Strategic Technology Planning >> Critical Thinking

From improving service to the campus community, to enhancing server capacity for critical operations, schools learn that the best way to tackle mission-critical objectives is to do it via intelligent tech implementations.

Strategic Technology PlanningThe plain truth is that this very issue of Campus Technology magazine would not exist, were it not for the recognized criticality of technology to the academic environment. Why is it then that new tools and technologies are still being implemented in a vacuum at some colleges and universities, with little to no regard for the impact on the institution as a whole—even the connection to the institution’s professed or declared mission? True excellence in technology implementation emerges when IT, administrative, and academic leaders link IT to mission-critical institutional objectives, investing in hardware and software to serve an explicit purpose and a distinct population of users. Across the country, at public institutions of higher education in New Hampshire as well as at schools like the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Fordham University (NY), and Cornell University (NY), this is precisely the case.

The benefits of these projects are many, from improved efficiency to increased cost savings across the board. At one institution, an investment in electronic documents even managed to get users excited about reading reports. Still, linking IT to missioncritical objectives is not without its challenges. Any time a system is revamped, it takes time and energy to convince users that the change is worthwhile. Joan Tambling, director of human resources for the University System of New Hampshire, says that the very best approaches to tying IT to mission-critical applications incorporate innovation with a respect for the status quo, never pushing users too far too fast.

“Projects like these take patience on both sides,” she says. “Done correctly, the results can be incredible.”

Innovating for HR

If any academic technologist knows how to link IT with mission-critical institutional objectives, it’s Tambling. Earlier this year, she received the Fred C. Ford Award from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, for spearheading an innovative and costeffective solution for the delivery of services to university system retirees. The solution helps meet the institutional mission of better serving the university community by using a web interface to offer retiree benefits to former employees of the University of New Hampshire, Plymouth State University (NH), Keene State College (NH), and Granite State College (NH). Tambling built it to be part of the university system’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

Originally, the initiative stemmed from a human resources effort to offer retiree benefits on a much more selfservice basis. For years, the New Hampshire system had handled most retiree inquiries over the phone. Then, over the course of the 2002-2003 school year, Tambling set out to quantify just how much time her staff members were spending on the phone with retirees. This investigation discovered that the benefits staff of 5.5 people—many of whom had other responsibilities elsewhere in the department—was spending upwards of 800 hours per year helping retirees. To make matters worse, the study revealed that of 1,200 retirees in the system, HR staffers never managed to serve more than 20 percent.

“We are the Human Resources department, not a help desk,” says Tambling. “It was clear something had to change.”

TECH INITIATIVE TIP

The very best approaches to tying IT to mission-critical applications incorporate innovation with a respect for the status quo, never pushing users too far too fast.

Realizing that her HR team needed assistance in providing the level of expertise and customer service that retirees deserved, Tambling set out to find a vendor partner to help transform the system. Ultimately, that partner turned out to be PacifiCare, the company that was handling the university system’s EAP benefits in the first place. Together, the entities created a comprehensive plan to provide retirees with top-notch service and assistance, including phone and web access to information and resources, in-person consultations, referrals to financial planners, eldercare services, and workshops on timely topics related to retirement services. All of these offerings are pulled together in a web portal.

Taking Faculty to TACC

Strategic Technology PlanningIN THE ACADEMIC ENVIRONMENT, education clearly is the most mission-critical objective of them all.With this in mind, officials at the University of Utah launched the Technology Assisted Curriculum Center (TACC) five years ago, to help faculty members gain a better understanding of technology and incorporate it into their lesson plans. The center—and its measures to help faculty meet their education objectives—is still evolving.

The center is part of the university’s library, and employs more than 40 librarians to help educators get comfortable with technology. In some cases, this is as simple as showing professors what kinds of databases they can make available for a particular class. In other cases, the librarians help educators build syllabi around one-of-a-kind software.

In addition, TACC Director Alison Regan says the center provides workshops for faculty members three times a year. These workshops teach educators how to use everything from Adobe’s Photoshop and Dreamweaver, to software that combats plagiarism.

“We really provide them with whatever kind of technology support they need,” Regan says. “They have questions; we have answers.”

