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The New Normal

Three Days to Scale a COVID Response: How Salesforce Powered Indiana University through a Pandemic

Student getting a temperature check on campus

When COVID-19 began its steady march across the U.S. last spring, businesses and schools closed quickly in hopes of stemming the tide. Months later, when it was clear the pandemic wasn’t going away anytime soon, higher education institutions had a critical decision to make: how to reopen safely. 

Indiana University (IU) partnered with Salesforce to create a scalable crisis response to pandemic operations in a matter of days, which initially included contact tracing and testing management to help quickly get the campus back up and running. Since then, IU has continued to scale response management, adding quarantine and isolation management, daily symptom monitoring, and vaccination tracking for long-term safety measures. 

We sat down with Chris Tompkins, Director, enterprise IU CRM, to learn how Salesforce technology helped IU manage its COVID-19 response, and how they plan to use the successful model to manage future crisis responses. 

Q: Chris, can you tell us about the university and your role there?

A: Indiana University is an extremely large public institution of higher education. We have nine campus locations across the state, and about 100,000 graduate and undergraduate students combined. We also have a number of professional schools; a law school, a medical school, and a very prestigious music school. 

My team is housed in our central IT organization and responsible for the build, design, deployment, implementation, support and sustainability of all things Enterprise CRM. And of course, our Enterprise CRM happens to be powered by Salesforce.

Q: What were some of the major challenges that IU experienced over the last year?

A: When you think about broader impacts, which were megalithic when it came down to it, it is very different from a corporate business scenario. We have to worry about more than just our staff showing up in the office and their safety. We also have to worry about our professors and our students being in class, or online virtually if not in class. And, we obviously have a lot of students that live in residence halls with dining facilities or other on-campus housing. There are also many university-related activities that usually are in small and large group settings.  

We had to really think in terms of all the different facets. The primary directive was keeping everybody safe, with a very close secondary directive of keeping the doors open. And when I say the doors open, I don’t mean just for in-person students, but overall, keeping the learning experience at the caliber that we expect to provide, while always ensuring everybody’s safety. So the challenges were infinite.

Q: Talk about how you used Salesforce to manage through the pandemic?

A: Salesforce and the IU CRM played a very significant role in managing our COVID-19 response. 

The CRM itself was the hub of everything. This is where we did all of our contact tracing, all of our interviews with those who tested positive or identified as close contacts, identifying what locations across the university may have been exposed and managing the quarantine and isolation processes (we actually have quarantine housing that we track). So knowing when to release people, when to not release people and any of the daily symptom monitoring that went along with that quarantine and isolation process was essential. Now we’ve expanded to  vaccination tracking and management. 

Salesforce provides both the platform for people to be able to actually manage these processes, but also gives a holistic view into all of that information so our medical response team could make educated data-driven decisions to keep the university running and safe. We use Marketing Cloud as the communication module of our integrated CRM platform responsible for delivering both the major and operational COVID communications to our community.

Salesforce provides both the platform for people to be able to actually manage these processes, but also gives a holistic view into all of that information so our medical response team could make educated data-driven decisions to keep the university running and safe.

Chris Tompkins, Director, enterprise IU CRM

Q: Why did you choose to leverage Salesforce for this program?

A: Salesforce allowed us to move with speed. People are always a bit shocked when I say this, but we were able to build a usable prototype in three days. Leveraging our existing enterprise implementation of the Salesforce platform gave us such an accelerated start, that we did not have to worry about the fundamentals of getting a new system up and running to accomplish what was needed. We of course could have home-grown various applications or gone with another product that may not have been as flexible or as robust. 

But overall, it just didn’t make any sense because of the fact that Salesforce works extremely well for this type of situation. And since we already had our best practices and expertise in the platform, it just allowed us to do something that not only satisfied the immediate need, but provided us a runway for future solutions if something similar ever happens again. 

I don’t want to say that we were the sole reason why the doors stayed open — all areas of the university worked very hard to adapt. But we definitely provided a very significant contribution. So the real ROI in my opinion was that we were able to facilitate the strategic decision processes of the university and a lot of the effective processes that allowed us to stay operational and provide the best educational experience we could, despite the circumstances.

People are always a bit shocked when I say this, but we were able to build a usable prototype in three days.

Chris Tompkins, Director, enterprise IU CRM

Q: How has this whole situation shaped and impacted digital transformation at IU? 

A: CRM within higher education really can still be categorized as an emerging technology. It’s a concept that the industrial world has leveraged for decades but it’s still something that higher ed is struggling to really embrace. I do think that this experience, giving us an opportunity to really show what a CRM can do and can contribute, has reinforced that we are on the right path, that a holistic constituent relationship management platform at an enterprise scale is very possible and has significant enough value that you can’t “not do it.” 

A lot of educational experiences have started to shift to online. I think this accelerated that to a degree. However, we have also seen very clearly that many of our students still want an in-person experience. They still want more of a college feel to things. And I don’t see that changing any time soon.

But what we can do and I think what we’ve learned from this is, number one, is that operationally and administratively, we can work in a much more agile and virtual world. The other thing is that we can deliver quality education in a virtual circumstance, maybe not to replace the in-person, but certainly to expand and augment it for those who may not be able to attend in person. This has provided a real-life situation where the merging of the in-person and virtual spaces had to effectively merge. So from that perspective, I think that has been the main catalyst to that transformation. 

Q: What are some long-term impacts of this on higher ed moving forward?

A: In the grander scheme of things for higher education, this has hopefully acted as a springboard to basically force folks to start thinking about things differently. I think for those universities willing to adapt and adjust to a new future, they have now received a massive accelerator towards that end goal.

To find out more about how Salesforce helps educational institutions reopen safely, click here. Also join us on June 16 for the Salesforce Education Summit where our community will share stories, knowledge and opportunities as we continue to innovate and chart a new path forward through education. Register here


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