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Tracking Down Some Staffing

Every day the news headlines are full of budget cuts to higher education that are stupendous. Public institutions are losing 10-20-30 percent of their budget and responding by increasing student tuition and fees--when they can. This is the third year of budget crisis, and although information technology is so important a part of the higher education infrastructure that we are relatively immune, you know bad things are coming down the pike when you read about significant cuts in faculty at some colleges and universities.

Now is the time to look at every part of your IT operation. You know that if you look closely, there are older ways of doing things that you are stuck in which could be done with fewer people or less expensive hardware. In fact, the budget crisis offers an opportunity to think about making changes that in a more benign fiscal climate would be unthinkable. Maybe this is a chance to kill some sacred cows?

Let’s examine just a handful of possibilities in the area of staffing--things that should be looked at routinely, but which in the press of business you may have not examined for some time.

Maintenance contracts can be sacred cows. Your boss or your predecessor in your job may not have negotiated initial terms favorably, perhaps from an overgrown sense of collegiality. If you're in the kind of department that contracts in one of the more esoteric academic disciplines to support them, they are likely in worse shape than you are and unlikely to be amenable to better contract terms for you. On the other hand, if you work for research departments which just got big grants or for people with already-in-hand capital project funds, those are places where you may be able to renegotiate some terms and gain some internal revenue.

Even in your relations with other departments where you don't have actual "contracts," you may be able to find savings. If you are in the midst of implementing a good course management system or other kind of content management system, for example, there are bound to be staff time savings when the content providers start doing more of the management of course and other content themselves. Don't let your staff find that a reason to work at a slower speed or use that "free time" to take on a new project that isn't a very high priority for the institution.

A cautionary note: One thing you really want to be on the lookout for is budget cuts in other departments made with the assumption that they can load more work on your staff!

The same kind of sacred cow can exist in contracts where you have outsourced work, especially if the contracts were negotiated on "friendly" terms by senior staff who are no longer around. Many such contracts exist with organizations full of people who used to be working in your own institution.

Things can get a little hairier when you take a close look at your own staff. You should definitely have some plans and options in mind, but you want to keep those options and that thinking as private as possible so as not to engender unnecessary stress among your staff.

Once you do start taking a look and thinking about staffing issues, however, you may find opportunities exist now to move people around who ordinarily would fight being moved around. There may be early-edge baby boomers on your staff who are closer to retirement than you think, and they could be moved along that path with a carrot, rather than a stick. It can be very hard to balance the institutional memory and mature decision making of an expensive long-time staffer against applying his or her salary to 2-3 starting level positions, but the trade might save you money and gain more bodies. And you may find that the older staffer would enjoy semi-retirement but still work on a contract basis as needed. Early retirement works better for your IT staff, of course, if there is an institution-wide incentive plan. Maybe you should talk to HR soon?

Don't even think about moving one of your top employees who is happy where he or she is, or mention retirement to a senior staffer who you couldn't live without. As a matter of fact, now would be a very good time to think about your staff and who you could or could not live without. There may be some insights available from that train of thought. And it might be worth a few dollars for bonuses, or gifts, or special training to ensure that important sacred cows are kept contented.

Other ways to find dollar savings that relate to staffing include such things as simplifying systems and procedures, making better use of student employees, and taking an intelligent look at ways to defer maintenance or system upgrades. (Even an upgrade, which can cost money, might significantly reduce operating costs, though, so look at all sides of every possibility.)

We'll take a close look at some other sacred cows you should be hunting down in next week's issue.

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