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Designing Technology Mission: Part II

This section of the article is continued from Designing Technology Mission: Part I in the November 2004 issue of Campus Technology magazine.

Planning When IT is Decentralized

It is now common for individual functional units to acquire their own local IT departments. In larger systems and in multicampus institutions, the situation can be even more complex, with levels-within-levels of IT resources. If these satellite IT groups have at least some degree of autonomy, institutional IT planning may be harder to perform, but it becomes even more important.

The University System of Georgia provides a good example of the high end of the complexity scale. With responsibility for 34 institutions and an enrollment of 247,000 students, the Georgia Board of Regents has a strong dedication to preserving the uniqueness of the individual institutions, rather than treating each campus as just another location of a homogeneous state university.

But Georgia is also facing the reality that these days the entire system—not just a single institution—has to maintain a relationship with a student. That is because in Georgia, and many other states, resources are becoming overwhelmed by the numbers of students. It is not always easy for students to take courses where they would like, so many end up attending multiple institutions over the course of their career. In the past, to take courses at another Georgia institution, a student faced a mountain of paperwork; it was almost like seeking admittance to another university. And as we all know, it is at that point that a student begins to look at competing options.

For Georgia, the answer was to launch a project called Multi-Institutional Functionality (MIF). MIF calls for IT coordination at the highest levels of the system, but also requires buy-in from the very independent institutions. It depends on a marriage of technology planning (how to make the Banner student systems on the individual campuses to talk to each other) and policy coordination (which courses could students take at other campuses, how would they be counted, and how would the money flow?).

The MIF project is evolving as a compromise that meets the needs of students, the system, and the individual institutions. “MIF is about adding value, not replacing the old system,” says Tom Maier, assistant vice chancellor for Information Technology at the Georgia Board of Regents. “Working with your home campus first is probably the way to go, because of all the services that are provided at your home institution. We are taking advantage of the strengths of the home institution, and augmenting them.”

Still, in order to make this delicate balance work, the institutional purpose behind MIF, not the technology, had to be the main focus from the beginning. Maier explains the strategy this way: “We had to get strong executive support. We made the institutional needs clear in the initial project description, and we continue to work with the presidents at the campus level. Everyone had to see that MIF would add significant value to the Georgia experience. We are not developing a technology, and then going out afterwards to fix the policy to match it. We have been talking all along to academic officers, financial aid, and admissions at the campuses.”

Campus Plan Interaction

How well do the various campus plans in a university system interact with one another? The MIF project may illustrate how the University System of Georgia is attempting more coordinated planning, but it is still true that significant IT planning happens simultaneously at more decentralized levels and using varied methods. Maier is helping guide a study that will reveal in greater detail how IT and institutional strategic planning really interact within the individual Georgia institutions and the university system as a whole. The study’s investigator is a graduate student who happens to be in a privileged position to understand the workings of IT coordination and planning. Karen Webb is associate director of Admissions at the University of Georgia, and also sits on a task force charged by the Provost of the university with looking at how all the databases on campus should be integrated.

For her Ph.D. research, Webb read all the planning documents and guidelines of the 34 Georgia campuses, and surveyed and interviewed many of the participants. She asked who developed the plans, whether they worked collaboratively with the campus’s chief planning officer, how the plans were routed, and whether the CIO was a member of the overall campus planning committee.

Above all else, she found that campus planners valued autonomy and the chance to be unique in their approach to IT planning. But Webb discovered a wide range of practices across institutions that otherwise shared much in common. On some campuses, strategic planning is a guiding part of the budget process. In those cases, the IT planners wanted to be part of the overall strategic planning process. On other campuses, IT budgeting has been established as separate from general budgeting, and CIOs on such campuses felt that they had more direct access to the top decision-makers and did not want to be rolled into the more general planning and budgeting process.

Don’t Leave these Topics
Out of Your IT Plan

Many institutions have shared their IT planning documents on their own Web sites or through the Educause Resource Center ( Although every institution is different, these plans provide a useful way to start an outline of the topics you wish to consider. Many of the topics come readily to everyone’s mind: incorporating technology into instruction, improving labs and classrooms, developing effective business systems, providing better online services for students, providing individual computing to students, building a robust network infrastructure, and so forth. But here are some more general topics that shouldn’t be overlooked:

  1. A clear statement of the institution’s approach to technology. D'es this institution wish to be on the cutting edge, just behind the innovators, or solidly in the middle of the pack? D'es technology have a role to play in reaching groups that the institution wishes to serve more actively? How important is technology itself in the experience that this institution wishes its students to have?
  2. Organizational and governance issues. D'es the current organization of IT services and support match the goals in IT that the institution is setting for itself? Are the appropriate IT governance bodies in place to set policy and monitor progress? Is there clear responsibility for IT success at the highest levels of the administration? If the institution is planning on taking a major step forward in IT, it may need to examine structures that were inherited from the past.
  3. People and cultural issues. D'es the IT plan take into account the impact that changes will have on the people who make the institution run? Is it planning for the kinds of training, support, time, and encouragement that will be needed to make the plan a success? D'es the current culture at the institution encourage people to like technology and to be good at it?
  4. The future. What changes in demographics, funding, or outside competition are foreseen, and how might these put new demands or stresses on technology at the institution? How will the availability of new technologies make new things possible or put new burdens on support structures that are already at the limit?

Webb’s research is consistent with the findings of another recent study of IT planning. That report, “Information Technology Alignment in Higher Education,” [June 2004, Educause Center for Applied Research;] offers the advice, “One size fits one.” That is, planning methodology has to be adapted to the characteristics of each institution.

After her experience on the Data Integration Task Force and analyzing her survey data, Webb feels that getting everyone involved in the planning is more important than the precise structure of the process. “Bringing everyone around the table and trying to achieve some kind of consistency produces better results than writing a plan in isolation,” says Webb. “But in order for strategic planning to be effective, there have to be some precursor processes,” Webb adds. “Data integration is one of those. It’s hard to plan, when each unit has its own rules and processes and they don’t overlap.”

A Final Word on Buy-in

Getting buy-in g'es way past involving the right people up-front in the process. In fact, when it comes to buy-in, persistence is key—something many do not understand, or simply forget during the often drawn-out planning process. As Maier of the Georgia Board of Regents puts it, “Buy-in is temporal; you have to deal with care and feeding or it d'esn’t stick. In other words: You have to over-communicate with folks involved in the process.” It’s no surprise then that one of the tasks in the planning process has to be the job of fostering the plan itself and making it live on in people’s thinking. Otherwise, your strategic IT plan will become just another document that says more about the past than about the future.

Is Your Plan Working?

Take this quiz and find out.How will you know whether your IT plan is actually working? What are the signs of success? For every “yes” you rack up, give yourself 20 points, and see how close you get to 100.

Do the goals in the IT plan easily get converted into concrete steps in the yearly IT operational plan?

Do these initiatives get appropriately funded?

The IT plan should include a procedure for monitoring the completion of tasks mandated by the plan’s objectives and goals. Is someone in authority paying attention to this monitoring process and doing something about it if the plan falls behind?

D'es the governance group that developed the plan survive beyond the final approval of the document and take an active role in seeing that it is carried out and revised as needed?

Is you plan holding firm? If decisions get unmade and priorities get second-guessed, that may be a sign that the buy-in was not as strong as it needed to be, or that the commitment to the vision has not been actively tended.

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