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Editor's note: Read this if you are a CTO, CIO, or administrator at a college or university. This is the first blog in a series on business lessons and best practices from American literature. For this series, interviewees select from a list of American literary quotes through which to view, and discuss, their focus or industry. The goal? To generate some novel insight.

The interviewees: David Houle and Joseph Traino, consultants at BerryDunn
The focus: Higher education
The quote: “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys . . . They are but improved means to an unimproved end.”  -- Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods

Thoreau wrote this shortly after the Industrial Revolution. How does its cynicism apply to higher education during the Digital Revolution?

David Houle (DH): It speaks to my basic philosophy about applying technology to the needs of higher education clients. I’m not a “technology for the sake of technology” cheerleader. 

Joseph Traino (JT): People often believe that applying new technology to a business problem is going to solve the business problem. That rarely happens. For example, most higher education clients have a student information system. These clients often feel that, in order to resolve certain issues, they should update the system software, whereas the issues are often resolved by updating business practices to be more efficient and effective. 

DH: Right. We are often brought in to identify needed technology changes but end up stressing practices, processes, and people. If staff can’t correctly use a new technology, then the technology will not provide a real, valuable service.

When implementing a new technology, what’s the #1 thing that a higher education institution can do to prevent or avoid “an unimproved end”?

JT: Fully understand the technology’s impact on stakeholders, such as students, faculty, and staff, and answer the “why?”

DH: Keep people in mind and gain their buy-in when making technology decisions.

What technology, or technology-related change, is going to have the biggest effect on higher education over the next five years?

DH: Clients love to ask us this question (laughs). And if I truly knew the answer, I’d be on some Caribbean island right now, filthy rich and sipping a piña colada. That said, I think the technology demands of the new workforce are going to have the biggest effect. To paraphrase the new workforce: “I don’t want to stare at a green screen. And what in the world is DOS?” Conversely, the personnel who used to support these homegrown, in-house “green screen” products want to retire and leave the workforce. 

JT: I agree that the demands of the new workforce will continue to affect higher education and steer institutions away from term-based courses and programs and toward more flexible, student-centric courses and programs. From a technology standpoint, I think AI and bots are going to replace many of the manual processes that we still see today in higher education. These new technologies will create greater efficiencies—but also possibly reduce jobs—at institutions.

DH: Higher education leaders with vision have already grasped this idea of cutting administrative costs wherever possible, because those costs are not what place students in seats—or in front of screens. On the flip side, advising is currently an underserved area in higher education. So there is an opportunity for leaders to reallocate administrative resources to fulfill advising roles and to help students—such as at-risk and first-generation students—not just in the classroom, but through their learning journey.

Circling back to the Thoreau quote, I’m sure many higher education staff fear technology will lead to “unimproved ends” for their careers. How do you navigate those fears when working with clients? 

JT: It’s certainly a challenge. We currently face some of those fears when working with IT departments—more services are being moved to the cloud, and there is less of a need for on-site database administrators and system administrators, as an example. Alluding to what Dave said about advising, I think many higher education jobs can be shifted to provide interactive high-tech, high-touch services to students.

DH: And to be blunt, some people don’t want to shift, don’t want to change. The people part is the most challenging part of technology adoption. 

In this discussion about technology, we keep returning to people—and the people side of change. Are higher education clients typically responsive to the concept of change management?

JT: There’s typically some reticence, and a lack of understanding about the value of change management. In most cases, change management requires an investment beyond the technology investment. But change management is key to success. 

DH: Reticence is a good word. Yet I do think that views about change management are changing rapidly. Higher education leaders who have been through a significant system or process change now seem to understand the value of change management and know that change management is a necessity, not a luxury. 

In the end, are you confident that new technology is going to benefit students and their educational goals? 

DH: I’m unsure if technology improves the quality of education. However, I am sure that technology increases the options for the delivery of education. And greater flexibility in education delivery is certainly beneficial, especially because the traditional student is now non-traditional. Ongoing and 24/7 access demands in education are here to stay.

JT: I agree with Dave wholeheartedly. I think technology will help improve the means to the end, but I’m not sure if technology is going to improve the end. Technology is just one part of the education equation. 
 

