HR is also increasingly dependent on ‘Big Tech’ – and that entails risks

Published: October 21, 2022 • Reading time: 5 minutes and 29 seconds • News

The fact that Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences also becomes more and more dependent on software suppliers entails serious risks. How do you prevent companies from interfering with our work? Or do you want to collect the main prize?

Imagine that a factory rents its machines, factory hall and warehouse from one supplier. Wouldn’t it be very easy and attractive for the supplier in question to raise the rent considerably after a while? If there are also few or no competing suppliers, dependence on one party makes the factory vulnerable.

More and more Microsoft

The digital infrastructure at the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences is getting closer and closer to this example – just like other universities of applied sciences. There are several suppliers, such as the specialist software Osiris from CACI and the general software from Microsoft, but HR is very dependent on these two suppliers.

Digital word processing (Word), numerical analysis (Excel), e-mail (Outlook) and collaboration and consultation (Teams): Almost all basic digital production tools come from Microsoft. The administration of the HR servers also runs on Microsoft software, just like the computers that the employees use at home. From 2018, HR has also started to use the storage space in this company (OneDrive) more and more intensively. Since then, the results of our digital hard work have been ‘in the cloud’ at Microsoft.

Danger of espionage?

The only more or less serious competitor to Microsoft is Google. But it is also an American company that, like Microsoft, falls under American law, and if necessary, the fear is, it must hand over ‘our’ data to the US government as soon as an intelligence agency or investigative club asks for it .

Doesn’t that involve the danger of espionage? VVD member of parliament Hatte van der Woude asked the Minister of Education on Monday after a report in Het Financieele Dagblad about increasing dependence on American cloud services in education.

More and more student data in the US cloud

On Sunday, FD (login) reported on the basis of unpublished German research that no less than three quarters of all Dutch student data is managed by Microsoft and Amazon. In 2015, it was still 25 percent according to FD. Putting a number on how much data is in the cloud with which company is quite complicated. Regardless of the exact percentage, however, it is clear that the dependence on software vendors is also increasing for HR.

That dependency is a much bigger problem than espionage because, because of that dependency, we cannot choose other providers that, for example (if they exist), are less sensitive to espionage.

Dependence on HR is also increasing

We can’t just get rid of Microsoft. The Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences as we know it today will cease to function immediately if we throw all Microsoft software – figuratively speaking – out the window. Education just stopped during the corona lockdowns does not, thanks to Microsoft products.

The same dependency applies to Osiris, the student information system that forms the software heart of the education. This system, which collects educational data from students and teachers, is so important to the applied university that a switch to one of the few competitors out there, according to IT professionals, would result in a very complex and intensive multi-million dollar operation . it is second to none in this applied university. Not only did all users have to learn to work differently, the countless IT systems connected to Osiris also had to be turned upside down.

Data storage agreements

Osiris will also run in the cloud from 2023. HR has no choice but to move to the cloud version of Osiris, where from now on the data storage will also be arranged by CACI. It’s not that HR doesn’t want it, IT experts emphasize, but there’s no real choice either.

It has been agreed in advance that the Osiris data will be stored on Dutch servers, an HR spokesperson said when asked. But because you absolutely do not want to lose the data from Osiris, a backup has also been arranged. By whom? By Microsoft, of course. If there is a fire on the Dutch servers, Microsoft will once again prove indispensable.

It is agreed in advance that the Osiris data will be stored on Dutch servers

Agreements have also been concluded with Microsoft. The company must keep all data within European national borders, Surf recently agreed with Microsoft on behalf of all Dutch educational institutions. Privacy officers and cyber security experts are on top of it. A specialist company from The Hague, the Privacy Company, checks whether Microsoft complies with the agreements.

But in the meantime, dependence on one party has only increased.

Zoom involved itself in education issues

What is the risk of that? One is the interference of the software suppliers in the work of the educational institutions. On Sunday, FD cited the American company Zoom as an example, which banned the use of its own video service in 2020 for a guest appearance by a controversial Palestinian speaker at various university symposiums. YouTube is also said to have disrupted the video link for that guest appearance.

For Anjo van Kelckhoven, head of IT affairs at this university of applied sciences, this episode is the ghost of how our dependence of certain companies, the independence of educational institutions. “The risk is that commercial suppliers form an opinion about how we use their software. While it is of great importance that educational and research institutions guarantee their autonomy so that they can continue to work independently.’ Although there are countless alternatives to Zoom that you can also switch to quite easily, it is much more complicated for the Microsofts of this world, says Van Kelckhoven.

Risk of price increase

The other risk, by no means hypothetical, lies in the price we pay for products. If a supplier actually has a monopoly, it can push prices far beyond what is appropriate (think of the price of oil) without the buyer being able to do anything about it.

‘Unfortunately, we see that there are suppliers on the education market who suddenly only pay attention to the profit margin after a takeover,’ says Van Kelckhoven. “The emphasis then shifts from public values ​​to shareholder value.”

This could mean that parties that you depend on suddenly start collecting the main prize. All you can do is hope that companies that HR now relies on don’t do the same.

Capturing educational values

How do we get rid of this? Educational institutions and lawyers, together with suppliers of educational software, have set up a working group where they have developed basic public educational values ​​into a framework for software suppliers.

An important value is of course that software must be secure and privacy-friendly, but also that data belongs to teachers and researchers. Software vendors should view data as a bank views its customers’ money: They can look after it, but it does not belong to them, writes the working group, which Trust framework call. By making educational values ​​explicit, Zoom-like problems can be avoided.

Only if software vendors allow parts of such a framework in their contract are they required to comply with it. Nevertheless, Van Kelckhoven, a member of the working group, can see that there is a lot of interest from various software suppliers. ‘Not only among the start-up companies, although of course it is easier to embed these kinds of public values ​​in a start-up company than in the large established order.’

Breakthrough market power

A real solution is of course a well-functioning software market where you can easily switch to another party when it suits you. Only then will this basic digital dependence be reduced.

That world may be hard to imagine given the current level of addiction, but people are still working on it. By developing software standards, for example, so that programs can communicate better with each other. This makes it easier to exchange one program for another without having to turn your entire IT landscape upside down.

By developing software standards, for example, so that programs can communicate better with each other.

At the same time, the wishes of vocational colleges and universities can also be standardized to a certain extent. Institutions sometimes still buy a perfectly fitting suit when it comes to software. But because software is so expensive to develop, really only the big incumbents can deliver this customization on a massive scale.

If the institutions are satisfied with mass-produced, standardized ‘confectionery’, there is also more room for competition. In that respect, we are only at the beginning of the digital revolution.

Text: Olmo Linthorst
Illustration: Bart Black

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