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Keeping Service and Support Up When Budgets Go Down

A Q&A with Coconino Community College CTO Joe Traino

When funding levels are reduced, IT leadership struggles to find ways to continue delivering expected levels of service and support. Joe Traino, CTO at Coconino Community College in Arizona and Senior IT Executive with CampusWorks (photo, right), says that while the current economic environment seems daunting, creative strategies and partnerships will help IT departments run the institution's technology infrastructure more efficiently without reducing services--and may even present opportunities for new resources and services.

Mary Grush: As the CTO for Coconino Community College, what is your perspective on the current economic environment?

Joe Traino: Over the last five years in higher education, we've seen state funding sharply reduced. This has certainly hit hard at community colleges, which survive in large measure on state funding, but the same pain is being experienced at many types of 4-year colleges and universities as well, relative to the economic environment in general.

While IT budgets remained flat or have even been reduced, IT departments throughout higher education are struggling to find ways to provide the same level of service and support they have up to this point. They don't want to impact service levels, even though they have resource challenges. In some cases, though, they've postponed purchases for technology refreshes or new projects. And meanwhile, the cost of running an IT infrastructure just mounts. This is not business as usual. And the road ahead doesn't seem to be offering a turnaround--at least not a quick one.

Grush: Are community colleges having a more difficult time, in terms of these economic pressures?

Traino: The cuts in state funding in particular have affected community colleges more than other types of institutions. Even at some of the public four-year institutions, the impact of state cuts seems to be somewhat less given that their tuition is generally higher and state funding makes up a smaller proportion of their budgets.

Grush: In the past few years we've seen a lot of concern about how to run IT departments successfully given the challenges you've just outlined. Are there good approaches to this, and concrete strategies that can help IT leaders succeed?

Traino: IT leaders are looking to each other to share successes and strategies that can help us provide continued, expected levels of service and support at our institutions. My own goal has been to identify and develop proven strategies to do things differently in the face of the current and apparently ongoing tight budget environment--strategies that work in the background to allow us to maintain levels of services and support. I've watched for opportunities to think outside the box as well as ways to be much more creative with those familiar steps "inside the box" that we all take to try to make our organizations more efficient. These are the things I hope to share with colleagues.

I've developed--or should I say I've had to develop--a lot of insight in the past five years, into supporting technology services, and doing so very successfully, in a tight budget environment. I've built several strategies that I can relate to cases and examples to illustrate how these strategies work. I think other IT leaders can adopt some of these strategies, both to support existing systems and to help them discover ways to implement new initiatives.

Grush: Take this scenario: State budgets get cut, departmental budgets get cut, and IT budgets get cut. Does that mean that IT services should get cut?

Traino: That would seem very logical on the surface, but it's certainly not very realistic and it could be a recipe for self-destruction. To get the same work done with less money, you don't want to cut services. For example, if you cut services to the students, enrollments will drop. You want to continue to grow enrollment even though it's a challenge given limited funding, because obviously you need those tuitions. So instead, we need to look for ways to cut costs--not services, and to operate more efficiently.

Grush: Are you finding that there is a greater emphasis on accountability?

Traino: Absolutely. When things get tight, the college leadership is looking much more closely at operating costs. Many institutions are moving to zero-based budgeting: Each year you justify each budget item, and nothing moves forward into next year just because it was on this year's budget.

Grush: What are some of the things that will help IT leaders in this challenging environment?

Traino: One of the very most important things we do is to form partnerships. Partnerships with peer schools and peer IT leaders can be extremely helpful, not only for solving the problems you start with, but by opening up new possibilities and projects you might not even have been planning. To give you an example, I'm a member of a group of CIOs for community colleges in Arizona, and we meet on a monthly basis. We look for ways to collaborate and become more efficient, often by sharing resources on common projects and particularly for compliance with statewide requirements we all face. We can also share resources for programming, which really helps reduce costs for all of us and offers additional benefits through sharing expertise among our institutions. Another good example is our partnership with nearby Northern Arizona University to share library resources, which not only saves us direct costs, but also provides our students with access to resources they wouldn't have otherwise. Other examples of partnerships include purchasing consortia and improved vendor relationships.

And there are many other things we can do, to make changes that work in the background while we maintain levels of service and support to our communities. There are many good ideas I can share within the general strategic areas of hardware/software (especially server virtualization and consolidation), support/maintenance, fiscal strategies, collaborations, and outsourcing/cloud services. Each of those categories has a long list. Some things are technical and operational choices, and others involve the management of human resources… But the key theme, if I had to choose one, is being creative.

Being creative, and being open to doing things in new ways will lead to the most productive, satisfying, and sometimes surprising things an IT leader can do. Remember, looking for alternative ways to get something done often sparks new accomplishments for the institution and actually moves the institution forward, far beyond the original problem.

[Editor's note: Joe Traino will present "Technology in a Tight Budget Environment: Doing Different with Less," a breakout session at Campus Technology Forum 2012, April 30-May 2 in Long Beach, CA.]

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