Blog
Technology ≠ Education

Read this if you are a solar investor, developer, or installer.

The solar carve out of the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) has been a great incentive for taxpayers to invest in solar assets over the last several years. It established an increased 30% tax credit for solar assets placed in service, up from the normal 10%. 

Starting January 1, 2020, the solar carve out will begin to phase out and will return to 10% by January 1, 2024. 

With the first phase-out of the ITC set to drop the credit from 30% to 26% after December 31, 2019, many taxpayers are evaluating ways to make sure their project still qualifies for the 30% credit. The IRS has issued two safe harbor provisions (IRS Notice 2018-59) to allow for projects placed in service after December 31, 2019 and before January 1, 2024 to still qualify for the 30% credit, but timing is key and certain actions must be taken before midnight on December 31, 2019.

Safe harbor methods

The two safe harbor methods are the Physical Work Test and the Five Percent of Cost Test. If a project satisfies either of these tests it can still qualify for the 30% tax credit as long as it is completed and in service before January 1, 2024.

The Physical Work Test requires that the taxpayer performs, or has performed on their behalf, “work of a significant nature” on the project prior to December 31, 2019. This is a little open to interpretation, but generally involves physical construction of the asset, such as the installation of mounting equipment, rails, racking, inverters, or even the panels themselves. Purchasing of equipment generally held in inventory by either the taxpayer or the vendor does not qualify. However, if the equipment is customized or specially designed for the specific project, it might. Preliminary activities do not qualify, which include planning, designing, surveying, and permitting. 

In general, the purpose of this test is to prove that construction has already begun, and is in place to help projects that have been started but won’t be in service before year end still maintain the 30% tax credit. Projects that are substantially complete and waiting for an interconnection or a permission to operate in order to be considered as in service will most easily qualify for this safe harbor test.

The Five Percent of Cost Test is a little more straightforward, and is likely to be more commonly used to qualify projects for the safe harbor provision as the end of the year deadline approaches. This test requires at least five percent of the total project cost be paid or incurred before December 31, 2019. It is important to note that the denominator in this test is the final total cost of the project when it goes in service. The taxpayer may wish to pay more than the five percent to account for project overruns or unanticipated changes to the project in order to make sure they maintain the qualification for safe harbor. 

Another consideration is if the taxpayer files on the cash or accrual method as to whether the project cost needs to be paid or incurred in order to satisfy the chosen filing method.

In either case, the taxpayer should also evaluate the cost of prepaying for equipment that may decrease in cost in the future, compared to the benefit they will receive in maintaining the additional four percent of the tax credit that can safe harbor from the phase out. 

Additionally, an analysis of total project costs and eligible vs. ineligible ITC costs early on in project development can help identify how best to spend the cash before the end of the year, and ensure that the taxpayer receives the return they require once the project goes into service.

Have questions?

If you have questions on these safe harbors or need more information, please contact the green tax experts on our renewable energy team

Blog
Safe harbor options for taxpayers as the solar ITC begins to sunset

Editor's note: read this blog if you are a state liquor administrator or at the C-level in state government. 

Surprisingly, the keynote address to this year’s annual meeting of the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association (NABCA) featured few comments on, well, alcohol. 

Why? Because cannabis is now the hot topic in state government, as consumers await its legalization. While the thought of selling cannabis may seem foreign to some state administrators, many liquor agencies are―and should be―watching. The fact is, state liquor agencies are already equipped with expertise and the technology infrastructure needed to lawfully sell a controlled substance. This puts them in a unique position to benefit from the industry’s continued growth. Common technology includes enterprise resource planning (ERP) and point-of-sale (POS) systems.

ERP

State liquor agencies typically use an ERP system to integrate core business functions, including finance, human resources, and supply chain management. Whether the system is handling bottles of wine, cases of spirits, or bags of cannabis, it is capable of achieving the same business goals. 

The existing checks and balances on controlled substances like alcohol in their current ERP system translate well to cannabis products. This leads to an important point: state governments do not need to procure a new IT system solely for regulating cannabis.

