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Integrated Information Systems for the Campus

Today’s administrative systems are powerful, Internet-connected, and merging with academic systems. In a conversation with John Camp, Wayne State University’s Associate VP for Computing and Information Technology and CIO, Syllabus learns about the issues and opportunities associated with integrated information systems on campus.

Syllabus: How have administrative systems changed in the past five or ten years?

John Camp: In general, evolution has led to bigger, better, more complex systems—certainly very much more complex than the legacy systems from a decade ago. And almost everything has to work together today; there’s clearly a merging of administrative and academic systems. Integrating them can be difficult and challenging, but very few stand alone any more.

S: What do these systems help you accomplish?

JC:When I think about information systems in higher education, I don’t think initially about the systems per se; rather I consider strategic goals and one of those is to make it easy for people to do business with us. This is coming a little later to higher education than to corporate America, where making it easy for people to do business with you is absolutely vital. People walk away from a company today if it’s difficult to do business with. And the same thing is happening in higher education, especially with the growth of broadband connections that enable access very conveniently from home to services and education from universities anywhere. If we’re not easy to do business with, people will look elsewhere.
Prior to Internet-based services, at my university and many others, if a student wanted to register for classes, she had to find an advisor in one location, register at another, and then pay fees elsewhere. It was pretty difficult to do business with higher education. The Internet has changed all that.

S: So is Internet access causing a lot of change in administrative systems? Are these systems very different when you factor in Internet access?

JC: In higher education, the Internet is a huge change agent. And it d'es enable potential students or current students to get to information, services, and education electronically at their convenience. There’s still going to be a huge place for face-to-face instruction. However, there are educational experiences that can be meaningful and effective, done conveniently online. Every college or university that’s going to survive in the future will have to provide a variety of ways to educate students. One way will be electronic.

For example, students at Wayne State can get to a schedule of classes online, register for those classes, and then pay their fees online. Minutes later they’re all set to access course materials in advance of the start of the classes. So Internet-based, self-service is here to stay, and in most cases, it must be continuously available. That’s radically different than a decade ago.

S: Are there opportunities for your institution to consider globalization?

JC: Lots of opportunities. Wayne State University ranks about seventeenth in the nation in the number of international students served. That means, by the way, when international students want to contact Wayne State to inquire about programs or to apply, or if they’re home and they want to register for classes for the next semester, they have to do it in their time zone, not ours. That means WSU’s information systems have to be highly or continuously available.

In the old days of administrative information systems in higher education, legacy systems ran from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. and then you shut them down so you could do backup and maintenance. That’s all changed with the Internet. We have to be almost always available. And that places a huge burden on the infrastructure you implement to run these systems well.

John S. Camp, Ph.D.
John Camp is the Associate Vice President for Computing & Information Technology (C&IT) and CIO at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. He is responsible for enterprise-wide strategic and tactical planning activities, implementing those plans, and coordinating information technology activities at Wayne State.

A notable initiative under Dr. Camp’s leadership is the Sun Center of Excellence for Administrative Systems at Wayne State, one of a small number of centers of excellence worldwide. Sun and WSU are designing an integrated solution for optimizing SCT’s Banner suite of administrative applications. The center also sponsors research and development projects that benefit other colleges and universities using SCT’s suite. Among them are knowledge modules for SCT applications, and Banner forms on Solaris.

Camp served as chairperson of the EDUCAUSE Network Awards Committee and is on the board of directors of Merit Network Inc. He is currently a Member-at-Large on the SCT Banner Advisory Board and is Wayne State’s representative on the SCT Pillar Institutions Group.

S: How would you characterize the merging of administrative and academic systems?

JC: The walls are already coming down. I recall debates in the past about the pros and cons of consolidated versus separate administrative and academic computing divisions. I think separate and independent divisions are dinosaurs. With the growth of portals and the potential to unify access to any and all systems, there is very little way to tell whether a system or function is administrative or academic.

"Certainly academic and administrative systems are merging. They have to, because they’re related and must be integrated."

S: Do you have an example?

JC: Consider the tight integration required between course management systems, like Blackboard, and the core information systems that you run. We happen to run SCT’s Banner suite at Wayne State. If students want to get to Blackboard for online education, they sign on to our unifying portal—we’re using the Pipeline/Luminis product. Once they get into that portal, they might want to first check their e-mail. They could even register for classes or check their grades, or do a whole host of other things, and then go seamlessly into Blackboard where they complete or submit course requirements and participate in interactive discussions that professors have established on topics of interest.

All this—general productivity work like checking e-mail, administrative tasks such as registering for classes, and academic activities like participating in an online teaching/learning experiences—is done in a seamless way, through the unifying portal. Certainly academic and administrative systems are merging. They have to, because they’re related and must be integrated.

S: How critical are today’s enterprise systems to supporting the institutional mission?

