Community Colleges | Feature
Keeping Service and Support Up When Budgets Go Down
A Q&A with Coconino Community College CTO Joe Traino
When funding levels are reduced, IT leadership struggles to
find ways to continue delivering expected levels of service and support. Joe
Traino, CTO at Coconino Community College in Arizona and Senior IT Executive
with CampusWorks (photo, right), says that while the current economic environment seems
daunting, creative strategies and partnerships will help IT departments run the
institution's technology infrastructure more efficiently without reducing
services--and may even present opportunities for new resources and services.
Mary Grush: As the
CTO for Coconino Community College, what is your perspective on the current
Joe Traino: Over the
last five years in higher education, we've seen state funding sharply reduced.
This has certainly hit hard at community colleges, which survive in large
measure on state funding, but the same pain is being experienced at many types
of 4-year colleges and universities as well, relative to the economic
environment in general.
While IT budgets remained flat or have even been reduced, IT
departments throughout higher education are struggling to find ways to provide
the same level of service and support they have up to this point. They don't
want to impact service levels, even though they have resource challenges. In
some cases, though, they've postponed purchases for technology refreshes or new
projects. And meanwhile, the cost of running an IT infrastructure just mounts.
This is not business as usual. And the
road ahead doesn't seem to be offering a turnaround--at least not a quick one.
Grush: Are community
colleges having a more difficult time, in terms of these economic pressures?
Traino: The cuts in
state funding in particular have affected community colleges more than other
types of institutions. Even at some of the public four-year institutions, the
impact of state cuts seems to be somewhat less given that their tuition is
generally higher and state funding makes up a smaller proportion of their
Grush: In the past
few years we've seen a lot of concern about how to run IT departments
successfully given the challenges you've just outlined. Are there good
approaches to this, and concrete strategies that can help IT leaders succeed?
Traino: IT leaders
are looking to each other to share successes and strategies that can help us
provide continued, expected levels of service and support at our institutions.
My own goal has been to identify and develop proven strategies to
do things differently in the face of the current and apparently ongoing tight
budget environment--strategies that work in the background to allow us to
maintain levels of services and support. I've watched for opportunities to
think outside the box as well as ways to be much more creative with those
familiar steps "inside the box" that we all take to try to make our
organizations more efficient. These are the things I hope to share with colleagues.
I've developed--or should I say I've had to develop--a lot of insight in the past five years, into
supporting technology services, and doing so very successfully, in a tight
budget environment. I've built several strategies that I can relate to cases
and examples to illustrate how these strategies work. I think other IT leaders
can adopt some of these strategies, both to support existing systems and to
help them discover ways to implement new initiatives.
Grush: Take this
scenario: State budgets get cut, departmental budgets get cut, and IT budgets
get cut. Does that mean that IT services should get cut?
Traino: That would
seem very logical on the surface, but it's certainly not very realistic and it
could be a recipe for self-destruction. To get the same work done with less
money, you don't want to cut services. For example, if you cut
services to the students, enrollments will drop. You want to continue to grow
enrollment even though it's a challenge given limited funding, because
obviously you need those tuitions. So instead, we need to look for ways to cut
costs--not services, and to operate more efficiently.
Grush: Are you
finding that there is a greater emphasis on accountability?
When things get tight, the college leadership is looking much more closely at
operating costs. Many institutions are moving to zero-based budgeting: Each
year you justify each budget item, and nothing moves forward into next year
just because it was on this year's budget.
Grush: What are some
of the things that will help IT leaders in this challenging environment?
Traino: One of the
very most important things we do is to form partnerships. Partnerships with
peer schools and peer IT leaders can be extremely helpful, not only for solving
the problems you start with, but by opening up new possibilities and projects
you might not even have been planning. To give you an example, I'm a member of
a group of CIOs for community colleges in Arizona, and we meet on a monthly
basis. We look for ways to collaborate and become more efficient, often by
sharing resources on common projects and particularly for compliance with
statewide requirements we all face. We can also share resources for
programming, which really helps reduce costs for all of us and offers additional
benefits through sharing expertise among our institutions. Another good example
is our partnership with nearby Northern Arizona University to share library
resources, which not only saves us direct costs, but also provides our students
with access to resources they wouldn't have otherwise. Other examples of
partnerships include purchasing consortia and improved vendor relationships.
And there are many other things we can do, to make changes
that work in the background while we maintain levels of service and support to
our communities. There are many good ideas I can share within the general
strategic areas of hardware/software (especially server virtualization and
consolidation), support/maintenance, fiscal strategies, collaborations, and
outsourcing/cloud services. Each of those categories has a long list. Some
things are technical and operational choices, and others involve the management
of human resources… But the key theme, if I had to choose one, is being creative.
Being creative, and being open to doing things in new ways will lead to the most productive, satisfying, and sometimes surprising things an IT
leader can do. Remember, looking for alternative ways to get something done
often sparks new accomplishments for the institution and actually moves the
institution forward, far beyond the original problem.
[Editor's note: Joe Traino will present "Technology in a
Tight Budget Environment: Doing Different with Less," a breakout session at Campus Technology Forum 2012, April 30-May 2 in Long Beach, CA.]