Most recently, Regan says the office added a streaming media division, designed to help teach faculty members how to digitize video and stream it over the internet. She notes that once TACC librarians have digitized the video, they put it behind a password-protected website to comply with copyright laws.

So far, the new approach has worked wonders. Tambling says that in addition to reducing her benefits staff by a quarter of an employee, the university system has saved $25,000 annually on the cost of its EAP. More importantly, for the first time Tambling and her colleagues feel like they’re delivering exactly what their retirees want. Of course, there were a few bumps in the road: Some retirees, for instance, were hesitant at first to pass along personal information to a thirdparty provider. But Tambling says that former system employees got over these fears in no time, and many of them have said they couldn’t imagine having their benefits handled any other way.

“What we have now is one little step from where we were,” she points out, “but for us, because we improved such a critical application for our department and the system as a whole, it feels like something huge, and that’s all that counts.”

Virtual Tools

Servers always present a double-edged problem for colleges and universities. On one hand, in order to offer missioncritical functions such as content management, ERP, and more, schools must invest in literally dozens of servers in order to do the job right. On the other hand, multiple server investments can be hefty, stretching already thin IT budgets even tighter. At the University of Wisconsin Medical Foundation, part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, technologists had faced this dilemma for years. Finally, in January 2006, Network Analyst Troy Frank and his colleagues came up with a solution to the problem once and for all: virtualization.

TECH INITIATIVE TIP

Don’t just think "overhaul." Even a small improvement can make a huge difference, if it’s made within a critical application.

Virtualization is the process of presenting a logical grouping of computing resources so that they can be accessed in ways that provide benefits over the original configuration. In the realm of servers, this means partitioning one physical server into a number of smaller “virtual” ones, making the most of the resources at hand.

At the University of Wisconsin, the Medical Foundation turned to this strategy earlier this year. Already, with the help of Virtual Infrastructure from VMware, Frank says the foundation has consolidated 30 servers into four physical machines—a savings of both money and floor space in the server room.

“By virtualizing, we’re no longer plopping down servers indiscriminately,” he says. “Everything is part of a bigger plan, and it all fits on a perfectly manageable number of machines.”

Frank says that he and his colleagues haven’t sat down to figure out what kind of money they’re saving on hardware costs by moving to virtualization, but he notes that each of the four VMware servers they purchased cost $5,000 apiece. He estimates the foundation probably has saved on utility costs as well, since it is powering and cooling fewer servers than ever before. And he points out that another area where the foundation likely has saved money is staffing: In the past, a group of five or six technicians managed the server farm; today the machines are handled by one full-time employee and one part-timer who fills in when the department needs him.

Down the road, Frank predicts the foundation will move most of its remaining 150 servers into the virtual architecture. One potential problem is bandwidth; depending on the preexisting workload of a particular server, not every piece of hardware is a good candidate for virtualization. Because every virtual server on one machine is sharing resources such as memory and disk space, Frank and his colleagues say they must be careful not to overburden any one entity. Their golden rule: Don’t virtualize heavy-duty servers that need dual- or quad-processing power unless they have 4GB of memory to access at any time.

“We can’t just virtualize everything,” says Frank. “We know that in order to get the best performance out of the technology we have, we need to be smart about how we consolidate functions into one.”

Locking Down a Network

At Fordham University, technologists recently turned to technology to shore up the school’s network defense—a critical objective for administrators there. In 2001, a staff shortage in the Information Technology Services (ITS) department had made it difficult to monitor the university’s systems, particularly during the overnight hours. Then, when network outages did occur, ITS resources could not provide immediate notification of the problem. Instead, department officials had to wait until morning to identify and correct any issues. This delayed and reactive approach to addressing IT problems simply was not good enough, administrators decided; Fordham needed a solution to augment capabilities and deliver more proactive, efficient service.

As is so often the case, in trying to address the difficulties resulting from minimal staff support, ITS encountered an additional setback: cost. As a nonprofit entity, Fordham could not afford an expensive solution. So, officials were in need of a reliable web performance testing and monitoring solution that could also offer good value in terms of cost and customer service. According to Jason Benedict, director of computer services and operations, ITS required a solution that could serve as an “extra pair of eyes” when the team was not available. They would need it to keep track of the performance of the Fordham network servers, some of which were housed on campuses that were miles apart from one another.

