A New Realm of IT Planning
Jack McCredie has seen campus technology adoption move from isolated pockets
of innovation to mainstream functional areas—and he’s been behind
it all the way.
No one is more at home at the helm of an IT organization than (John W.) Jack
McCredie. In his role as associate vice chancellor for Information Systems and
Technology at the University of California, Berkeley, McCredie
balances the diverse demands for computing resources and services from the research,
instructional, and administrative sides of the house as he creates a unified
campuswide IT plan. Before joining the Berkeley campus in 1992, he honed his
IT leadership in both the academic and corporate worlds, notably at Carnegie
Mellon University (PA) and at Digital Equipment Corp. During his four-and-a-half
year tenure in the early ’80s as president of Educom (predating the merger
with Cause), he pioneered a series of Campus Strategies monographs that put
IT planning on the map in higher education. Since then, he has shared his insights
with the higher ed IT community in articles such as, “D'es IT Matter to
Higher Education?” [Educause Review, Nov./Dec. 2003] and “Planning
for IT in Higher Education: It’s Not an Oxymoron” [Educause
Quarterly, No.4, 2000]. Here, McCredie speaks with Campus Technology
about today’s IT planning challenges.
About every five years, we should get the major IT stakeholders to investigate where the technology is going, in order to align the
institution’s IT goals with its
Campus Technology: You’ve talked and written about IT planning in higher
education for more than 20 years. How has strategic planning for IT changed
in that time?
Jack McCredie: The biggest change is the pervasive use of
IT throughout our institutions. Twenty years ago, we didn’t have many people
dependent on IT for their jobs, their scholarship, and even their entertainment.
Today, when you look around the campus, everybody is using IT—students, faculty,
staff, and even campus visitors. From research and learning to administration,
everyone needs a solid IT infrastructure today and an ever-more-innovative IT
D'es the IT planning process on campus now include many of these people?
Certainly; a good planning process should always be inclusive. However, a decade
ago there were not as many people who were really interested in IT, and there
weren’t as many people who were as informed as they are today. Over the years,
we’ve moved from technology innovations used by a relatively few visionaries,
to bread-and-butter core technologies that are relied on by everybody. Their
involvement gets many people to the table; they have a lot more invested.
At a large institution like UC Berkeley, how are all those voices heard,
in terms of centralized IT planning versus decentralized—departmental or college—decision
making? Is there any sense of unity?
Most large research universities are very decentralized, so the planning process
is often decentralized. But that d'esn’t mean it’s disconnected. Two years ago,
UC Berkeley completed a campus-wide strategic academic plan. [spc.vcbf.berkeley.edu/document/AcademicStrategic-
Plan.pdf] Now, for the first time, we can build an IT planning process based
upon a broad academic vision of the major issues facing the university. In our
current process, we are trying to develop and inspire a coordinated collaboration
that should reduce gaps and overlaps in technology on campus [technology.berkeley.edu].
Is there an optimum cycle for IT planning, considering the pace of
I’ve always believed that about every five years we should get the major IT
stakeholders to investigate where the technology is going, in order to align
the institution’s IT goals with its overall priorities. A 20-year plan makes
no sense—technology changes much too quickly for that. The rapid pace of change
dictates frequent re-examination of technology plans. After careful study, you
should be able to predict your institution’s “hot button” issues about three
to four years in advance, making a five-year planning cycle practical. In addition,
we have a yearly budget cycle, which allows us to do short-term operational
planning and to review and modify our tactics.We also carry out a staff organizational
climate survey every three years. The combination of these interdependent processes
keeps us from missing much.
Did you ever miss anything substantial?
Of course; here is a notable example: If you examine the plan we did in the
’92 to ’93 timeframe, the words “Web” and “URL” are not mentioned anywhere in
the document. It was not until a year or so later that Mosaic became very popular
and really brought the Web to the forefront. We missed the planning window for
that innovation in our process; in 1993 we just didn’t foresee the enormous
impact that the Web would have on all of our technology initiatives.
You pointed out that instead of being considered experimental, technology
is now tied to key functions. If that’s so, do IT leaders need to change their
focus, from proof of concept to demonstrations of accountability?
Yes—part of what you are describing is based on the current economic environment
of shrinking budgets and significantly more governmental regulation than in
earlier years. Boards and legislators are now asking for specific measures of
return on investment or ROI, and if you don’t have good answers, competing investments
from other parts of the organization will win out.