JC: Well I happen to think they’re absolutely critical and strategic. They bring the teaching, learning, and research elements together. For example, one of the non-SCT modules in our information systems environment is research management. Most of the federal agencies today require that you interact with them electronically. They don’t want to deal with paper. And so, universities like Wayne State have to figure out how to manage the research process electronically—submitting proposals, establishing accounts for awards, managing accounts, and submitting final reports. Research management is an important, strategic component of WSU’s underlying information systems environment. A first-rate information systems environment in higher education is absolutely essential. It supports teaching, learning, and research as well as the general business of the university.

S: What are the main issues in planning and implementing large administrative systems?

JC: There are several that I consider vitally important. One is selecting the right partners. When we were doing this in the late ’90s, we looked at all of the major software and hardware companies, and we also had to make project decisions. We selected SCT software and Sun hardware and middleware, along with a commitment to strict adherence to project management principles and practice.

A Sampling of Products Integrated into WSU’s Information Environment

SCT Banner and Pipleline/Luminis: Information suite and access to all e-services
Blackboard: Course management system
OneCard: eCard for bookstore, libraries, parking
Oracle: Databases
Mirapoint: Enterprise messaging
Sun Microsystem’s Java Enterprise Suite: OS/clustering, enterprise directory

We considered and then rejected a strategy that might be called ‘best of breed,’ building an information systems environment using components from various software and hardware companies: the best housing component form this company, and the best human resource module from that company. And the best human resource module from that company. You’ll cobble them all together.

Not too long ago I had lunch with a CIO from one of the big three automotive companies. I asked him about his strategy for building information systems to support the worldwide global needs of that giant company. He told me that the company used to purchase best-of-breed products, but couldn’t afford that approach anymore because it’s too difficult to integrate products from many different companies and ensure that they work well together. The first step in planning and implementing large information systems is to select the right partners for implementing a truly integrated solution.

Buying an integrated suite gives you more assurance that when new versions or releases come out, the components within the suite are tested and certified to work together. Integration, for me, is key. Best of breed has appeal, but you have to have very deep pockets to do that. Some universities can. But most universities and colleges cannot.

S: What are some of the other issues you wanted to mention, concerning planning and implementation?

JC: I think it’s vitally important to do good, consistent project management. In general, IT projects have historically tended to take too long and go over budget. There’s a lot of research to suggest this, and much of the reason for it has to do with ineffective project management. So at Wayne State we took about a year to prepare staff, both from IT and from the business units, to use and understand project management principles, methods, and tools. When we replaced every one of our legacy systems, brought up a portal and a course management system, and integrated e-mail and other systems, we were within budget and almost right on schedule. Good project management was key in all of that.

We wanted personnel to understand in advance that they would participate in weekly or bi-weekly status report meetings. These are not working meetings, they are status meetings focused on major tasks to determine if they are on schedule or if there are problems. If a major task is on schedule and has no problems, we move on to the next task leader. The whole purpose of a status report meeting is to identify problems sooner rather than later. You have to teach this to people who manage projects as well as to those who work on projects so they understand both the theory and the methodology. And good project managers are not a dime a dozen. We’ve had, here at Wayne, some project managers who are worth their weight in gold because they really know the art and science of managing projects.

Another related issue is developing realistic project and annual budgets. We try to present both one-time and annual budgets simultaneously. Initially, I may not know all of the costs on the annual side, but I want university executives and others to understand the categories of annual costs. On an annual basis, you have to implement new releases. You have to replace hardware periodically. You’ve got lots of licenses to pay for.

Everyone should understand that when the project is done, annual activities and associated costs continue. Once that’s understood, we can proceed to work together to document, discuss, and determine what those activities and costs should be.

And finally it is important to be sure, that people involved in these projects are engaged, and are encouraged to hang tough and hang together when problems occur—and they will. This is, you know, the art of getting people to work well together. But I think it’s also an issue about how you develop that top-down and bottom-up buy in. In effect, these are not IT projects; they are university projects.

S: Are there any differences in technology implementation strategies between very large institutions and mid-sized or smaller institutions?

JC: In general, I would say no. There aren’t many differences in the strategies for large and small implementations. I’d still focus on project management, on budgets, and on selling why we’re doing this within the university. I think the strategies aren’t different. It’s just a matter of scale.

"When we replaced every one of our legacy systems, brought up a portal and a course management system, and integrated e-mail and other systems, we were within budget and almost right on schedule. Good project management was key in all of that. They have to, because they’re related and must be integrated."

S: How do you make these systems scalable?

JC: Much of that is just architectural. For example, we’ve implemented clusters of Sun servers at Wayne State, with automated fail-over. If there is ever a problem on any one of these servers, we automatically fail over to another so the service is not disrupted. And this model of clustering and fail-over is scalable. I can cluster small servers or large servers depending on the size of the institution. On the software side, the scalability issue comes back to the vendor. In most cases, software vendors like SCT are architecting their information systems in a way that they can scale up to a university with fifty thousand students, or down to a college with many fewer.

