Information Technology

Extending IT Collaboration Beyond Traditional Higher Ed Borders

Lasell College's shared IT model includes a small, non-competing college as well as a continuing care retirement community and skilled nursing home.

IT partnerships

It's not uncommon for colleges and universities to partner on IT projects and infrastructure — particularly at small institutions facing cost and resource constraints. But one college CIO has extended that idea further, building a shared IT infrastructure to serve a small, non-competing college as well as a continuing care retirement community and skilled nursing home. In a recent interview, Deborah Gelch, CIO of 1,900-student Lasell College (MA) described the motivation, challenges and benefits realized so far.

Strange Bedfellows

Lasell actually began its shared services journey almost 10 years ago with Lasell Village, a continuing care retirement center that is affiliated with the college but a separate enterprise. "When Lasell Village was set up, building a separate IT structure was not going to be cost-effective because they were so small," Gelch said. "We decided to combine efforts and consider residents like we do students and the staff like college staff, and bill it out as a percentage of costs, and it seemed much less expensive," she said.

Because the college and retirement community were different types of organizations, there were challenges to work through, Gelch recalled. "Creating a help desk to respond to students and seniors was a whole new learning curve, because people had very different needs," she explained. Lasell learned through trial and error to standardize as much as possible and make changes in tandem.

A year and a half ago, Gelch started talking to a nearby liberal arts college, Pine Manor, about extending the shared services infrastructure to Pine Manor and two English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) institutes on its campus. In its work with Lasell Village, Lasell College had created interfaces for disparate ERP systems to handle account creation and onboarding processes. "We realized when we began talking to Pine Manor that we could add another college database to create accounts quickly because we had already created a combined SQL table that brings together all the different human resources system data for user accounts into one table," Gelch said.

Here was Gelch's pitch to both colleges: IT departments for small organizations have a much higher cost per user, less technical depth and lower quality of service. Together, the Lasell IT Collaborative model would provide higher quality IT services for each institution and increase opportunities to support academic innovations, improve student and customer support systems, and reduce costs.  

The consortium idea was attractive to Pine Manor, Gelch said, in part because the school was looking at significant capital outlays to refresh its network infrastructure. "It was going to cost them significantly less if they came with us in the consortium to share infrastructure costs," Gelch said. The colleges now share bandwidth, network core, firewall and wireless systems. (It turned out that Pine Manor had been spending more per gigabit of bandwidth than Lasell was, Gelch added, so that was an immediate savings.)

Once a decision was made to share resources for the fall term in 2014, Lasell and Pine Manor had only four months to combine multiple network and server infrastructures, implement a new network access control (NAC) system, launch a desktop computer image that was similar across the organizations and introduce a collaborative help desk.

Between May and August of 2014, they moved to one physical infrastructure located at Lasell College, providing IT resources for 75 buildings and more than 6,000 users.

A Unified Environment
 
In the new IT environment, all organizations share a universal 24/7 help desk; all employees, students and residents of the retirement center have access to it. Application development and support happen in a centralized, agile environment. The partner organizations share responsibility for support (financial, personnel and strategic), with mutual acceptance required for all policies and shared spending. 

The CIO, network, infrastructure, security and development staff are shared between the institutions as well as costs for equipment and maintenance for shared technologies. Gelch said Lasell benefits because its IT department has expanded. The partner organizations benefit from cost savings in salaries and benefits, management and oversight, shared network infrastructure, reuse of in-house developed programs, project management expertise, joint purchasing and consolidation of services.  

The new structure allows Pine Manor to save on classroom design and setup, Gelch said. "We have a multimedia person and an electrician and they can set up standards classrooms at Pine Manor just as they have here," she explained. "Rather than bringing in somebody from outside that would cost $30,000 or $40,000 per classroom, they did it for $10,000 to $12,000. They use the same desks, projectors and switching units that we do, and that makes it easier for us to support."

She pointed to other cost benefits: The savings from combining server and wireless infrastructures during first 10 months was $100,000. All contracts for dark fiber were moved to a single vendor and the total contract was 30 percent less than the total of the individual contracts. Other contracts that were reduced by combining contracts include desktop computers, managed print services and printers. The total cost savings from joint purchases within the first eight months was approximately $25,000.

Hashing Out the Details

Gelch called defining service level agreements (SLAs) "the most important thing we have ever done." Thanks to its long-term relationship with Lasell Village, Lasell College had well-thought-out SLAs — but small colleges generally don't have much experience negotiating SLAs, Gelch pointed out. "As we brought [Lasell Village] up to high levels of IT, they started to want new things," she said. "As expectations are getting higher, we have to work on fine-tuning definitions of service and response times."

Institutional culture and governance issues, not technology, are the major stumbling blocks in sharing IT resources, noted Gelch. Combining IT employees into one 20-person team took considerable effort. Although they were welcomed into the new organization, some people felt threatened by the change, Gelch acknowledged. "Their jobs had to change. They were coming from tiny departments. This is more structure and specialization than they were used to," she said. "For some people, it was not the right fit, but my people who were here before welcomed it, because their jobs were going to become more specialized and more enriching."

Lasell also had to rework software licensing agreements with vendors. Some of them had experience with this type of consortium before and knew how they wanted to structure the pricing, Gelch said. "They don't want to lose the revenue from maintenance contracts. If you're lucky, you will get 20 percent off." For other vendors, it was a new concept and she had to talk to the presidents of the companies. "Sometimes it would take six months to figure it out and they were hesitant to agree," she said. "They asked about privacy of data. In fact, we had worked through how we protect the privacy of each organization's data. We have our own internal documents about what is shared."

Looking Ahead

Lasell isn't done building partnerships — it continues to seek new partners that might participate in its collaborative IT solution. The college recently developed a mutually beneficial relationship with the Newton, MA, municipality network to run fiber between the college and the municipality for business continuity/disaster planning. There also is potential for cost sharing of resources such as bandwidth, storage and library resources. "If for some reason city buildings are inaccessible, we could reroute their IP phones and have access to their systems in our buildings," Gelch said. "When you are on one network it is really easy to share things once you work out security and privacy."

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