By leveraging existing ERP systems, state liquor agencies can sidestep much of the time, effort, and expense of selecting, procuring, and implementing a new system solely for cannabis sales and management. In control states, where the state has exclusively control of alcohol sales, liquor agencies are often involved in every stage of product lifecycle, from procurement to distribution to retailing.

With a few modifications, the spectrum of business functions that control states require for liquor—procuring new product, communicating with vendors and brokers, tracking inventory, and analyzing sales—can work just as well for cannabis.

POS

POS systems are necessary for most retail stores. If a state liquor agency decides to sell cannabis products in stores, they can use a POS system to integrate with the agency’s ERP system, though store personnel may require training to help ensure compliance with related regulations.

Cannabis is cash only (for now)

There is one major difference in conducting liquor versus cannabis sales at any level: currently states conduct all cannabis sales in cash. With cannabis illegal on the federal level, major banks have opted to decline any deposit of funds earned from cannabis-related sales. While some community banks are conducting cannabis-related banking, many retailers selling recreational cannabis in places like Colorado and California still deal in cash. While risky and not without challenges, these transactions are possible and less onerous to federal regulators. 

Taxes 

As markets develop, monthly tax revenue collections from cannabis continue to grow. Colorado and California have found cannabis-related tax revenue a powerful tool in hedging against uncertainty in year-over-year cash flows. Similar to beer sold wholesale, which liquor agencies tax even in control states, cannabis can be taxed at multiple levels depending on the state’s business model.

E-commerce

Even with liquor, few state agencies have adopted direct-to-consumer online sales. However, as other industries continue shifting toward e-commerce and away from brick and mortar retailing, private sector competition will likely feed increased consumer demand for online sales. Similar to ERP and POS systems, states can increase revenue by selling cannabis through e-commerce sales channels. In today’s online retail world, many prefer to buy products from their computer or smart phone instead of shopping in stores. State agencies should consider selling cannabis via the web to maximize this revenue opportunity. 

Applying expertise in the systems and processes of alcoholic beverage control can translate into the sale and regulation of cannabis, easing the transition states face to this burgeoning industry. If your agency is considering bringing in cannabis under management, you should consider strategic planning sessions and even begin a change management approach to ensure your agency adapts successfully. 

Blog
Considering cannabis: how state liquor agencies can manage the growing industry

This spring, I published a blog about the importance of data governance in higher education institutions. In the summer, a second blog covered implementing baseline principles for data governance. With fall upon us, it is time to transition to discussing three critical steps to create a data governance culture. 

1.    Understand the people side of change.

The culture of any organization begins and ends with its people. As you know, people are notoriously finicky when it comes to change (especially change like data governance initiatives that may alter the way we have to understand or interact with institutional data). I recommend that any higher education institution apply a change management methodology (e.g., Prosci®, Lewin’s Change Management Model) in order to gauge the awareness of, the desire for, and the practical realities of this change. If you apply your chosen methodology in an effective and consistent manner, change management will help you increase buy-in and break down resistance. 

2.    Identify and empower the right people for the right roles.

Higher education institutions often focus on data governance processes and technologies. While this is necessary, you can’t overlook the people part of data governance. In fact, you can argue it is the most important part, because without people, there will be no one to follow the processes you create or use the technologies you implement. 

To find the right people, you need to identify and establish three specific roles for your institution: data trustees, data stewards, and data managers. Once you have organized these roles and responsibilities, data governance becomes easier to manage. Some definitions:

Data trustees (the sponsors) – senior leadership (or designees) who oversee data policy, planning, and management. Their responsibilities include: 

  • Promoting data governance 
  • Approving and updating data policies​​
  • Assigning and overseeing data stewards
  • Being responsible for data governance

Data stewards (the owners) – directors, managers, associate deans, or associate vice presidents who manage one or more data types. Their responsibilities include:

  • Applying and overseeing data governance policies in their functional areas
  • Following legal requirements pertaining to data in their functional areas
  • Classifying data and identifying data safeguards
  • Being accountable for data governance

Data managers (the caretakers) – data system managers, senior data analysts, or functional users (registrar, financial aid, human resources, etc.) who perform day-to-day data collection and management operations. Their responsibilities include:

  • Implementing data governance policies in their functional areas
  • Resolving data issues in their functional areas 
  • Provide training and appropriate documentation to data users
  • Being informed and consulted about data governance

3.    Be consistent and hold people accountable.

Ultimately, your data governance team needs accountability in order to thrive. Therefore, it is up to data trustees, data stewards, and data managers to hold regular meetings, take and distribute meeting notes, and identify and follow up on meeting action items. Without this follow through, data governance initiatives will likely stall or stop altogether. 

