Beagle Research Group Thought Leader Interview – studentforce

Recently Denis Pombriant (@denispombriant) honored me by asking to interview me about the trials and tribulations that have become studentforce.  A few years ago I realized that students were the most adept at using the cloud/Internet and were the first to BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) to campus; yet, to this day are probably the most disenfranchised users on any campus …. a NATURAL Social Enterprise.  So, with the benefit of [I believe] the best platform to build solutions that change the way we work, the way we learn, the way we educate (FORCE.COM) I asked eight STUDENTS to walk me through what their day was like.  Lay out the processes they went through to study, find a job, collaborate, socialize, handle finances.  Tell me about the systems they liked using, had to use, wanted to use as it related to their education.

A few months later STUDENTFORCE was hatched.  It ain’t 100% ready for market …. its really close; however, studentforce (concept and solution) has garnered lots of interest from people who make a difference in this market …. especially STUDENTS.

By the way I say I was honored to be asked for an interview from Denis because he is – and he hangs with the very few analysts, authors, industry visionaries whose thoughts, writings and opinions are respected and followed closely by vendors, consultants and others who make up the Enterprise Software market.

So below are my answers to Denis’ questions.   Please go visit Denis at Beagle Research Group where daily he adds value to our lives by practicing his craft with dignity and a lot of hard work.

Thanks Denis !!
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by Denis Pombriant March 2012

Entrepreneur Ed Schlesinger has been building a Force.com application for students in higher education called Studentforce. Ed’s bullish on the higher ed market and he’s locked and loaded to roll out Studentforce.

This market resembles human resources in some respects. In each case, the business processes are much more like the front office processes mediated by CRM than they are like back office processes that they are often lumped together with. Perhaps this explanation accounts for the relatively low penetration of automation into these spaces so far. ERP style applications are bulky and expensive and higher-ed and human resources have needed to wait for the front office to catch up. It appears the wait is over in both arenas as this interview shows the big opportunity in education.

Denis Pombriant: Ed, you’ve been pursuing the idea of an online application that college students can use to help manage their day-to-day college experience. What got you started in this?

Ed Schlesinger: I’ve been a salesforce.com user for about 10 years (CRM) and recognized its power as a platform early on. Ironically, when I started using salesforce.com I had been selling ERP implementations, specifically PeopleSoft student information systems to universities. That was the late ’90s, early 2001. At about this time my children began looking closely at colleges and started working with admissions applications. And being that I was aware of the lack of, what’s the word, organization of updatedness, a bad word, but just how confusing it was to do business with the university from the students’ perspective. I realized that the student was expecting a better experience and I started working with Salesforce.com evening August 2005; before the app exchange to put together Studentforce. This was before you could change tab names, create objects and before workflow had been deployed

DP: What drew you to the Salesforce platform? It sounds like it was in a primitive state at the time.

ES: Primitive to what it is right now, but way advanced to what was out there. Again, I was doing sales, and sales is a process, filling in an application for a college is a process. Going through university is a process for the student as well as the administration and the faculty (Higher Ed calls it the student life cycle). And there’s value I believe in tracking, creating a profile of the work you’ve done and attaching documents. And, again, there was a bit of intuition with the consumerization of IT that the market was going to catch up to the users, users being the students.

DP: Okay. In other words, what does Studentforce then provide to student on today’s campuses that they can’t live without once they have tried it? People have been going to college for a long time and they haven’t had a Studentforce.

ES: A single interface, customizable to the university where the student can, from any device, wherever they are, as long as they can get to a browser or a mobile device access and track their assignments, their classes, their digital content, share, collaborate of note-taking and task management. Again, only one place, simple, easy, a few clicks or a few — what do we call what we do on iPads and touch devices — a few touches and swipes.

DP: Okay. So this is something that enables the students to interact with each other, interact with administration, interact with professors?

ES: Correct. And also on the other side, since the platform for the university is such that once the students have access to Studentforce, (the point solution), the university administrators and faculty can take advantage of the platform for recruiting and admissions such as is done with products like Enrollment RX. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that?

