5 Smart Investments for Your Tech Dollars
A panel of higher ed CIOs share what they are spending their money on—and why—in these lean budget days.
- By Jennifer Demski
A downturn in the economic climate and an upturn in the technological climate might be higher ed IT’s “perfect storm.” The confluence of budget cuts with the increased reliance on technology in almost all disciplines and administrative areas has put enormous pressure on campus IT leaders to pinpoint and fund tech services that achieve efficiencies—and maybe even push innovation—without breaking the bank. With so many new tools available on the horizon, and so many opportunities for incorporating technology throughout college campuses, deciding on which areas to direct limited budget dollars becomes a monumental task.
Campus Technology recently spoke with four higher ed IT leaders—Wayne Brown, vice president for information technology at Excelsior College (online); Joel Hartman, CIO and vice provost at the University of Central Florida; Karl Herleman, CIO and vice provost at Miami Dade College (FL); and Kamran Khan, vice provost for information technology at Rice University (TX)—to explore how they’ve gone about making those tough budgetary decisions, which types of projects they consider necessary to fund with their limited tech dollars, and which new technologies have allowed them to eliminate spending categories from their budgets and redirect those monies toward new, innovative IT practices.
Not surprisingly, they didn’t all come up with the same list. After all, one school is completely online (Excelsior), one a community college (Miami Dade), one private (Rice), and the last a large state university (UCF). Still, there were common themes and concerns shared among the group that will have resonance with IT shops of all types and sizes.
Here, in order of mention, are the top five areas of IT investment identified by our leadership panel.
1) Business Intelligence
Business intelligence—or the use of technology to analyze data to identify patterns and trends in customer behavior—doesn’t have a direct impact on the most visible aspects of IT’s responsibilities (i.e., keeping networks and PCs up and running), so you could imagine a CIO deferring investment in it during penny-pinching times. Not Miami Dade’s Herleman. “Business intelligence is a very important area; it’s a mistake if you don’t continue to invest there,” he says.
At Excelsior, IT is taking the even bolder move of investing in BI for the first time, despite the economy. “Putting off BI for another year or two would not have been competitive,” says Brown. “It’s just one of those things that an institution has to do in order to understand what causes a student to succeed and what causes another student to fail.”
BI has become common practice in the corporate world and UCF’s Hartman sees its increasing popularity in higher ed as a natural fit. “If you think of higher education institutions,” says Hartman, “they’re almost pure information organizations. They create information, they run on information, they teach information, and they research to produce new information. It’s easy to see how business intelligence would have a high impact in that environment.”
Key for Hartman, though, is that any business intelligence undertaking “must have an observable or measurable impact on the bottom line.” He explains: “BI has to be done in such a way that allows you to define the problems you’re trying to solve, and those problems must have a meaningful impact on the business aspect of education.”
At Miami Dade, BI has had an observable impact on student retention, which is important from two standpoints: mission (ensuring student success) and financial (it’s cheaper to retain an existing student than recruit a new one).
“We collect the data from our student information system, our learning management system, and even from local recruiting databases that we sometimes use,” explains Herleman. The compiled data allow the institution to identify patterns that predict the likelihood that a student is in trouble—for example, if a student misses three classes in a row and is past due on his tuition payments. “You can get that information in front of faculty members and advisers,” he says, “and they can proactively reach out to the students who are in trouble. Using this data to identify at-risk students and reach out to them has had a tremendous impact on both our institution and our students.”
2) Professional Development
Despite difficult economic conditions, “we’ve kept our IT training budget fully funded,” declares Brown. Why? Because just as it’s cheaper to retain a student than recruit a student, the same is true for staff.
Historically, Brown has had a hard time hiring developers and help desk staff, and compensating for an unfilled position during a months-long search for the right candidate burdens the staff as a whole. “One of the things that keeps people with you,” he says, “is the opportunity to learn and do new and exciting projects. If you don’t spend money in this area now, then by the time your budget turns around, you’re going to be losing staff members to other opportunities.”
