How IT Makes the Impossible Possible

By Terry Calhoun

Information technology is so cool because, among other things, once it becomes an infrastructure for something, there are so many ways for that something to be better than it was before. Sometimes it isn’t even evident that it is in fact the existence of information technology than makes something possible when otherwise it would never have happened.

Here in my day job at the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), that’s happening again now. This time, it is the society’s ability to implement a nationwide survey regarding the status of crisis management and planning on college and university campuses. I’ll write more about that upcoming, important survey below.

We already conduct an annual survey of “space” on campuses – space detailed by kind of use: classroom, office, etc. The story of how we are able to do that is the story of how the IT infrastructure makes otherwise impossible things possible. In this case, it is through driving down the cost.

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The federal government used to collect data of that sort, but stopped doing so in 1992. As soon as it stopped, everyone on campus for whom this data is important – and it is important for many people – began complaining and suggesting that “someone” should collect and share the data. No one did.

Then, toward the end of that decade, a wonderful SCUP leader, John Byrd, began proposing that the Society for College and University Planning should collect and share the data.

The problem was that the survey he proposed came with a hefty price tag. This was mostly because it relied on snail mail, telephone calls, and so forth. It was a paper-based survey, so it also wasn’t “green.”

So, no one knew what to do with the proposal. Basically, everyone thought it was a great idea, but we couldn’t fund it. We even talked with other organizations about a collaborative effort, but there still wasn’t enough money available to make it happen.

Then some bright folks thought, “Hey, we can solicit data by e-mail, collect data via a Web form, and share it by downloads of spreadsheets.” So we spent a year developing the database and the surrounding communications, and now we have the successful SCUP Campus Facilities Inventory (CFI) on an annual cycle with the number of campuses contributing comparable data increasing by about a hundred institutions a year. Do the people who manage space on your campus contribute? Do me a favor and forward this column to them.

A few weeks ago, my boss attended an EDUCAUSE ECAR summit on college and university business continuity planning. EDUCAUSE has completed a related survey and is putting its collective bright heads together to develop a resource that should make wonderful use of information technology to help schools all over with the increasingly-more-important need to have business continuity planning. Knowing that EDUCAUSE is taking this lead makes me feel good because (a) it always d'es a good job at what it d'es, and (b) I know it’ll use the best and most appropriate technology.

At SCUP, we are conducting a related survey soon. We’re assisting a couple of professors from the University of Southern California (USC) in the replication, enhancement, and expansion of a survey they conducted in the fall of 2004 about the status of crisis planning and management in higher education. You can read a copy of the paper from Change magazine that they used to report on their findings, “How Prepared Are America's Colleges and Universities for Major Crises?”

Crisis planning and management (CPM) is essentially the top strategic level of disaster business continuity, crisis communications, disaster mitigation…whatever type of planning. It not only (a) looks at all sorts of bad things (crises) that might happen to a school (think Duke Lacrosse team, chancellors committing suicide, as well as tornados), it (b) becomes the overarching place where all of the other plans of all sorts, even crisis communications plans and the like, link together and (hopefully) become a cohesive whole. That’s the idea, anyway.

The authors conducted their first study with a small sample of provosts from large institutions and used print and mail technology. Working with us, they (and we) hope to get an even better response rate from the larger schools and to set up a nearly duplicate, but appropriately-tweaked, separate instrument for two-year colleges. It will be very interesting to see what has changed, since the first survey was conducted prior to Katrina!

The authors could not afford to repeat their initial survey on this scale, using the technology they had. SCUP had the technology already in place, as well as a strong interest in promoting integrated planning on all parts of the campus, and for all areas of change. So, we are partners, and we look forward to finding and sharing information that will help campus leaders keep the people, the place, and the reputation of their institutions intact in the face of crises.

Feels good, will do good, and could not be affordably done without technology. Yet, the technology used in it is so much a part of the infrastructure now that most people completing the survey or reading the results will not even think for a moment that it was the IT that made it possible.

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