More information on data governance 

Are you still curious about additional guiding principles of data governance in higher education? Please contact the team
 

Blog
People Power: Enacting Sustainable Data Governance

Editors note: read this if you are a leader in an accountable care organization and interested in value-based contracting.

Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) and value-based payments: an introduction

With the goal of slowing the rising cost of healthcare while maintaining the delivery of high-quality care, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and private payers utilize a number of different provider payment models. The primary approach to address increasing healthcare costs has been to move away from fee-for-service payment models—which incentivize increasing the volume of care provided—to value-based payment models, which hold providers accountable for both the cost and quality of care they provide. The models have the potential to lead to reduced revenue for some providers, an outcome that can be avoided by successfully attracting larger patient populations. 

Value-based payment model options 

CMS has been a driver in this transition by moving physician reimbursement from being solely based on the Resource-Based Relative Value Scale (RBRVS) fee-for-service methodology to one that adds performance-based elements either through the Merit-based Incentive Payment System (MIPS) or Advanced Alternative Payment Models (Advanced APMs):

  • Providers that are MIPS eligible will have up to 9% of their RBRVS-based payments adjusted for four categories: quality, cost, clinical practice improvement activities, and promoting interoperability.
  • Providers in an Advanced APM may earn an incentive payment based on their participation in an innovative payment model―with more opportunity for incentive rewards being given to those who take downside financial risk. 

On the hospital side, CMS developed the Hospital Value-Based Purchasing (VBP) Program in order to move away from reimbursement based strictly on Diagnosis Related Groups (DRGs). The Hospital VBP Program rewards hospitals with incentive payments based on the quality of care they provide to Medicare beneficiaries. 

ACO value-based payment models are APMs that typically incorporate quality and the total cost of care for all services for a specific population, rather than just a specific clinical condition or care episode. Under the ACO model, CMS contracts with providers to assume increasing financial risk and reward opportunities while also being held accountable for their quality performance managing defined sub-populations they serve. These types of models are also employed by private payers.

How can ACOs succeed with payment models constantly changing?

ACOs should proceed with caution as they enter models with accountability for financial risk such as the newly finalized CMS Pathways to Success program and certain private payer commercial models. In order to be successful in any model, it is critical that ACOs have an adequate foundation in place and a provider network built to provide coordinated care. Some of the key elements for your success include:

  • Population data: Data for the ACO members that is a comprehensive record of their recent health utilization and spending history is critical.
  • Eligibility reporting: Require that eligibility files are provided on a monthly basis, and understand the way in which members are attributed or assigned. 
  • Claims data: Ensure accurate and complete claims data will be provided by payers monthly for the ACO members.
  • Financial/quality reporting: Ensure creation of infrastructure to generate reporting from the population data on a timely basis. Without timely reporting, the actual performance against benchmarks will not be known until it is too late to take any action.
  • Actuarial support: Validating spending targets and performance settlement should draw on the expertise of a qualified actuary.
  • Clinical documentation: Ambulatory clinical documentation categorizes patients based on the complexity of their diagnoses, which can be a predictor of future health care costs and used to identify at risk members for care management, disease management, and other programs. 
  • Population health management tools: Establish capabilities around population health management, specifically data aggregation and analysis that results in actionable recommendations
  • Audit capability: Verify the accuracy of payer financial and quality reports including the risk adjustment methodology.

Success in value-based payment models will require ACOs to understand changes to their population and quickly respond to address quality, utilization, and cost trends. 

WEBINAR
Demystifying Value-Based Contracting: Key Steps To Empower Your Organization

Want to learn more? Watch our value-based contracting webinar.

Blog
Success in value-based payment for ACOs

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