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While Software Asset Management (SAM) in most organisations is a back-of-house function, in the increasingly competitive higher education sector, SAM is emerging as a front-of-house function with a university’s software portfolio becoming more and more a market differentiator for capturing and retaining their customers – the students.

In this article, Paul Dobing shares his experience as a university’s IT director, on how SAM helped the CIO balance managing costs while building trust with end users. 

With a cohort of some 60,000 students and 6,000 faculty members, the team saw the longer term benefit SAM has in facilitating informed conversations about enterprise assets. Particularly, how it could enhance the trust faculties would have in the IT department by demonstrating better user experience from the software asset investments made and identifying opportunities to minimise the ongoing costs of those investments. 

“There was a concern among the CIO and key stakeholders that costs being manifested by some software providers were not value for money. Against a backdrop of constrained budgets, we needed to be clear about how to best invest when considering the broader investment case in software and software portfolios. At this time, the conversation about software asset management is an important one. Beyond just the dollars, the effective practices for software asset management can improve the customer experience. Not only the customers of the IT department within an organisation, but the customers of the organisation itself, in this case, the students. Good SAM gives you the data to have potentially challenging conversations in a way that allows you to build trust, not just with your customers, but with your suppliers as well,” Dobing says.

“SAM gives you the data to have potentially challenging conversations in a way that allows you to build trust, not just with your customers, but with your suppliers as well”.

Paul Dobing
IT Director

An informed view

Ultimately, obtaining full visibility on the types and number of products that are being used across the organisation can offer: 

  • A greater understanding of what’s active and what’s not, and how many people are using an asset at one time. 
  • The ability to monitor any upsurge in the use of a particular service or tool. 
  • Better data to enable more informed conversations with the user community in regard to future use and needs. 
  • The necessary information to have commercial conversations with software vendors on licensing models moving forward.

Understanding the needs of the end-users

Within the higher education sector, the end user needs are diverse and often requires software from a large set of vendors to meet those needs. For example, the law faculty may use a very different set of software assets as compared to the engineering faculty. There can also be requirements, from areas such as research to allow for fast access to different software programs so they can move quickly in emerging technology spaces. 

These requirements can lead to software being downloaded across many different cohorts within the system. While this can be controlled somewhat through policy settings, for Dobing, it identifies a different set of challenges.

“For me this opens up the question of where is the gap in what we are already offering that is driving end users to seek alternative options? Is it simply a case that the services we are offering are not clearly understood and simple to use? How can we improve our services to better meet users’ needs?” he says. 

SAM can help not only in identifying when shadow IT activity happens within a network but, to a greater degree, the use of hard data can help to build a level of trust and confidence in the IT function so that honest conversations can happen with end-users to ensure delivery of services that are appropriate. It can help IT functions find the right balance between what should be controlled at the centre, while still allowing for the right level of autonomy and flexibility. 

“It’s important to offer that degree of freedom so the end users can make decisions on how to do the work that needs to be done in a way that’s efficient and effective for them while meeting the broader cost and compliance obligations of the wider institution,” says Dobing.

Enabling remote work

For Dobing, the benefit of having a good SAM practice quickly became recognised when COVID-19 forced the university to fundamentally change its operating model from physical to remote learning. Having 100 percent of its student cohort accessing software remotely, not only had a significant network impact, it also had a licence compliance impact. For example, some licensing constructs meant the software could only be used when in a specific physical space, such as a lab or on campus. Licenses wouldn’t activate when users tried to access offsite. SAM identified this and offered the commercial team the detailed asset and usage data that they can use to work with the software vendors on a mutually acceptable commercial solution. 

“We needed to understand how the licenses were constructed and linked to physical assets and space. We also had to quickly migrate or transition some of those license arrangements to be able to cater for a remote experience. We had to allow access and use of the software so that students could continue their study in a way that made sense for their unique circumstances rather than being dictated by the construct of an agreement that was established in a completely different landscape,” says Dobing.

A lot of work needed to go into understanding what the implications of this would be for licensing for students who had to remain in their home countries, away from Australia. The team had to try to understand which particular licensing terms and conditions were applicable, and the basis on which they could access the software through the network. 

Managing for innovation and future requirements

The absolute foundational benefit of SAM is the ability to receive data insights, and then the conversations that data allows. There is a constant delicate balance that CIOs need to find between license compliance, cost savings and enabling innovation from the end user community.

“One of the benefits of investing in, and maturing an organisations capability around SAM is being able to monitor and interpret what the forward patterns might look like so that organisations can ensure that license agreements are moving to a place that takes them to where the need is, and switching on or off certain provisioning – all the while maintaining compliance so you don’t find yourself in an additional bracket of cost,” says Dobing. 

The end result of good SAM practice is a place of informed stakeholder engagement, trusted relationships with the end users of each type of software asset, and clarity around the forward strategy. Having an effective focus on SAM also helps build trust externally with software vendors.  

“A well communicated strategy allows you to work together with your providers to create commercial and contractual relationships that support these requirements,” says Dobing.

Bringing Software Asset Management to the next level