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When ‘Strategic’ Means ‘Hard to Sell’

Having trouble getting dollars for those all-important ‘top-of-the-stack’ projects? These tips just may grease the wheels.

IT FundingYUP, THAT WEB PORTAL seems like a worthy project, and so d'es the distance learning application, and the customer relationship management (CRM) system. In fact, such initiatives routinely land on many a wish list in higher education, but although they promise to harness information technology as a tool for competitive advantage, they also cost considerable sums of money. So, how can IT directors justify purchases that could help a school compete for students with its peer schools? How d'es one go about building that all-important business case?

Richard Katz has a few ideas on those topics. Katz is VP of Educause, a Boulder, CO-based nonprofit association that promotes IT use in higher education. He joined the organization in 1996 after spending 14 years in management and executive positions at the University of California. According to Katz, the IT investment breaks down into layers, with the remediation of legacy infrastructure lying at the bottom of the stack.

From the Bottom Up

At-risk systems that require fixing, or an application that a vendor has stopped supporting, fall into the category of legacy infrastructure remediation, Katz notes. At this bottom- most layer, “you have to make the business case from a risk-management point of view,” he advises. That is, in this scenario, the business case simply boils down to positing that a given system or piece of infrastructure will break without fresh investment. Katz says forward-thinking schools may have a “sinking” fund (or other kind of reserve), in which an organization sets aside money over time to deal with maintenance investments of this sort. In other cases, he adds, IT managers frequently redeploy funding priorities within an existing budget.

So g'es the task of mending the trailing edge of technology. Then there’s the top of the stack, the innovation layer, which Katz says is “associated with investments that may be viewed as strategic or contributing in a positive way to competitive advantage.” He characterizes investments in this space as “opportunistic.”

The Top of the Stack: Fueling Innovation

Katz points out that “Newer initiatives such as CRM, portals, or eLearning— and most institutions still don’t even have an enterprise course management system—get funded, for the most part, through ‘new’ money.” Yet typically, he says, university CIOs haven’t been successful in unlocking new money to support tech investments aimed at the management of brand identity.

And that’s an unfortunate situation, given the link between brand management and competitive advantage. The importance of that link is described in a paper (posted on the Educause website) by Paul Herr, associate professor of marketing at the University of Colorado. Herr notes that the principles of brand management “may help institutions better position themselves in the minds of their targets.” The institution’s goal, he contends, “is not merely to attract the best students to attend the first day of classes, but rather to retain those students through graduation and beyond as loyal alumni.” Understandably then, supporting a college or university’s brand through aggressive technology deployment is not only strategic—it also keeps dollars in the till as students sign on and stay on.

Finding Allies: Supporting Top-of-the-Stack Projects

Gaining the support of key process owners within the university is a critical step for IT managers hoping to obtain funding for brand management/ competitive advantage projects. Ideally, a vice chancellor for development or a dean of enrollment management will point to a certain project as having the potential to improve student retention or have some other bottom-line impact for the institution, Katz says. “The day a campus business owner drives the business requirements of the institution is the CIO’s best day of the week,” he declares.

In most cases, however, it is the CIO who first has the vision of how a new technology investment can generate strategic competitive advantage. The CIO’s job then becomes one of enlisting the support of the executive or executives with responsibility for a given process or function, Katz says. This support is crucial for such systems as CRM, simply because universities have begun implementing CRM with an eye toward improving the management of such critical activities as recruitment, admissions, and alumni programs. Katz puts it bluntly: “A CIO without a tremendous amount of support from executives is going to have some pretty tough sledding selling CRM.” He adds that, essentially, the business case should be driven by someone other than the IT executive. Then it is the CIO who becomes a supporting cast member; who helps the business executives understand how they will benefit from a given investment.

A portal project, for example, is not just a technology exercise, but the means for organizing an institution’s resources on the web with the objective of benefiting students, parents, and faculty, Katz points out. In this situation, the CIO needs to “help everybody around the table answer the question: ‘What’s in it for me?’”

IT execs need improvement in their ability to drive this kind of strategic thinking, says Katz. “CIOs have not been as successful as they need to be, assisting other major leaders of the institution to assume responsibility for technologically enabled changes,” he observes. “That responsibility continues to remain on the shoulders of the CIO.” Bottom line: Move that responsibility toward the owners of the business units involved, and help them to understand that their active involvement in the cause is the most direct means of “selling” the project and getting the money. This tip alone may be worth its weight in tech funding dollars, the next time the budget cycle heats up.

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