Is ROI recognized as broader than just the dollars-and-cents evidence?
Absolutely. I’m not sure that we in higher education can quantitatively prove
the return of specific investments in learning environments. Education is a
complex process around which meaningful outcome measures are very hard to develop.
How can we measure precisely how we have helped someone learn to learn? Input
about the value of IT in the learning process needs to come directly from the
faculty. When faculty members see that IT is providing a better quality education,
or reducing costs, they need to present those arguments. The case for educational
improvements that are supported by IT should be made by the functional owners—in
this case, teachers and researchers.
D'es IT need to get compelling evidence of ROI from the functional
owners in other areas, too—not just teaching and learning?
Yes, the individuals responsible for student services and business process
need to make the arguments that a particular technology is a worthwhile investment—whether
for better education, more competitive research, or more efficient administrative
systems. Then it’s the IT organization’s responsibility to implement the technology
in a cost-effective way.
How common is it—within higher education in general—for the IT organization
itself to be spearheading those arguments? Is there a competitive tension between
IT and other programs on many campuses?
I have no data about how common such activities are by central IT organizations.
However, I really believe that in most situations, the people responsible for
a function should make the arguments about how to improve that function. IT
investments are really hard to sell, just for their own sake. There are no longer
many managers still around who are impressed by a faster or more glitzy widget.
Should technology be an issue in the marketing of the institution?
Our marketing objective at UC Berkeley is to ensure that the public has a clear
picture of the quality of our institution. We do not market IT specifically;
rather, we describe the overall campus infrastructure and how it supports the
education, research, and public service mission and goals of the university.
With respect to faculty recruitment, it’s very important for candidates
to be comfortable that the campus IT environment will support their teaching
and research activities.
But what about other types of institutions that are, in fact, trying
to attract new applicants? Are they in effect marketing their technology programs
Once again I must admit that I have no specific data about what many other
colleges and universities are doing. However, national surveys about the most
“wired” and “wireless” campuses have a market because prospective students do
care what kinds of technologies they will find in their new home away from home.
My opinion is that most new students are looking for an adequate base level
of IT support. If that is provided, they then look to other more fundamental
issues of academic quality. I have never met a student who chose a college based
on how many wireless access points were available.
Given growing student expectations, should student technology fees be
included in IT plans?
Approximately 60 percent of all public institutions have technology fees as
part of the funding structure for their IT environment. UC Berkeley d'es not
have such a fee, and we have suffered as a result. The appropriate level of
funding for IT is a strategic decision for every institution to make. On our
campus, the economic environment has driven us to make significant reductions
in our IT environment. If the core funding situation d'es not improve soon,
we are going to have to engage the community in a serious discussion about student
And if the college or university d'esn’t have an adequate investment
in IT funding, then d'esn’t that just about kill innovation? How do you get
beyond doing the minimum?
We should always embed a small fund for innovation in our plans, even during
budget reductions. Certainly, keeping such a fund alive in the current climate
is difficult, but we need the flexibility to experiment selectively. This also
allows us to run pilot projects and tests, perhaps preventing problems we might
encounter in later full-scale implementations.
Could you give me a quick snapshot of the most important issues for
IT planning—continuing ones, as well as new ones on the horizon?
Security remains a major concern. Privacy and copyright are related issues
that we’re working on right now. These three are connected, and they are absolutely
of primary importance. Another emerging issue is how to more adequately support
the research mission of the university. Because of powerful departmental servers,
and the decentralization we discussed earlier, central IT organizations are
now often outside of the main thrust of much university research. The combination
of cost pressures and new technology directions suggests that now is a good
time to begin to develop new models of university-wide support for research.
We need to determine which research facilities should be shared, and not distributed
in departmental silos. A good example is high-performance networking. Internet2,
regional networks, and the National LambdaRail are all initiatives that support
research on a regional and national collaborative basis. There are similar opportunities
within every campus for supporting research in a better way. Perhaps the area
where we can get the most long-term benefit is the development of better learning
environments for our students—oddly enough, this is probably where we’ve had
the least impact to date. There is a tremendous amount of progress that needs
to be made in creating the breakthroughs that will ultimately change the ways
faculty teach, and more importantly, how students learn.