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Alignment, communication, and service drive IT spending priorities

August 31, 2015 Article 10 min read

Information technology is a powerful enabler of competitiveness and success. As EDUCAUSE President and CEO Diana Oblinger wrote in a recent column: “Institutions cannot fulfill their missions in the 21st century without embracing [IT].”

According to Eduventures, higher ed institutions are predicted to spend $45 billion on IT this year. As for how that money may be spent, a recent University Business (UB) survey found that higher education leaders are planning significant IT investments in their Internet and wireless networks, in academic technology, and in network security, cloud storage, and software.

Given today’s financial pressures, it’s more critical than ever for campus leadership to work together to align IT budgets and priorities with the institution’s overall strategic plan, academic mission, and vision.

Campus IT executives are already on it. According to the same UB survey, more than 60 percent of respondents believe their IT teams will be working more closely with other campus departments on tech-related policies and practices.

Increased collaboration and alignment are indeed the case at both Ohio University and the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. Plante Moran spoke with its leaders, Stephen Golding and Suzanne Traxler, respectively, about the IT landscape and how prioritization, alignment, and communication are playing out on their campuses.

Aligning IT services to support responsibility centered management

Plante Moran: What was the IT landscape when you arrived at Ohio University in 2010?

Stephen Golding: When I first arrived, IT was very focused on data security and on restructuring the organization, so that administration, academic computing infrastructure, and software would all be under one umbrella.

Plante Moran: What were the challenges and investment needs?

Stephen Golding:The biggest problem we faced when I arrived was that we had to make a decision to upgrade our (Oracle) ERP system or move to another ERP system. The challenge around that decision was directly tied to our move to a Responsibility Centered Management (RCM)* model. The thought of putting in a brand new ERP system while developing a whole new management philosophy ultimately led us to the decision to do an R12 upgrade to our existing system and build on what we already had in place.One of my first tasks on the IT side was to determine how best to provide the functionality to support the colleges to take on a greater role in allocating resources in this new decentralized management environment. We call this the Ohio Service Alignment Initiative.

During the R12 analysis, we found 72 interfaces that had to be addressed in the upgrade, which was on the high side. That was likely because certain functionality hadn't been turned on and several core processes existed in third-party applications, so business units had gone out and bought standalone systems and bolted them on. This wasn’t unique to OU; I've seen it happen at other institutions, too.

Going forward, we've said that if we're an Oracle shop, we're going to use that functionality unless there’s a very good business case for not using it. That's a bit of a sea change, and it creates pressure on us, centrally, to be much more focused on building out the functionality, giving it to colleges, and showing them how to use it to their advantage. That's a big part of the Service Alignment Initiative.

Plante Moran: How are you prioritizing and managing the process of preparing central IT for the move to RCM?

Stephen Golding:We created a broad portfolio (in Excel) that identified all the items to work on. We took that to the deans and said, "We listened to you; you've prioritized these 20 or so items critical to your success in an RCM environment" — those may equate to 50 or 60 individual, discrete projects — "and here's how we’re prioritizing these projects to deliver the functionality you're seeking from the central organization."

It's a three-year project. Periodically we go back to the deans and college chief financial and administration officers and talk about the projects we're working on, what's been accomplished and, if new initiatives or projects have been identified, how those will impact our ability to deliver on the initial set of projects. We report once a year to the board and periodically to the president. But he relies on me to work with the deans, provost, and others because they’re really my primary customers.

Plante Moran: How did you make the business case for the investment to the board?

Stephen Golding:My view, and that of our provost, is that you bring people along over a period of time, so our board was able to have several conversations. We spent a lot of time educating the board about the changes we were proposing, their importance, and the analysis we’d done of our strengths and weaknesses in terms of creating a supporting environment [for RCM].

Only after all that, did we say, “Here’s the solution, and here’s what it's going to cost.” That was my approach. I think it's important that the board understand the issues and the implications so that when you offer a solution, they can assess whether it will solve the problem or not.

Plante Moran: What was the amount of the investment, and how was it funded?

Stephen Golding: We asked for $25 to $27 million in project funding. The colleges saw how what we're doing supports them, so they were willing to accept the funding plan. The board authorized the expenditure. We used one-time funding, since we had annual operating reserves in previous years over and above what the project required that we'd put away.

Plante Moran: Can you describe how you measure success?

Stephen Golding: I'm measuring success by completion of individual projects. I'm measuring based on customer satisfaction: Do our customers believe we’re improving the overall business environment on this campus, providing the level of functionality they require, and working effectively to solve their problems? I'm measuring by whether or not we're within budget and how that relates to overall costs.

I've worked to enhance and deepen the professional bench centrally so that we provide a higher level of expertise and business support to the colleges, so I talk to the provost, the president, and the deans to see whether or not central leadership is stronger and more aligned with their needs than before.

Plante Moran: How do you ensure all the work supports institutional goals and strategy?

