HR Tech Goes to College

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StudentDave Duffield, a co-founder of HR tech company Workday, says he has a passion for higher education. Couple this passion with a number of colleges and universities using Workday’s solutions for HR and finance, and “it was only a matter of time before we provided a way for customers to run everything — their workforce, financials, and student applications — in one unified system,” says Liz Dietz, vice president of strategy and product management for Workday Student.

Workday Student is HR tech’s first foray into solutions built specifically for higher education. It’s an interesting marriage, this union of human-resources technology and higher ed, and we’ll have to wait to see how it plays out when Workday Student sees official release (components of the platform may be available later this year; a full release is expected in 2016).

That being said, it’s a marriage that could thrive on shared experiences of bureaucracy. In fact, I’m not sure who jumps through more hoops in the course of a given day: corporate HR departments or the staffs of large universities. Consider also: is managing a student population all that different from managing an employee population?

The Woes of Student Information Systems

Student information systems (SISs) are designed to help schools keep track of their students. At higher-ed institutions, these systems track tuition bills, grades, room and board, health records, schedules, etc., etc. In short, these systems are huge and vital.

They’re also largely awful, from an end-user’s perspective. I remember the deep, deep frustrations I experienced while navigating the SIS at my alma mater: the hall of mirrors one had to navigate just to find their grades; the billing department’s frequently erroneous emails; a student directory riddled with mistakes. And I was not alone in this: when it came time to register for classes every semester, whole dormitories resounded with the cries of pissed-off undergrads trying to work the arcane scheduling system.

Don’t even get me started on trying to access the system from a mobile device.

In the age of Web 2.0, my college’s SIS was like an overgrown Geocities site. 

I don’t know if the faculty and staff were as frustrated with the system as students were, but I imagine they must have been. I’ve never used a higher-ed SIS as a teacher, but during my years of teaching middle school, I positively loathed my SIS.

Workday’s Game Plan

Given my prior (bad) experiences with SISs, I’m fairly excited to see what Workday comes up with. As I said earlier, it’ll be a little while before the system can really show us what it’s worth, but, in the meantime, I caught up with Workday’s Liz Dietz to learn about the company’s plans for the product. 

Liz Dietz, Student Strategy and Product Management, Workday

Liz Dietz, Student Strategy and Product Management, Workday

“Workday set out to develop a single system that combines mobile and self-service capabilities, as well as predictive analytics, retention alerts, portfolios, and executive dashboards,” Dietz says. “In doing so, Workday will be able to give colleges and universities a system of record, a system of engagement, and a strong analytics foundation so they can have better insight into interactions with students.”

These three components — the system of record, the system of engagement, and the analytics foundation — comprise the core of Workday Student (as it is currently planned), so let’s dive a little deeper into each one:

  • System of Record

“A system of record is an authoritative data source that is designed to manage business transactions and other enterprise records requiring specific rules, retention periods, and disposition schedules,” Dietz says. “Our intent with the system of record in Workday Student is to chart the entire student relationship —from initial interest in an institution through program completion – in a single system.”

Workday hopes that this move will “simplify service and communication across higher-ed institutions.” Many colleges and universities use their own unique SISs these days, which can complicate such inter-institution communication of student data. “Unlike legacy, on-premise systems in place at many colleges, Workday Student will support standard, non-standard, and student-based terms, as well as competencies and badges,” Dietz says.

  • System of Engagement

A system of engagement is designed to encourage interaction between end users and the system. “Think of the mobile apps we use in our personal lives,” Dietz says. “These are often systems of engagement where we put information in, and there is an interactive experience where we get information or service back.”

Of course, Workday Student’s end users will be the students themselves — who, in my experience, often avoid engaging with SISs because of how poorly designed they are. In order to create a system of engagement that really does engage students, Workday is going with a mobile-first design. “Workday Student will provide personalized to-do lists, retention alerts, guided wizards, notifications, and social groups to ensure that all campus constituents receive communications at the right time and through the appropriate channels,” Dietz says.

  • Analytics Foundation

What’s an information system without analytics? 

“Workday Student will deliver personalized dashboards to all campus constituents – from applicants and students to faculty, department chairs, administrators, directors, and executives,” Dietz explains. 

Dietz says that Workday Student aims to offer more than just a reporting tool by extending into the realm of predictive analytics to “show patterns for future enrollment, at-risk students, financial aid needs, and receivables models, as well as help optimize schedules for course enrollment and demand planning.”

So — Why Does HR Tech Care about College Students?

You’d be forgiven for still asking this question. No matter how interesting you may find Workday Student’s projected specifications, no matter the passions of a company co-founder, no matter the bureaucratic similarities — why use the knowledges and techniques of an HR tech company to design a higher-ed solution?

What it really comes down to is the fact that higher education is often seen as the path to employment in America — the launchpad of any career path, really. From this angle, it makes sense for an HR tech company to step in and help manage the very students who will one day become the very human resources of HR. 

According to Dietz, Workday Student plans to create individual portfolios for each student, which will house “academic and student-life transcripts, certifications, course work, competencies, badges, job-related experiences, and published research as [students] progress toward employment.” 

Presented in this way, Workday Student could be more than just an SIS — it could be a way to smooth the transition from student life to the work world.  

We’ll have to wait until 2016 to know for sure, but I’m starting to think that HR tech and higher ed may not be such an odd couple after all.

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Matthew Kosinski is the former managing editor of