to pay bills, cut checks or anything like that, but we can still teach our students and they can still learn until the disaster’s been remediated,” Battista shares.

Security is probably the largest concern institutions have when it comes to moving anything to the cloud. You don’t want sensitive student data to fall into the wrong hands. But the cloud is actually more secure than legacy systems.

“What you’re going to find is that most of these cloud-based vendors have extremely detailed security protocols in place for your institutional data,” Battista explains. “It’s at levels that an institution could only dream of as far as security and encryption of students’ information.”

Ultimately, these benefits trickle down to students as well. When your IT staff is able to redirect their efforts away from constant maintenance, they can focus on things like creating automated processes, revamping the student portal and rebuilding mobile apps.

Potential pitfalls of moving to the cloud

It’s impossible to deny the financial investment it takes to move to cloud-based services. A mid-sized college could very easily spend $500,000 or more per year when moving HR, finance and student information systems. But cost isn’t the only concern. There’s a certain loss of control that comes with moving to cloud-based. There have been instances where vendors have gone out of business, giving customers very little time to retrieve and move data.

Loss of control also comes to the forefront when schools realize they might not be able to keep everything they’ve built into their on-site software. “If you go to that cloud-based offering, you may have to redact your process and rebuild it to work the way that their software works,” Battista says.

Another potential issue you could face is mounting frustration with perceived lack of progress. The reality is that implementing a cloud strategy takes time. Battista says it could take 10 years to realize the full benefits of moving to cloud-based systems.

Deciding to move to the cloud can also become a source of stress for your IT department. The existing knowledge and skills they’ve relied on to maintain current systems might not be sufficient in the future.

“The key staff that has been there very comfortably for 10 or more years all of the sudden sees that their entire world is going to get turned upside-down,” Battista says. “That can actually put the brakes on everything, and it can have a negative effect on the institution as a whole.”

But most of these issues can be mitigated by developing a sound plan. You don’t have to let your entire IT staff go. You could, for instance, try the approach Battista’s used in the past — retrain those staff members to equip them with the tools they need to be successful in the new structure. Even cost can become less of a barrier with proper planning.

How to create a cloud strategy

There’s a lot that goes into developing a thorough cloud strategy, but these are some of the most important steps.

Establish a cross-functional committee

Forming a cloud strategy committee is the first step any college should take before starting to plan. This team should include the chief information officer, the president, the provost, the senior vice president of academics, the senior vice president of admissions and at least one dean. Battista advises that it should involve senior-level constituents across departments, not just IT employees.

Make decisions about how to proceed

The cloud strategy committee will likely meet a couple of times per year to establish priorities and discuss a few overarching themes. “They have to talk about the funding, the delivery and the endgame result,” Battista says. He adds that these discussions need to be realistic, and that could result in adjusting an initial proposal if the main objectives can be achieved in less time. In some cases, certain systems might need to remain on premises if it’s simply too much work to make them cloud-ready.

Fixing known issues should also happen around this time. Moving to a cloud-based service isn’t going to repair a tedious business process. Streamlining form submissions by moving to a fully digital operation, for example, is something that should certainly be implemented before it’s pushed to the cloud. It’s also essential to be incredibly selective when choosing vendors.

“During the vendor vetting process, there are very detailed things about their cloud offering that need to be asked,” Battista points out. “Is it on their private cloud or are they in a public cloud? What is their tech stack? And how reliable is that tech stack?”

Communicate the strategy to everyone

Keep everyone abreast of what’s happening at all stages of implementing the cloud strategy. The plan should be communicated to students, faculty, alumni and staff. That will very likely involve multiple formats. Maybe a portion of an annual all-staff meeting will be devoted to explaining the cloud strategy. You can also discuss it in alumni newsletters and in-person to interested student organizations. You can also provide updates on a dedicated place on your college’s website.

Maintaining regular discussions with staff is especially important. In fact, it’s essential that you communicate with different departments that will be affected ahead of time.

“You can’t walk up to the academic affairs folks and say ‘We’re starting your project’ when they’re three days away from registration,” Battista offers. It’s better to ask them when their schedule is a little less busy and find a convenient time to begin your plan.

Celebrate small wins along the way

Finding ways to achieve small wins is essential, whether that’s making a business process easier and more efficient or moving a pretty simple service to the cloud. Being able to show tangible results along the way can help remind everyone — including you — why you’re executing a cloud strategy at all. Chasing these small victories gets you one step closer to achieving the ultimate goal.

Keep your college current

Technology isn’t slowing down any time soon. It’s up to colleges to keep up with advances like cloud-based systems, but not without doing some initial legwork. Taking the time to develop a cloud strategy helps with everything from establishing a realistic timeline to mitigating risks along the way.

Creating a strategic plan for moving to the cloud is essential, but it’s just a first step. Colleges also need to move into tactical execution to bring that strategy to life. And bear in mind that moving to the cloud is a key part of enabling solutions that can help improve the student experience and ultimately grow revenue.

To learn more about how leveraging technology can help your college meet its goals, view our webinar “Empowering Revenue Growth Through Technology.”