Stephen Golding: I have a steering committee, and we monitor that portfolio. There has to be a real justification for changing priorities. It's somewhat iterative, and there's a continuous feedback loop, which is important to make sure we're all on the same page. The technology by any definition is pretty straightforward; it's not rocket science. It’s absolutely critical that we align processes and get the most out of our technology as well. The real challenge for organizations like ours is how to get everyone on the same page, and in relatively good humor, as you're working through the difficult issues.

Building best practices and relationships for IT prioritization

Plante Moran: Can you describe the IT landscape at UW-Platteville when you arrived in 2013?

Suzanne Traxler: One of the projects going on when I started was to move from a decentralized IT model to a central IT model. We rolled out a strong focus on core competencies, customer service, project management — we implemented a Project Management Center of Excellence — and opened a new help desk. In the past, students had staffed the help desk; this time, we added full-time professional staffing and moved the entire help desk and support to a central location in the library. I spent that first year focused on building relationships, communication, transparency, and meeting expectations. We focused on customer service and building bridges.

Plante Moran: What factors are driving UW-P’s technology investments?

Suzanne Traxler: We tie our IT strategic plan to the campus strategic plan. The campus is about to go through the Higher Learning Commission re-accreditation process, so we’re identifying campus needs and aligning those with the accreditation process to ensure we have the right tools in place. The U-W system as a whole is facing budget cuts, so that’s a strong focus and is driving some of our decision-making right now.

Plante Moran: What specific IT projects are you workingon or toward?

Suzanne Traxler: We recently moved from Zimbra to Office 365 for our email system. We’re upgrading our campus OneCard system to RFID (radio frequency identification, or “smart”) cards. We’re rolling out Microsoft System Center so we can provide remote support and better desktop management tools. We’re in the middle of rolling out Unified Communications to our campus with a VoIP implementation. This is a really cool project; it’s being hosted by UW-Whitewater. It’s a partnership, a shared service collaboration. I expect a continued focus on our document imaging rollout with ImageNow. Other projects we’re planning or in the middle of include building out our wireless infrastructure to every dorm room, upgrading our data center firewalls, looking at multifactor authentication, decision workflow, and electronic signature solutions. There’s a lot going on.

Plante Moran: Can you describe the decision-making and prioritization processes?

Suzanne Traxler: To improve transparency and decision-making around IT prioritization and projects, we developed the Project Management Center of Excellence and we put infrastructure in place around our IT prioritization process. We established three committees — administrative systems, educational technology, and infrastructure.

Each committee comprises members across campus and serves an advisory role. They make recommendations on proposals that meet certain criteria — the project will require more than 24 hours of IT time, cost more than $5,000, impact more than one campus department, etc. Some proposals continue on to the executive committee to approve or not. The Project Management Center of Excellence office partners with IT to help facilitate and coordinate those projects and provides coaching in project management methodology. It’s been a good shift to give people project management training and the toolset to manage projects.

Plante Moran: How do you ensure IT projects and initiatives align with institutional goals and strategy?

Suzanne Traxler: One of the key responsibilities of our IT prioritization model is to align IT investment with the strategic mission, direction, and initiatives of UW-Platteville. We partner very closely with campus leaders. I do a lot of educating to help campus leaders understand why infrastructure and security upgrades are so important. They prioritize and get to weigh in on what we do; it’s not IT making those decisions. We have a chief business officer who understands the importance of investing in technology. And as CIO, I have the luxury of sitting at the leadership table — I’m engaged at the beginning of ideas and projects rather than pulled in at the end — which helps with alignment.

Plante Moran: How do you balance day-to-day operational needs — “keeping the lights on” — with innovation?

Suzanne Traxler: New initiatives are channeled through the IT prioritization process and, in addition to that, we sometimes make an executive decision and approve a project outside of that cycle. For example, we recently approved, outside the cycle, an iPad pilot project and we wanted to get this going before the start of fall term. We had $15,000 set aside for iPads and pulled together five faculty to use them in their class-room for a number of weeks. At the end of the term, we’ll assess how it went and what we do with the iPads after, based on the learning and teaching we want to do.

Plante Moran: How do you measure and evaluate the success of your IT investments?

Suzanne Traxler: The IT prioritization model has a set of metrics related to project portfolio, customer engagement, and process improvement that I look at. I’m also looking at whether projects are done on our timeliness commitment. I’m looking at feedback from customers. We have a formal survey process through our help desk ticketing system. I meet monthly with 10 to 20 people on campus. At each of those meetings, I ask how IT is doing. Once a month, I have meetings with each dean. I meet with senior leaders and faculty, and I sit on all four of the IT prioritization advisory committees. In my role as conduit and traffic coordinator and communicator, I build relationships, so I get feedback both when things aren’t working and when they are positive and working well.

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* Responsibility Centered Management, or RCM, refers to a decentralized budgeting model common in higher education. Under RCM, a greater share of resources is allocated to revenue-generating "responsibility centers" led by provosts and deans. Academic leaders are empowered to make decisions about how best to allocate and use those resources to support their academic missions, and they pay overhead rates for centralized services, such as IT and human resources.

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