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Need an IT Revamp? Here's How to Start

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's chief information officer shares seven ways to get your IT organization moving in the right direction.

When you are named CIO on a campus that is in real need of an IT turnaround, where do you begin?

Tom Hoover asked himself that question as he prepared to take charge at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in January 2012. From his job interviews before taking the position, he knew there were problems with insularity, a division between central IT and non-central IT (called Partner IT) organizations, and skepticism from faculty and staff that IT would live up to its promises. "Central IT didn't have credibility or the support of the university community," he says.

"There really isn't a blueprint of how to do this type of turnaround in higher education," Hoover acknowledges. But he knew he had at least three things going for him:

  • He had already been through the turnaround process when he worked as director of instructional technology support at Pepperdine University (CA) from 2007 to 2012. "At Pepperdine we had gone through some similar things--evolving from being seen as an IT repair shop to being a vital part of the university--so I felt good about being able to come here and guide the same process."
  • Hoover also felt he could reach out to his mentor, former Pepperdine CIO Tim Chester, who is now CIO at the University of Georgia, for advice.
  • UT-Chattanooga, which has approximately 12,000 students, had recognized it needed a change. It had just spent $100,000 and a year and a half working with a consulting firm to create a 21-point IT master plan, which included hiring a CIO who would also be an associate vice chancellor with a focus on strategy. Although Hoover believed some of the master plan was heavy on buzzwords, it did have many concrete proposals he could use as starting points. "It already had buy-in from the community, and I used it as a justification to prioritize projects."

Hoover focused on seven areas to get his IT organization moving in the right direction:

1) Be a Good Listener
The first task he set himself was a listening tour. "I sat down with all the deans and asked them what they needed," he recalls. "They wanted someone to listen to them in this fashion. That generated a wish list we could work with and prove that IT could deliver on its promises. In the past IT hadn't been reaching out enough."

2) Pick the Low-Hanging Fruit
Hoover decided to spend the first year focusing on getting projects off the ground and demonstrating the IT organization's competency. Many of those first-year projects were identified in the 21-point master plan, including establishing a single point of contact for help desk intake and management and enhancing the university's web presence. Early successes helped pave the way for larger projects and convince the university that IT was moving forward.

3) Focus on Governance
Once the first projects were accomplished or well under way, Hoover turned his focus to some major structural changes. First, he established an IT governance council, which the university hadn't had before and which was recommended in the master plan. "We needed to establish a governance model. When people don't know what you are doing, mistrust happens," he says. Although that governance organization is still a work in progress, he wants the council to be involved in the creation of the next IT master plan.

4) Communicate
Hoover also took steps to improve communications. He started holding CIO town hall meetings for IT staff and monthly "Ask the CIO" meetings for the whole university community. His department began publishing a bimonthly newsletter about IT and an annual report, and is beginning to put together an IT services catalog.

5) Show Where the Money Goes
That focus on transparency also applies to budgeting. Previously IT budgeting had been decided in a "smoke-filled room," he says, and was not a public process. "I decided to bring some light to that and show anyone who was interested where our budget comes from and how much we are spending in each area."

That transparency helps administrators and staff members understand why certain investments make sense, Hoover says. For instance, a student retention module of Banner might initially look like a large cost. But because of the way the State of Tennessee funds the university, UT-Chattanooga lost $1 million last year because of the number of students it did not retain. "If we can cut that number in half, the university can more than recoup an investment of a few hundred thousand in a student retention module," he says.

Hoover gives another example where budget transparency might help in changing attitudes: When he sought to centralize printing, he was told it had been tried before and there had been a "mini-revolt" among employees. He decided to send people pseudo-bills showing them how much the university was spending on printing toner for a year. Once they see that, he believes, employees will be more open to change.

6) Empower Your IT Staff
In his second year on the job, Hoover turned to reshaping his IT staff. (Hoover oversees the work of 55 central IT staff and about 20 distributed IT employees.) It took a year before it was clear to him what he wanted to do there and make adjustments, including flattening the organizational structure. "I felt we were director-heavy," he notes. "The rest of IT wasn't feeling empowered enough. So we moved from five directors to an IT leadership team of 15. Those 15 have to feel ownership and really buy in to what we are trying to change."

He has also taken steps to reach out to Partner IT staff members, asking them to attend central IT meetings and work on consolidated purchasing. To help staff get some new perspectives, he is arranging visits with other universities including UT-Knoxville, as well as more conference attendance. "We also are hiring from outside as positions open up," he says, "so we will get some fresh ideas from people with different ways of doing things."

7) Measure User Satisfaction
To make sure that the university community is satisfied with the changes being made, Hoover plans to make use of the Higher Education TechQual+ survey of students, faculty, and staff. (The survey project's principal investigator is Tim Chester, Hoover's mentor from Pepperdine.) The goal of the project is to understand what users expect from IT organizations and then to allow a systematic exploration of the IT service outcomes in a way that provides for comparisons across institutions.

Hoover plans to use the results to guide spending priorities and the next master plan, which will be more narrowly focused on four or five key items. The important thing, he says, is for the IT organization to be responsive and focus on the needs of faculty and students. "We want to foster a spirit of continuous improvement."

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