TECH INITIATIVE TIP

Instead of focusing only on technology investment and savings, look at potential savings in staff numbers, energy usage, even real estate.

“Those servers are critical to everything we do,” he says. “We couldn’t hire anybody else [to manage them], but we needed a cost-effective way to make sure they always did what we wanted them to do.”

The solution came in the form of monitoring products from AlertSite. These tools helped to monitor all Fordham sites and applications, performing regular tests to ensure that academic grading, course registration, and university e-mail systems all were responsive and functioning. The tool’s diagnostic capabilities were also essential in distinguishing between campuswide network issues and individual connectivity problems. In addition, AlertSite supplemented these functions with timely and detailed notifications via e-mail and text message that made the ITS staff immediately aware of the type and severity of any network problem.

The alerts helped Fordham technologists immediately determine when problems warranted further investigation. On several occasions, AlertSite staffers phoned the ITS team to make sure they had seen the alerts, particularly when they felt ITS department personnel were not responding quickly enough. Benedict says these AlertSite services were important to keeping mission-critical Fordham University applications functioning at peak performance 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The continual monitoring also meets a third ITS need, in the form of compiling detailed reports that document network uptime and provide a clear historical record of the system’s overall performance.

“These tools are tireless responders— they don’t take vacation, they don’t get sick,” says Benedict. “I could do it all, but probably for a lot more money. With that in mind, this just makes sense.”

Digitizing Reports

Up the New York State Thruway at Cornell University, where the Information Technology department is commissioned with improving business intelligence and the access to it, officials have turned to technology to help them handle a multitude of internal IT department reports—more than 600 copies of paper-based business plans, strategic plans, and annual reports that were costing the institution hundreds of thousands of dollars in printing costs each year. Bob Bourdeau, assistant director of marketing for the university’s IT department, says his colleagues playfully refer to these reports as “the triad,” and notes that after years of spending time and money publishing triad hard copies, they started looking for ways to update the process late last year.

Cornell technologists found what they were looking for in Digital Flip ePublishing solutions from E-Book Systems. The offering converts all of the paper reports into electronic versions that users can access with special readers that enable them to peruse the documents by “flipping” from one page to the next. (The technology is also serving a growing market of electronic magazines and catalogs.)

TECH INITIATIVE TIP

Cultures must change in order for technology change to be adopted and make a mission-critical difference: Don’t underestimate the importance of internal marketing to drive that change.

To access the electronic documents, a user simply g'es to the IT department’s home page, downloads the vendor’s FlipViewer or Mac FlipViewer software, and installs the plug-in software on his or her personal computer. Once the web-based software is on the machine, Bourdeau says that user never has to download the program again. “It’s critical for us to get this information into the hands of our users,” he explains. “The fact that our people can download the viewer and read these documents electronically, without ever having to think about a printed page, is definitely a step in the right direction.”

According to Bourdeau, his department purchased a license that allows the school to print up to 400 pages per document. Once the department exceeds the 400-page limit, it must pay a modest per-page fee. While Bourdeau declines to reveal how much the new system cost, he says that it is “40 to 50 percent less” than what the school was paying to print the triad of reports on paper every year. The marketing officer adds that at a time when issues such as global warming have put a spotlight on the health of the environment, Cornell’s IT department also has used the technology to reduce paper usage, moving closer to what many administrators commonly refer to as a “paperless” environment.

Still, this transformation has not been without challenges. For starters, while E-Book Systems boasts the ability to convert files from Adobe PDF, Page- Maker, Quark, and Microsoft Word into the online page-flipping format, Bourdeau says that some of the conversions require additional formatting. On top of this, getting users to embrace the switch in the first place was difficult. Because so many of his colleagues were accustomed to accessing and reading reports on paper, Bourdeau notes that changing these habits took a good deal of cajoling and internal marketing. In the end, however, just about every member of Cornell’s IT department has embraced the change.

“People thought they liked the old way, but now they can’t believe we’ve ever done anything else,” says Bourdeau, who suggests that at some point, Cornell may consider switching all of its mission-critical reports to digital distribution. “Clearly, this is one of those cases where technology has made it easier for everyone.”

::WEBEXTRA:: More on electronic publishing here.

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