S:And how do you design flexibility in the systems, to allow for necessary modifications as your institution’s strategic goals change?

JC: First of all, we take, and I take, a perspective that we cannot afford to build our own information systems. Years ago, many universities did just that. At Wayne State, we built, acquired, and customized systems to reflect the Wayne State way of doing business. And we learned a hard lesson—the systems became extremely difficult to change as our institution was changing.

Today at Wayne State, to maximize flexibility we resist customizing the SCT Banner system to reflect Wayne State’s way of doing business. We recognize that there are some voids. So, we build a limited number of surround systems, which augment, rather than customize, our core Banner systems. And then we work assertively with SCT to encourage them to build these surround systems into their base product. The flexibility you asked about comes, I think, from not customizing core systems, building surround systems when needed, and then working with your vendor to modify its systems to your requirements.

S: Do you have an example of one of the surround systems you built?

JC: Yes. We needed a space management system that provided us with good information about space utilization at Wayne State University, for a number of reasons, including federal reporting requirements. The SCT core system didn’t have an adequate space management facility, so we built one and integrated it with Banner rather than customizing Banner itself.

S: Could you describe criteria for selecting vendors?

JC: I’m looking for a vendor that shares our vision about higher education and how information systems can help to achieve that vision. In addition, I look for a vendor with a track record for executing on its vision—vision is important but without the ability to execute, you don’t get very far. I look at financial stability, and then, of course, I look at functionality.

IT Steering, Advisory, and Oversight at Wayne State

Information Technology Steering Committee
(Enterprise policies, priorities, and funding)
External/Internal IT Advisory Boards
(Strategies and plans for the intelligent use of IT)
Project Oversight and Management Teams

(Oversight and management of approved, major projects)

S: What role do vendors play in designing an implementation strategy? How do they affect the way you approach this?

JC: The vendor partners are critical resources. Their consultants have experience implementing their solutions elsewhere, so you want to capitalize on that. And certainly when new versions or new releases come in, vendor consultants have firsthand experience with the changes. We tap their expertise to bring our staff up to speed quickly.

At Wayne State we used consultants from SCT and Sun throughout our implementation project, and now periodically when major changes occur in their product lines. We bring on-site experts to campus to work with staff to understand the changes in the system and to mentor them so that the changes move forward smoothly.

"The vendor partners are critical resources. Their consultants have experience implementing their solutions elsewhere, so you want to capitalize on that."

S: Should planning for administrative systems include various constituent groups on campus? What are the practical limitations?

JC: You can’t engage everyone so you need a process that includes key stakeholders. At Wayne, we are implementing four types of boards and committees—advisory, steering, oversight, and management. The university’s advisory boards provide advice about the intelligent use of information technology to enhance teaching, learning, research, and services. The Information Technology Steering Committee deals with funding, policies, and priorities, while the project oversight and management committees support and guide the implementation of major IT projects for specific applications of IT. These boards and committees have specific roles so that the university’s IT strategies are sound and plans to achieve them are completed successfully.

For example, our Information Systems Oversight Team is a group of senior executives who have a vested interest in the quality of the information systems at the university. The Provost, senior executive for academic affairs, the Vice President for Finance and Facilities, the Chief of Staff and Executive Vice President, who also deals with advancement and human resources, our Vice President for Research, WSU’s director of University Budget, and the CIO serve on this committee. This is a hugely important group to convene—it really ‘owns’ the university’s information systems environment and has a vested interest in its quality.

In addition, for each major project we convene a Project Management Team with a sponsor from that area—it could be an alumni advancement project or a project in human resources, for example. The team includes the project sponsor, manager, and key individuals who are able to allocate resources within the areas served by the project.

S:Are administrative systems going to keep up with user needs and expectations?

JC: I’ve been in this business long enough to know that if you simply go to any college or university campus and ask how well the information systems satisfy needs, you’re going to get complaints as well as positives. I don’t expect that we’ll ever get to the state where our information systems satisfy all of our needs. Higher education changes and hence needs and expectations change. The important role of IT is to help colleges and universities achieve their strategic visions by enhancing teaching, learning, research, and service. Not always easy, but certainly rewarding.

S:What do you see as the next challenges or potential opportunities for administrative systems in the next five or ten years?

JC:It’s necessary to help the university community understand that we’re in a new era of information systems. They have to be always available, Internet-based and functionally rich, and they’re going to change. We’re in a period of constant change. That’s a lot different than in our legacy era during which many universities built or mass customized like we did, and the information systems really didn’t change very frequently.

There will always be opportunities that we will want to pursue. One of the newer things we’re doing at Wayne State is building a very robust grid computing environment for research. If at all possible, we want to integrate our grid into the university’s network, security, identity, and information systems.

One of the important challenges is ensuring that over time you can maintain, sustain, and enhance the systems you’ve created. That really g'es back to annual budgeting and getting the key people together to think not just about the project at hand, but about the future.

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