At Excelsior, Brown offers his team a training plan that’s based on current projects on campus and the preferences and interests of the IT staff—anywhere from Java programming to public speaking. He’s also established a succession planning and leadership development group within the IT department. “That’s been very popular and it doesn’t cost a lot of money,” remarks Brown. “People from throughout the institution come in to talk to the group about leadership. We bring in leaders from outside the institution as well. We do book reviews. Just concentrating on developing the younger generation of your IT staff will keep them engaged.”
Hartman has a similar outlook on the importance of funding the professional development of his UCF IT team. “Staff training and development is perhaps as important now as it ever was in terms of keeping the good people we have, making them more efficient and effective in their jobs, and making our organization more efficient and effective,” he believes. Along with investing in the continued training of its staff, UCF calls upon its vendors to help keep its staff current by offering workshops, training materials, and online resources.
At Miami Dade, where the traditional professional development budget for the IT staff has “flatlined,” as Herleman puts it, outside sources such as professional organizations have become a key means for providing professional development materials for the IT staff. Explains Herleman, “For an annual fee, you can become a member of the Association for Computing Machinery or the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, which gives you access to online books, certification materials, webinars, and other training resources. It would probably take 10 years to pore through all of the resources they provide,” but he encourages his staff to try.
3) Network Bandwidth Capacity
When talking about his institution’s bandwidth needs, Rice IT Provost Khan probably describes the situation on every higher ed campus today: “Over the last five years our bandwidth needs have grown because there’s a lot more data traveling back and forth over the network. We’re becoming a much more data-driven society, and videos and other new data formats require us to purchase more bandwidth as a commodity.”
Miami Dade’s Herleman concurs. “We’ve been maxing out our bandwidth,” he reports. “We’ve been noticing a huge drive in wireless usage, and our capacity is not nearly what it needs to be. It used to be that we could predict the intervals at which we’d need to upgrade our bandwidth capacity,” he adds, “but now it’s just exponential growth.”
As a member of the Lonestar Education and Research Network (LEARN), a consortium of 36 institutions in Texas, Rice University is able to purchase bandwidth specifically for research faculty at a favorable rate. For all other bandwidth, Khan reports “the good news” that the per-megabyte rate for bandwidth as a commodity has dropped as needs have gone up. “You’re able to purchase more bandwidth for the same amount of money,” he says.
But IT directors can’t rely on dropping bandwidth rates alone to cost-effectively keep up with demand. Khan recommends evaluating the terms negotiated with your institution’s bandwidth vendor every six months to stay on top of drops in the per-MB cost of bandwidth; he also recommends budgeting for bandwidth redundancy with a second vendor and keeping an eye on the redundant rates. “If the main carrier goes down,” explains Khan, “you’re then able to switch over to the redundant bandwidth without any downtime. The aggregate cost of your main and redundant bandwidth is what your budget must cover. And as long as the rates keep dropping, we’ll be happy.”
4) Tech-enabled Tech Support
Using technology to support technology turns out to be a very smart investment. Miami Dade, for example, has found that “tier zero” service desk practices have increased efficiencies in its call center and freed up support staff to focus on higher-tier tech problems.
Herleman and his staff have used Parature, a web-based trouble-ticket tool, to create a knowledgebase that students can access via the college website or through a plug-in on the school’s Facebook page. “With Parature, you can post all kinds of best practices, ideas, and information,” explains Herleman. “Not only does the tool give the students a place where they can access the answers to their questions without having to call the help desk or come to campus, but, through the Facebook plug-in, they even share information amongst themselves. It’s that old notion of tapping into the wisdom of the crowd, and, for the most part, those students know a lot.”
