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5 Ways to Prove IT Matters

CIOs share how they link information technology to the core goals of the university — and communicate IT's value to institutional leadership.

5 Ways to Prove IT Matters

Ask higher education CIOs about their changing role on campus, and most will point to their increasing involvement in strategic planning. With technology at the center of pretty much every facet of campus business (from administration to teaching and learning), it's critical for IT leaders to align their efforts with the university's core goals — and to find ways to document their progress. CT asked five CIOs to discuss how they keep their eyes on the university's top priorities, what types of metrics they track, and how they communicate their contribution to their university's leadership. Here are their top five tips.

1) Forget the IT Strategic Plan — Focus on the University's Strategic Goals

You often hear university administrators ask whether information technology is aligned with the business of the institution. But Pennie Turgeon, vice president for information technology and CIO at Clark University (MA), believes IT should be part of the business, not just aligned with it. "Aligning to the business feels very reactive," she said. "I want to partner with business and academic units, not be a service provider."

In 2010 Clark got a new president, David Angel, and in 2011 he presented a new strategic plan that sought to tie as many efforts as possible to achieving two very basic goals: elevating the reputation of the university and enhancing the university's resource base.

During the previous administration, Turgeon had created an IT strategic plan, and while the university is still using it, she and her team have shifted their focus to the overall strategic plan. "We are using a different lens to look at the way we do our work," she said. "I recast things for my staff: How does it enhance the reputation of our university or enhance our resource base? You can do that in two ways: You can bring in new revenue or you can reduce costs so that you can reallocate funding to more strategic priorities."

Turgeon asks her 30-employee staff to use that new lens to evaluate and prioritize projects, including infrastructure upgrades. "If students are screaming that the wireless is crappy, that is not going to do well for us when we are trying to recruit a class," she said. "We are not putting in a new wireless infrastructure because IEEE came out with a new standard. We are doing it because students are complaining that the current one doesn't meet their needs."

On the academic side, Clark has initiatives to improve student learning outcomes and help more students graduate in four years. "We believe that is a way for us to enhance our reputation," Turgeon said. "So when we look at projects to enhance student learning, we believe that is going to drive reputation if we are successful."

Turgeon used the current implementation of an e-procurement system as an example of the new approach. "That will strengthen our resource base, because we have determined that a lot of people are buying off contract. If we can move them to buying on contract, there will be savings." The new system also will replace a very paper-based, manual, distributed purchasing system, and give Clark a data-driven view into its departments' purchasing habits.

Data is key to making a business case for the e-procurement system, though Turgeon acknowledged there are some soft savings that she is not going to capture in metrics. "We are not going to capture the 5 percent savings of an administrative assistant's time because she no longer needs to make 10 copies of every receipt, but there are some real quantifiable things I can latch onto, to say this is a good project for Clark to take on." The target goal is to save the university at least $100,000 per year when fully implemented.

A performance management system will track whether those savings materialize once the e-procurement system is in place. If it doesn't save that much, the organization will study what went wrong. "We want to become a learning organization," Turgeon said. "And if we fail at something, let's fail fast, learn and keep going."

2) Report Specific IT Metrics Tied to Each University Goal

Few universities do a more thorough a job of connecting IT metrics to overall university goals than Arizona State. The appendix of ASU's IT strategic plan lays out ASU IT performance metrics linked to strategic goals in several areas. For instance, in research computing, it describes the number of research projects hosted currently (500) and the 2018 target (1,000); the number of terabytes of storage (currently 600 with a goal of 5,000); and sponsored research expenditures enabled (currently $14 million with a 2018 goal of $28 million). Under student learning and success there are university goals to move the percent of freshmen that return for sophomore year from 84 percent to 90 percent in 2018. Tied to that goal are metrics about the percentage of students using both a new eAdvisor tool to track their degree process and a degree auditing system to identify unmet requirements.

"Our IT strategic plan is derivative of and supportive of the overall strategic plan," explained Gordon Wishon, ASU's CIO. "Once the university leadership sets those specific goals, such as 90 percent retention, we try to identify ways those goals might be achieved, including with technology solutions." As the University Technology Office updates the IT strategic plan, it includes metrics on the previous year's progress and identifies any new objectives. "It can be difficult to determine the specific impact of a technology solution to a goal such as retention and apply a return-on-investment number to each project," Wishon acknowledged. But the degree to which these projects get funding support relies in part on the leadership's belief in their value. "We use a rigorous project management process and a software tool called Planview to offer the university leadership transparency into projects as they are happening," Wishon said. "If for some reason we aren't hitting the target numbers," he added, "we have to look at whether we want to invest more in those programs or pull the plug."

3) Track IT's Role in Transformation of Specific Administrative Processes

Some CIOs are leading transformation of administrative systems and business processes and gathering metrics to prove their value.

At the University of Texas at San Antonio, the Office of Information Technology is playing a key role in helping improve the graduation rate through the Graduation Rate Improvement Plan. (In 2008, UTSA had a 30 percent six-year graduation rate for undergraduates. The 2016 goal is 54 percent.)

Ken Pierce, vice provost and CIO, has taken a leadership position on projects involving a global advising system, course waitlisting, early alert systems and strategic implementation of hybrid and online learning.

