Harvard takes CRM to school

Business and higher education may approach CRM differently, but joining an advisory board can help ensure success, says the CIO of the Harvard Business School.

Even at one of the most prestigious business schools in the country, it's always a good idea to know what your technology vendors are up to, and for Stephen Laster, CIO of the Harvard Business School (HBS), one of the key ways to do that is to join the vendor's customer advisory board.

Laster took over as the CIO about eight months ago, coming from nearby Babson College, and found himself in the midst of a CRM deployment with

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It's an approach that has paid off in the past. For example, while at Babson, Laster joined the advisory board of a Web conferencing technology vendor. The college was using the application for conferencing, but also for teaching and classroom work. By sitting on the board, Laster was able to influence some of the new features in the next upgrade that the school needed for its unique use of the tool.

Having served in both the business world and higher education, Laster has approached technology purchases and deployments from different angles.

"Certainly, cost is a critical consideration because all of higher education is budget constrained, but in general, ROI might not be a driving consideration," Laster said. "The decision making is different. It's more mission-driven and appropriate use of resources -- knowledge creation, experience, support of faculty -- those drivers are the primary factors. The key is knowing your environment and what it is you're trying to accomplish."

With the Intelliworks deployment, HBS wants to connect more closely with its Executive Education participants. The CRM system maintains a record of their interactions with the school's Web site, which serves as the school's "ecosystem of technology," according to Laster. With a better understanding of how participants are interacting on the site and what programs they're interested in, the school can present better program options.

"It's important we reach out to these participants in a way that's understandable to them, in a way we know enough about them we can provide appropriate guidance about what kinds of learning make sense for their personal and career goals," Laster said.

In a year, HBS may serve several thousand participants in its program. There are currently about 100 internal users accessing the Intelliworks application.

And while the school's approach is focused on education rather than sales, CRM still makes plenty of sense.

"The issue is that -- if there is such a thing as traditional CRM -- it's focused on closing the sale through customer intimacy. In the higher education space, it's really focused on getting participants in front of the right learning experience," Laster said. "Five years ago, schools would send out glossy catalogs in a shotgun approach. Today, it makes much more sense to have an educated conversation with participants. That's where CRM makes a natural fit."

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