IT Planning >> Designing Technology Mission
Is there a clear vision of the role of technology in your institution?
Here’s how to develop an IT plan that’s truly worth the effort.
There was a time when being obsessed with plan writing was a tip-off that you
didn’t have enough to do. Those times are gone. Especially in the management
of information technology, well-conducted formal planning is seen as a defense
against squandered resources, budget surprises, and black-hole projects that
suck in all the money that isn’t nailed down. Most importantly, an IT
plan is the best way to reassure everyone that technology projects are properly
aligned with the larger goals of the institution. In other words, IT plans demonstrate
that technology is not being pursued as a goal in itself, but that it is serving
as an effective means to a valuable end.
The trick is to produce a plan that is not a dead letter (addressed to no one
in particular, languishing forgotten on office shelves). Certainly, the ingredients
that go into the plan are important, but here’s the surprise: It is the
process of preparing the plan that contributes even more to giving it a pulse
and making it useful.
Still, how IT planning actually gets done at an institution will depend on
- The size and complexity of your institution
- How advanced the institution’s overall planning process
is (or whether institution-level planning even exists)
- The state of the IT infrastructure
- Whether the IT projects budget is determined separately, or as part
of the overall budget development
- How centralized IT resources are
In reviewing the basics of IT planning—for instance, who the plan is
for, who’s involved in the process, how the numbers are collected—we
can take a look at how the process has been carried out at several institutions,
and the results achieved.
Who Is the Plan for?
Oddly enough, there is a certain amount of ambiguity in the very phrase, “IT
plan.” D'es it mean a plan for the IT department to work from? Or d'es
it mean the institution’s overall plan for making the most of information
technology? Of course, both kinds of planning are essential. It is important,
however, to keep the two processes in the right relationship to each other,
and also to coordinate them with the overall strategic planning process of the
The IT plan for the institution is the primary one, and the IT department’s
more nuts-and-bolts operational plan should flow naturally from it. It’s
important to remember that the institution-centered IT plan is developed by
and belongs to the stakeholders across the institution—the decision-makers
who make the institution tick. The role of the IT department is to be a valuable
resource in helping the stakeholders develop the institutional IT plan, and
then to develop a work plan to translate the institutional IT goals into reality.
Get the Right People Involved
Since everything else flows from the institutional vision and objectives, the
process of involving the right participants is critical. The plan must come
out of the shared thinking and consensus of the entire institution. Along the
way, people must hear perspectives from others, weigh them, and adjust their
“Planning is everything, the plan is nothing,” is an adage that
University of Hawaii CIO David Lassner quotes approvingly,
and he should know: Lassner once worked for the VP for Planning and Policy.
He advises, “Why not just pick one of the 50 plans you could find on the
Internet? Because if your planning is an inclusive process that really engages
your constituencies, and if you arrive together at an understanding about where
you are and where you want to be, then you create a shared vision that won’t
occur without this exercise.”
The structures for conducting this conversation may already exist, or you may
have to create them from scratch. At the very least, an institution needs a
powerfully chartered, user-based policy group that can wrestle with priorities
and questions about institutional direction and identity. The makeup of this
group has to command respect across the campus so that it can set out a blueprint
that will be widely accepted and acted on.
Getting the Numbers Together
Since an important part of planning is figuring out where you are now and where
you want to get to, you may have to start by getting your numbers together.
“We spent at least six months figuring out how to measure our real expenditures
for IT,” says Rad Taylor, director of Information and Technology Services
at Siena College (NY). “But it was worth it. Now we know
that we are seven positions short of where we should be, compared to our peer
schools.” Siena is taking part in the COSTS data-sharing project (www.
costsproject.org), led by David Smallen and Karen Leach of Hamilton
College (NY). [Another way to get comparative data is through the Educause
Core Data Service, www.educause.edu/coredata.]
Siena is about to embark on development of a comprehensive IT plan for the college,
and now the institution will do so armed with a more realistic idea about where
it stands in comparison to similar institutions and what kind of investment
it might take to reach the next level.
How Many Projects to Include in the Plan
In the process of developing the IT strategic plan, all the major areas of
the institution that IT affects should be investigated. (For a checklist of
topics to consider, head to Part
II of this article on our Web site at www.campus-technology.com/techmission).
But that d'esn’t mean that every exciting idea should make it into the
final plan. Each one should be tested against the institution’s vision
of itself, now and in the forseeable future. Which ones are critical to the
institution’s success? Which would be valuable, but don’t spell
life and death? And which ones, attractive as they might be, don’t really
advance the institution’s most vital mission?
“It’s not necessary to jump to a lot of changes to make your plan
strategic,” says Marc Chinoy, president of The Regis Group (www.regisgroup.com),
strategic planning and decision-support consultants. “A good plan could
easily say, ‘We don’t want to change our structure at this time,
or grow radically, or burn up a lot of resources that we need to remain stable.’