Among the first steps was the implementation of Starfish, an early alert application, and DegreeWorks for degree auditing and four-year planning, with metrics attached to each. "We track and monitor all alerts that go out to students and we can see how many are contacting faculty. We are tracking the people alerted to see if it contributes to them graduating faster," Pierce said. "We also realized we needed to do a complete revision of advising, moving from decentralized by college to a centralized structure and a single platform to support it," he said.

Pierce said his IT strategic plan ties directly into the overall UTSA strategic plan and he lumps projects into three groups: Run, Grow and Transform. "Run is what we need to do to run the business efficiently," he said. "Grow involves expansions in certain areas, such as online learning or distance education. Transform is about remaking areas of the university so they don't look anything like they do today. I am attempting to completely transform the way advising is done — and using technology to do that."

A similar focus is driving change at Armstrong Atlantic University (GA), where CIO Robert Howard is revamping some administrative business processes around enrollment. Because the president's cabinet wanted to improve enrollment numbers, Howard began looking at underlying systems and processes. And because there had been lots of turnover in enrollment management leadership, he was asked to lead some process improvements. "There was a Banner implementation done in the mid-1990s but it hadn't been tweaked since then," he said. "Acceptance took a long time. We looked at ways to automate things so that students knew they were accepted quicker and we could get them financial aid options faster, so they have that information in hand while making their choices."

How does Howard measure the impact of the changes made? "One measure is that it used to take employees 16 different computer screens to admit a student and we reduced that to four," he said. That lowered the cost to the institution from a little over $11 to a little over a dollar for each prospective student. "But what's really important is that we got that information to the student faster," he stressed. "We are taking barriers out of the top of the funnel."

Still, Howard is not yet able to link the changes to actual enrollment numbers. "We are about a year into this, and given that enrollment is about an 18-month cycle, I can't tell yet," he said. The enrollment cycle is like planting a crop. You don't see the results of your efforts for a little while, but we do get student feedback saying they like it better."

On a broader level, Howard's department has developed metrics around what it is doing to compress costs on the mundane so it can invest in things that are more strategic. "For instance, we've switched from Cisco brand to Juniper brand on what we see as a commodity and saved 30 percent on maintenance costs, and we are able to redirect those savings to more academically oriented programs."

4) Integrate IT Planning With University Goal-Setting

Timothy O'Rourke, CIO of Temple University in Philadelphia, sees IT strategic planning as an opportunity to ensure that his organization can support the mission of the university and is not doing something off-base. "In order to do that," he said, "you really have to understand what the goals of the university are."

Temple's 2013-16 IT strategic plan was designed to match up with the four guiding points of the university's Academic Compass:

  • Encouraging Opportunities for Success — Supporting the Academic Vision
  • Metro-Engagement — Community Engagement & Sustainability
  • Global Commitment — Expanding Temple's Presence
  • Research Excellence — Supporting Research Activities

The IT planners created a color-coded poster linking as many of their activities as possible to these four areas. For instance, under Global Commitment, the IT organization is linking Temple's programs in Japan and Italy using the same administrative systems. However, although O'Rourke uses internal departmental metrics to track service levels, he has not developed metrics around performance tied to the university strategic goals — and he has not been asked for any. For instance, Metro Engagement is supposed to enhance the university's ties to the city of Philadelphia. "I personally don't know what kind of metrics I could come up with that would show more engagement or how we in IT would take credit for it."

The other way that O'Rourke keeps his finger on the pulse of campus is through governance structures for both academic and administrative organizations. Twice a semester he sits down personally with leaders of an organization such as Admissions and asks about their goals for the next year. "If they say we need to increase admissions by 20 percent, then I need to prioritize a lot of my staff time into changing the systems that help them admit students," he said. "My role is to pull all of those departmental priorities together and make sure that they are in line with the university's priorities."

5) Educate IT Staff on How Their Work Relates to Strategic Goals 

All of the CIOs CT spoke with said that getting their IT staffers to think in terms of the university's strategic goals is a key part of their job. "That is where I spend most of my time — talking to my team about the priorities of the university and how what we are doing applies to them," said ASU's Wishon. "It's important, because when battles occur over resources on campus, as they eventually do, they understand better why we are doing things the way we are."

Working to change the culture in the IT organization is "probably the hardest job I have," said UTSA's Pierce. "I am getting them used to asking the same big-picture questions they know I am going to ask."

Armstrong Atlantic's Howard said that his place in the president's cabinet helps connect IT to the mission of the university. "Before I got here, IT was looked at as a utility provider and there didn't seem to be a lot of connection to what was going on in the university," he said. "Now we can have conversations about what is going on at the top level of the institution." And he said the project teamwork between IT and enrollment services helped employees in both departments. "When people can see the impact of what they are doing – that it helps a student make decisions or get into a class — that is very powerful and helps connect them to the mission of the institution."

Clark University's Turgeon said introducing a performance management environment creates a trickle-down effect for employees. "They are also held accountable for setting goals and articulating how they tie into departmental goals or university goals," she said. There are pros and cons to leading a small IT staff of 30 people, she added. "I could have individual conversations with each of them about this if I wanted to," she said. But with such a small department, "this feels overwhelming to them on top of everything else they do. A lot of people who work in IT are like firefighters. They address what comes across their plate that day. This new approach causes you to step back and reflect on what you are doing."

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