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 several factors:

  • 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
    process
  • 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 entire institution.

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 thinking accordingly.

“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 (www.peoplesoft.com).

“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 vision.

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,” and more.

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