The pairing of an inexpensive tool like Parature with Facebook has reduced the Miami Dade call center’s knowledgebase help tickets by about 50 percent. Furthermore, metrics show that out of 6,000 to 10,000 knowledgebase help tickets, over half were answered to the students’ satisfaction through Parature. Remarks Herleman, “We didn’t have to invest in an infrastructure to do this. Other than us populating the Parature knowledgebase with information, installing the Facebook plug-in, and having a staff member moderate the site to ensure that there isn’t any misinformation being spread among the students, we no longer need to spend much time or resources on these types of calls. The early indicators are that this tier-zero approach is alleviating the help desk staff workload and that our students are satisfied—in a lot of ways, they’re able to help themselves and help each other much more quickly than we could ever have helped them.”
Yet even using innovative ground-floor support tools doesn’t address the inevitable equipment breakdowns that put pressure on IT “time-is-money” operational budgets. As Rice’s Khan explains: “If a technician walks across campus to troubleshoot and repair a desktop or laptop computer, that’s time.” Khan’s solution, particularly if a problem is minor, “which it often is,” he says ruefully, is “to fix the unit remotely.”
The Rice IT team now relies on Bomgar’s remote desktop support software to remotely access and repair computers throughout the campus. “Many of the medium to complex issues that arise in tech support can’t be resolved remotely,” Khan acknowledges, “but we’ve been able to resolve about 20 to 25 percent of our calls by working on the users’ desktops or laptops through Bomgar. So much downtime is avoided—with remote tech support we’ve seen more efficiency for both the support techs and the end users.”
5) Investing Outside the Box
There comes a time in every good IT group’s life when equipment has to be replaced. “You can delay the replacement on some of the components of your IT infrastructure,” Khan admits. “But there will always be pieces that need to be replaced because they’re at the end of their lifecycle.”
At Rice, Khan and his team are adopting a number of methods to reduce their tech refresh spending while keeping their institution at the forefront of innovation. For example, an analysis of each IT component’s impact on the university, based on its effect on the campus infrastructure as a whole, allows them to implement a risk-based IT replacement plan.
Virtualization is also part of Khan’s plan to make wise investments in technology equipment. “We’ve been virtualizing a lot of our servers and installing blades in our data centers,” he reports. “That’s helped us in terms of more utilization of a server because we can run more applications and utilize the CPU and the memory on that server, rather than have two or three servers sitting idle. Not only does it provide you with more efficiency in terms of equipment, but it also provides you with more space in the data center and it helps with the power consumption as well.”
Hartman has been making the same calculations at UCF. “Instead of having one computer for each service that it runs, you might virtualize and have 15, 20, 30 services or virtual machines running on a single box, which would consume less space and less energy, have less capital costs, and less capital maintenance renewal.”
Both Hartman and Khan note that consolidation also helps achieve equipment cost efficiencies. Hartman says that “many institutions are either, by encouragement or by incentive, getting the distributed IT folks on campus to bring their applications and servers into a central hosting facility or data center as a way of saving space, saving dollars, and reducing energy costs.”
At Rice, large projects geared toward integration and interoperability across campus have helped Khan and his team pinpoint areas where duplication exists. For those areas on campus with similar computing needs, standardization and volume purchasing have the potential to greatly reduce costs and increase efficiency.
“In times like this,” notes Khan, “if you try to understand your institution’s workflow better, and try to understand what each department’s goals are, you’ll end up seeing a lot of connections, and those connections start discussions, and then people start to think about how we can incorporate innovation while eliminating inefficiency in the process.”
Those cross-institutional discussions are critical beyond identifying efficiencies. “Determining the direction of the tech budget is not just an IT conversation,” insists Excelsior’s Brown. “As CIOs, it’s our job to make sure [people across] the rest of the institution have the information that they need, and to use the technology governance to figure out what the priorities of the departments throughout the university are. Higher ed institutions are structured through committees, and having the input of those committees—so it isn’t just IT making these decisions—is incredibly important.”
IT cannot stand alone anymore (if it ever did), agrees UCF’s Hartman, because technology is now so completely insinuated into the fabric of the university. “Even though budgets are going down substantially, demand [for technology] is still increasing. It’s increasing because of institutional growth. It’s increasing because people need to use technology to become more efficient in this economic environment. And, it’s increasing,” he adds, “because institutions are finding more ways that technology plays a role in higher education.”