Securing Funding

Justifying Tech Investments

How to 'sell' the powers that be on that new technology upgrade

There's a great new piece of technology out there that you know will save your university time, money, and hassle. Already being used successfully at other colleges, the technology tool's price tag and implementation time are workable, but, before you can sign on the dotted line, you need approval from the school's administration, and possibly even the board of directors.

Knowing how beneficial the technology will be for the university, you stick your neck out for it. But, after several sessions with the vendor and a slew of meetings and conferences, your request is turned down. Whether the killer was budgetary issues, cultural concerns, or just not enough proof that the technology will make a difference, you're forced to go back the drawing board and try, try again.

When pitching new technologies for Syracuse University, Jing Lei, assistant professor at the School of Education, said she boils the argument down to two or three key points, rather than trying to throw everything and anything into her presentation. First she considers the rationale of the investment itself with an emphasis on the educational goals that it will help the school achieve.

"Focus on what the technology will do for students, teachers, and administrators and how it will improve the effectiveness and efficiency of what they're already achieving," said Lei. Perhaps the new software or hardware will improve student learning, for example, or change the way that they learn.

Next, Lei puts the spotlight on the competitive advantage that the school and/or community will gain from the investment. Highlight the fact that students need to be prepared to go out into the "real world" and be ready for action, and not be left in the dust by others who did have access to the best possible technology tools and applications.

Finally, Lei looks at the bigger picture and considers the role that universities can play in narrowing the technology gap between certain student groups. "Students may come to college from homes where technology wasn't accepted," says Lei, "and graduate with a much broader knowledge of technology and how to use it, regardless of their individual backgrounds."

Lei's approach has helped her team win over the "powers that be" on more than one occasion at Syracuse University, which purchases a high volume of new software and hardware annually. This year, for example, the School of Education bought a number of Mac and Windows-based laptops in order to expand its computer lab facilities into a more "virtual" environment. "With this new technology investment," said Lei, "we've created a mobile computer lab where students can get their work done from anywhere."

When making the case for a technology investment, Lei said IT teams must create an effective argument around the cost of the hardware or software. Do a cost benefit analysis, she said, and share it with the decision makers, realizing of course that the bottom line will be especially important. Compare the new technology against other initiatives, she said, and explain why your choice is the best possible one for the school.

Jeanne Skul, vice chancellor of information technology and services for the University of South Carolina, Upstate in Spartanburg, said the biggest obstacle to getting budgetary approval for tech investments is getting administrators to understand exactly what you're trying to do. "They don't always understand the technology, so I try to identify the need and problem at their level," said Skul, "not using technology-speak."

Skul, whose technology investments must be approved by the school's administration team, cabinet, and--in some cases--the board, said her ability to take technology down to a more understandable level worked well with the university's recent cloud computing initiative. The school purchased servers and software and is in the process of taking its existing applications "off of the desktops" and putting them onto the new servers, according to Skul.

To get the initiative passed,she said, Skul centered her presentation around how the cloud computing project fit into the university's overall strategic plan, rather than overwhelming the decision-makers with the specifics on the technology hardware and software itself. "Every school has goals for student success," said Skul, "and we had to show how the IT project fit into that overall plan."

Scott Coffman, associate director of applications and programming at Owens Community College in Toledo, also has experience convincing administrators of the value of technology. He recently oversaw the replacement of a Microsoft Project Server and various spreadsheet-based applications with a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) project management and collaboration system.

To get there, Coffman said he focused on the fact that the school's middle management had already picked up on: Projects weren't being managed properly with the existing system, and there was no consistency in reporting. "It was time to get that under control," said Coffman, who had two factors working against him, namely the two-year college's budget and the school-wide aspect of the implementation.

When making the case for the investment, Coffman said he focused less on the monetary expenditure and more on the scalability of the new application and the clear benefits it would deliver to the college's faculty, staff, and students. By taking the SaaS route Coffman was able to demonstrate upfront cost savings and convince middle management of the value of migrating over to the new system.

To other universities looking to duplicate the success these three IT professionals have had at their own schools, Skul said honesty is the best policy. While you may not always be able to demonstrate cost savings or quick return on investment (ROI), for example, you should always be able to show the decision-makers the multiple benefits that the school's stakeholders will gain from the implementation.

"Avoid cost-shifting tactics that will put an undue burden on another department or initiative," said Skul, "and instead work to establish trust and maintain your credibility. Be ready to answer a lot of questions and justify the proposed investment to finance, academics or any other department that has a stake in it."

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