In that case, automatically creating 26 new objectives is likely to be bad planning.”
But the planning process can be an opportunity to build enthusiasm
about ambitious projects that the institution really needs, in order to move
to a new level. The conversation about what is institutionally essential, and
what isn’t, is best conducted by a wide cross-section of the campus community.
Otherwise, the plan can become a compilation of individual wish lists or the
expression of a narrowly shared dream.
When to Get Specific About Costs
At what point do you start to attach price tags to the institution’s
strategic IT goals? There are two schools of thought: One says that it is important
to make people aware of what things cost, right from the start. The other viewpoint
stresses that focusing on dollars too early in the game can actually distract
people from the harder and more important thinking about what is really essential
in order for the institution to flourish.
Administrators at the University of Hawaii have taken the second approach in
developing the university’s last two IT plans. “We separate the
strategic plan from the financial one, and that’s controversial,”
Lassner, says. “After we achieve the buy-in and the vision, then we go
back and figure out what it will cost to get it done, what we will have to hold
off on, or where we will have to seek additional funding. If we attached dollars
up front, it would be harder to get buy-in on what we really want to do.”
Yet, in other institutions, the budgeting process and the development of the
IT plan are more formally connected and intertwined. In that case, it may be
important to follow the conventions required by the local budget development
protocol when drawing up the more concrete levels of the plan.
Add New Requests without Breaking the Plan
Once the institution’s overall vision for IT has been described and ratified,
which is no mean feat, the planning process still has to continue. There has
to be a mechanism for absorbing new needs, challenges, and requests. Yet, every
new project should not require a re-examination of the premises of the plan.
An effective IT plan actually serves as a measuring stick to determine which
new projects and requests get authorized and funded.
In many institutions, this evaluation of new projects is done informally, with
the intent of arriving at consensus. In the past two years, the University
of Minnesota has adopted a more structured approach, called the University
Projects Portfolio. Deputy CIO Scott Ruud explains: “Now we have put a
methodology in place to track requested projects and to help us arrive at a
cost-benefit analysis. The new tool makes the decisions less anecdote-driven.”
Ruud’s department built the tool in-house, using PeopleSoft’s PeopleTools
“The University Project Portfolio allows any of the business units to
enter a project that they would like to see undertaken, along with the expected
benefits. Then folks from my staff and from the business units put in an analysis
of what would be required, both a business cost estimate and a technical cost
estimate, in dollars and hours,” says Ruud. The tool is also accumulating
data on actual completion times, which will be helpful in validating estimates
for similar projects in the future.
Importantly, the Project Portfolio allows the decision-makers to have an overview
of projects that have been presented, versus those that have already been prioritized
or completed. The analysis can also be broken down by functional area.
“The programming behind the Project Portfolio has been controversial,”
admits Ruud. “How do you put a dollar value on saving a student 45 minutes
standing in line, or on enabling an advisor to work with four students in an
afternoon instead of three, with better information?” In fact, agreeing
on the principles behind the Project Portfolio took the university several years
of discussions. But now that it has been in real-life operation for six months,
the approach is beginning to prove its value.
How Often Should You Plan?
Set three- to-five-year goals; then roll.
Creating an IT strategic plan from scratch is a monumental
undertaking, involving many in the campus community, and typically taking
six months or more. Clearly, that is not something you can do every year,
nor should you have to. Once a solid plan has been established, setting goals
for a three-to-five year period, it should be reviewed and updated each year.
Planning becomes a rolling process: Each year you can use the same basic principles
to extend initiatives and projects out another year into the future, as you
review the progress from the previous year. Most observers feel that technology
changes so rapidly that it is hard to commit to concrete initiatives that
extend out more than five years.
Of course, the IT department will develop a specific operational (“action”)
plan each year that will include carrying out the strategic IT plan’s
initiatives. And in the best of cases, the IT strategic plan will be a key
ingredient of the institution’s annual budget preparation process.
How often should you start from scratch and build a fresh IT vision and plan?
Many institutions find themselves rewriting plans that are five or more years
old. Here are some external events that may be good opportunities to reinitiate
a sweeping IT planning process:
· Major changes in institutional leadership
· New directions in the mission of the institution such as changing
demographics, the addition of major new programs for different audiences,
or new competition to respond to
· The start of an institutional strategic planning process
· Institutional re-accreditation, program accreditation, or other kinds
of external assessments
· Changing budget realities
But perhaps the number one reason to revisit the IT strategic plan is that
it no longer fits well. If you really want to do something that isn’t
in your strategic plan, it is time to think about re-examining the original
Find Out More...
Part II of this article is available right now, on our Web site, at www.campus-technology.com/techmission.
You’ll find: “How to Plan When IT is Decentralized,” “Campus
Plan Interaction,” “Don’t Leave These Topics Out of Your IT,”