DP: No.

ES: They (EnrollmentRx) is built on the Force.com.com platform. So they had the beginning of the student life cycle from the administrator and the faculty side, and then the end of the student life cycle are alumni relations, fundraising development which is covered very, very nicely by another [force.com].com product called Afiniquest. Again, those tools are for the faculty and the administrators. The other side of it though is the students, and that’s what Studentforce product is. And it comes from the belief that students, much like customers in general, are beginning to own the conversation with the institution or the company. Therefore, the technology will be driven from the consumer IT market space.

DP: So would you say that Studentforce is by default a quasi-social kind of application?

ES: Absolutely. Especially with Chatter.

DP: Do you take advantage of Chatter?

ES: Oh, without a doubt. Chatter is used in a way with joint projects in class and joint assignments can be completed using Chatter instead of email, which we all know students don’t like using.

DP: That’s true.

ES: Documents can be transferred that way, too. Once the platform integrates with the new acquisitions that Salesforce has done vis-à-vis Do.com for task management and Rypple, which I think is going to be called Successforce for student reviews and peer reviews, I believe it will round out the application; it’s definitely social.

DP: So it almost sounds like you’re sort of turbo charging the study group, which is something that’s actually, well at least in my experience, more of a graduate school thing than an undergrad thing.

ES: And what I’m finding is that it’s more of an undergrad thing from experiences that my children have had. And it’s also I think subject specific. So political science and economics might have more study groups than perhaps a hardcore science and math.

DP: Yeah, but a lot of it is sort of one of those archetypal things that use study groups and so do MBA programs to study cases.

ES: Absolutely and opens up another conversation, by the way, to how do students interact in study groups? You throw an Apple T.V. or a Google T.V. onto an assignment as a related list, throw in a link to the related faculty record and/or post that link under the curriculum record, and now you’ve got 30 students sitting in their dorm looking at one screen rather than in groups imagining or, “Oh, did the professor say that? Did he say this?” Right now many of the schools are having their professors tape their lectures. As a matter of fact, SYR, I believe, started sending their business school professors to for coaching in order to produce more professional lecture capture videos .

DP: I would imagine that this kind of approach also plays very well for distance learning, especially as I think about for-profit universities like Phoenix and the like.

ES: Absolutely, however, what I found is that it would be cost prohibitive because of current salesforce.com pricing for vis-à-vis non-profits and universities and for-profit universities, but absolutely yes. There’s also a university out there that is a free university. I forgot the name of it. I can get it to you. It’s definitely non-profit. University of the People is what it’s called. It’s based in Texas and in Israel. And they were kicking the tires a little bit.

DP: Okay. What’s your relationship right now with Salesforce?

ES: The relationship has been very, very good. Over the years I’ve received encouragement from senior executives to continue pressing the studentforce concept. It seems like second-level, third-level executives all “get it.” I had a conversation a couple weeks ago with the new VP of the AppExchange. The concept I presented was a higher-Ed App Exchange where students, faculty and administrators could take advantage of existing AppExchange apps and students can also take advantage of financial services so financial aid can be done through the platform, their relationships with a bank, Quicken, Mint. There’s a new product coming out called Simple, which is simple banking that does a wonderful, wonderful job of managing finances and is targeted to students, loyalty programs.  And where I believe this can generate revenue for the university is with e-textbook sellers.

DP: How so?

ES: Currently, if I’m a student who purchases an eTextbook for my iPad or Tablet first I have to choose the eTextbook seller/platform (iBooks, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kno, Inkling, etc.) to purchase the eTextbook. And, when it comes to accessing that eTextbook when its needed I would have to open the platform, search for the book and independent of anything else …. Annotate, highlight and take notes.

By using the platform (studentforce) a student with access to broadband can be sitting under a tree and have the ability to retrieve the class record, scroll down to an eTextbook link and open the eTextbook regardless of the platform or library its being stored. They can then annotate, take notes and highlight while studying and through the force.com API post those notes to various related records for future reference.

