A New Realm of IT Planning

Jack McCredie has seen campus technology adoption move from isolated pockets of innovation to mainstream functional areas—and he’s been behind it all the way.

No one is more at home at the helm of an IT organization than (John W.) Jack McCredie. In his role as associate vice chancellor for Information Systems and Technology at the University of California, Berkeley, McCredie balances the diverse demands for computing resources and services from the research, instructional, and administrative sides of the house as he creates a unified campuswide IT plan. Before joining the Berkeley campus in 1992, he honed his IT leadership in both the academic and corporate worlds, notably at Carnegie Mellon University (PA) and at Digital Equipment Corp. During his four-and-a-half year tenure in the early ’80s as president of Educom (predating the merger with Cause), he pioneered a series of Campus Strategies monographs that put IT planning on the map in higher education. Since then, he has shared his insights with the higher ed IT community in articles such as, “D'es IT Matter to Higher Education?” [Educause Review, Nov./Dec. 2003] and “Planning for IT in Higher Education: It’s Not an Oxymoron” [Educause Quarterly, No.4, 2000]. Here, McCredie speaks with Campus Technology about today’s IT planning challenges.

About every five years, we should get the major IT stakeholders to investigate where the technology is going, in order to align the institution’s IT goals with its overall priorities.

Campus Technology: You’ve talked and written about IT planning in higher education for more than 20 years. How has strategic planning for IT changed in that time?

Jack McCredie: The biggest change is the pervasive use of IT throughout our institutions. Twenty years ago, we didn’t have many people dependent on IT for their jobs, their scholarship, and even their entertainment. Today, when you look around the campus, everybody is using IT—students, faculty, staff, and even campus visitors. From research and learning to administration, everyone needs a solid IT infrastructure today and an ever-more-innovative IT environment tomorrow.

D'es the IT planning process on campus now include many of these people?

Certainly; a good planning process should always be inclusive. However, a decade ago there were not as many people who were really interested in IT, and there weren’t as many people who were as informed as they are today. Over the years, we’ve moved from technology innovations used by a relatively few visionaries, to bread-and-butter core technologies that are relied on by everybody. Their involvement gets many people to the table; they have a lot more invested.

At a large institution like UC Berkeley, how are all those voices heard, in terms of centralized IT planning versus decentralized—departmental or college—decision making? Is there any sense of unity?

Most large research universities are very decentralized, so the planning process is often decentralized. But that d'esn’t mean it’s disconnected. Two years ago, UC Berkeley completed a campus-wide strategic academic plan. [spc.vcbf.berkeley.edu/document/AcademicStrategic- Plan.pdf] Now, for the first time, we can build an IT planning process based upon a broad academic vision of the major issues facing the university. In our current process, we are trying to develop and inspire a coordinated collaboration that should reduce gaps and overlaps in technology on campus [technology.berkeley.edu].

Is there an optimum cycle for IT planning, considering the pace of technology change?

I’ve always believed that about every five years we should get the major IT stakeholders to investigate where the technology is going, in order to align the institution’s IT goals with its overall priorities. A 20-year plan makes no sense—technology changes much too quickly for that. The rapid pace of change dictates frequent re-examination of technology plans. After careful study, you should be able to predict your institution’s “hot button” issues about three to four years in advance, making a five-year planning cycle practical. In addition, we have a yearly budget cycle, which allows us to do short-term operational planning and to review and modify our tactics.We also carry out a staff organizational climate survey every three years. The combination of these interdependent processes keeps us from missing much.

Did you ever miss anything substantial?

Of course; here is a notable example: If you examine the plan we did in the ’92 to ’93 timeframe, the words “Web” and “URL” are not mentioned anywhere in the document. It was not until a year or so later that Mosaic became very popular and really brought the Web to the forefront. We missed the planning window for that innovation in our process; in 1993 we just didn’t foresee the enormous impact that the Web would have on all of our technology initiatives.

You pointed out that instead of being considered experimental, technology is now tied to key functions. If that’s so, do IT leaders need to change their focus, from proof of concept to demonstrations of accountability?

Yes—part of what you are describing is based on the current economic environment of shrinking budgets and significantly more governmental regulation than in earlier years. Boards and legislators are now asking for specific measures of return on investment or ROI, and if you don’t have good answers, competing investments from other parts of the organization will win out.

Is ROI recognized as broader than just the dollars-and-cents evidence?

Absolutely. I’m not sure that we in higher education can quantitatively prove the return of specific investments in learning environments. Education is a complex process around which meaningful outcome measures are very hard to develop. How can we measure precisely how we have helped someone learn to learn? Input about the value of IT in the learning process needs to come directly from the faculty. When faculty members see that IT is providing a better quality education, or reducing costs, they need to present those arguments. The case for educational improvements that are supported by IT should be made by the functional owners—in this case, teachers and researchers.

D'es IT need to get compelling evidence of ROI from the functional owners in other areas, too—not just teaching and learning?

Yes, the individuals responsible for student services and business process need to make the arguments that a particular technology is a worthwhile investment—whether for better education, more competitive research, or more efficient administrative systems. Then it’s the IT organization’s responsibility to implement the technology in a cost-effective way.

How common is it—within higher education in general—for the IT organization itself to be spearheading those arguments? Is there a competitive tension between IT and other programs on many campuses?

I have no data about how common such activities are by central IT organizations. However, I really believe that in most situations, the people responsible for a function should make the arguments about how to improve that function. IT investments are really hard to sell, just for their own sake. There are no longer many managers still around who are impressed by a faster or more glitzy widget.
Should technology be an issue in the marketing of the institution?

Our marketing objective at UC Berkeley is to ensure that the public has a clear picture of the quality of our institution. We do not market IT specifically; rather, we describe the overall campus infrastructure and how it supports the education, research, and public service mission and goals of the university. With respect to faculty recruitment, it’s very important for candidates to be comfortable that the campus IT environment will support their teaching and research activities.

But what about other types of institutions that are, in fact, trying to attract new applicants? Are they in effect marketing their technology programs to students?

Once again I must admit that I have no specific data about what many other colleges and universities are doing. However, national surveys about the most “wired” and “wireless” campuses have a market because prospective students do care what kinds of technologies they will find in their new home away from home. My opinion is that most new students are looking for an adequate base level of IT support. If that is provided, they then look to other more fundamental issues of academic quality. I have never met a student who chose a college based on how many wireless access points were available.

Given growing student expectations, should student technology fees be included in IT plans?

Approximately 60 percent of all public institutions have technology fees as part of the funding structure for their IT environment. UC Berkeley d'es not have such a fee, and we have suffered as a result. The appropriate level of funding for IT is a strategic decision for every institution to make. On our campus, the economic environment has driven us to make significant reductions in our IT environment. If the core funding situation d'es not improve soon, we are going to have to engage the community in a serious discussion about student technology fees.

And if the college or university d'esn’t have an adequate investment in IT funding, then d'esn’t that just about kill innovation? How do you get beyond doing the minimum?

We should always embed a small fund for innovation in our plans, even during budget reductions. Certainly, keeping such a fund alive in the current climate is difficult, but we need the flexibility to experiment selectively. This also allows us to run pilot projects and tests, perhaps preventing problems we might encounter in later full-scale implementations.

Could you give me a quick snapshot of the most important issues for IT planning—continuing ones, as well as new ones on the horizon?

Security remains a major concern. Privacy and copyright are related issues that we’re working on right now. These three are connected, and they are absolutely of primary importance. Another emerging issue is how to more adequately support the research mission of the university. Because of powerful departmental servers, and the decentralization we discussed earlier, central IT organizations are now often outside of the main thrust of much university research. The combination of cost pressures and new technology directions suggests that now is a good time to begin to develop new models of university-wide support for research. We need to determine which research facilities should be shared, and not distributed in departmental silos. A good example is high-performance networking. Internet2, regional networks, and the National LambdaRail are all initiatives that support research on a regional and national collaborative basis. There are similar opportunities within every campus for supporting research in a better way. Perhaps the area where we can get the most long-term benefit is the development of better learning environments for our students—oddly enough, this is probably where we’ve had the least impact to date. There is a tremendous amount of progress that needs to be made in creating the breakthroughs that will ultimately change the ways faculty teach, and more importantly, how students learn.

comments powered by Disqus