Since the university is – in effect – providing the eTextbook sellers the student consumers they can benefit by already established partner programs offered by the sellers. Revenue generated from just this one segment can offset costs to deploy multi tenant (real cloud) features on campus.

DP: So tell me, where are you in the rollout of Studentforce, and what’s market penetration and uptake like?

ES: Well right now, folks at Salesforce.com are very aware. I’ve got very, very good buzz at Salesforce thanks to social networks and new ways of getting the word out, Studentforce is a catchy and powerful name, and I’m getting lots of inquiries. I have yet to go to market; however, there are multiple partnership and business development opportunities that I’m entertaining.DP: So does that include investigating venture capital?

DP: So does that include investigating venture capital?

ES: Absolutely. I mean, more startup funding. I need to make some minor changes to the app itself to get the UI more student friendly, but nothing more than four to six weeks’ worth of development, and that’s an ongoing process with any force.com product.

DP: It sounds like you’re locked and loaded and hitting the market right now. Is that about where you’re at?

ES: Yes I am. The market is finally beginning to respond because of the imperatives in the market, [doing] more with less. (see President Obama’s SOTU speech about universities and costs)

DP: So tell me, don’t you also have a relationship going with Dell?

ES: Yes I do as a matter of fact. One of the issues early on that I identified with Studentforce is that students are not going to input their class information. They’re not going to update certain information. They’re so used to having it fed to them that that data needs to come from somewhere else. So I’ve struck a very tight relationship with Dell Boomi, which would provide the integration for the front end (Studentforce) to the back end (university current student information systems, ERP and Learning Management Systems – as an example) And that’s a benefit to the students and the institution and their higher IT on multiple levels.

DP: Such as?

ES: Some of the challenges that they have right now are getting into the cloud. They can’t just turn on cloud applications and turn off legacy systems. They need to evolve into the cloud. So they have many redundant data silos in higher-ed IT, hard-coded integrations that are very, very costly. They require a great deal of maintenance. Again, they’re dependent on these academic and administrative systems, whether it be Sungard, PeopleSoft/Oracle right now. And they just can’t turn those off and move into the cloud. What Studentforce can provide to them with the integration is a way to take that data front-ended with Studentforce as they are migrating from their client server systems into cloud systems.

DP: We’re just about out of time. I wanted to just ask you if you had any high-level, wrap-up points to make about Studentforce, cloud, higher education, things like that.

ES: Absolutely. I think the market is ready. There was a strategic decision I made at the beginning of all of this to sell to the enterprise and not directly to students.

DP: Why is that?

ES: That’s because of an experience I saw with Google when they put up their Google apps for higher-ed. They first went to the students and said, “Here’s an email address and knock yourselves out.” The CIOs at organizations said, “Whoa, wait a minute. That’s opening up a gaping security hole for us. You need to talk to us.” And they ratcheted it back, and they came out a new way by distributing through the CIOs. And Facebook started off in colleges. There’s a little bit of a dilemma there.

I venture to say, I haven’t done the study, but if you put 10 students out there and ask if they want their academic and their career information out on Facebook, you’re going to get seven that will say no while the other three might say yes. Facebook is still a privacy issue.

DP: Yeah.

ES: That’s why Chatter, which is secure, trusted and within the organization might work well there. And also we’re starting to see the real social enterprise. And I know that’s a buzz word right now, but more appropriately, the Internet of things. And one of the companies that have been very interested in Studentforce is [Enterasys], which believe it or not offers routers and modems and connection and wireless equipment. But what they’re doing is very groundbreaking. They’re putting together an Internet of things that real and true — what I believe is the natural social enterprise, the college campus together.

And I believe that students who are very familiar with buying tools from a technical market like the App Store will take very nicely to the benefits of a higher Ed app exchange.

DP: That’s great. It sounds like there’s a lot to keep an eye on here with Studentforce, and I tend to keep doing that. And I appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today.

ES: Thank you very much.

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