Tough Times Require IT's Best

Institutions are experiencing some of the most difficult and rapidly evolving challenges ever witnessed. The economic downturn has left public institutions with severely constrained state funding. Private institutions are facing heavy declines in endowment values and serious challenges to fundraising, both important components of operating budgets. Students and parents are acting increasingly in the role of consumer and are selecting institutions with heightened attention to educational investment value. The result is that institutional efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability are more critical than ever, and the competition for students and tuition revenue vitally important. In the midst of these challenges, information technology organizations have unprecedented opportunities to make a difference for their institutions. Responsibilities and opportunities to do so can be grouped into three categories, with accompanying examples.

Operational

IT organizations nearly always face their share of budget cuts. As a result, the first responsibility is to achieve their highest level of efficiency and effectiveness. Ensure optimal organizational structure with clearly defined responsibilities and accountabilities. Human resources are our greatest asset. Ensuring that teams are established as centers of responsibility and that individuals contribute at their highest levels is the most important step any leader can take.

Identify and eliminate all unnecessary costs. Sometimes called “budget scrubbing,” this involves scanning for possible reductions in expenditures, including maintenance and subscriber costs where appropriate. Well-run organizations will inevitably have done this as a matter of course. Nevertheless, the effort is worthwhile for many reasons, including building a solid case demonstrating the impact to the institution of additional cuts.

Establish and maintain benchmarking data related to staffing, operating budgets, services provided, and other key parameters. This helps impose discipline in management decisions, and can help substantiate to institutional constituents that the IT organization is operating efficiently and effectively.

Maintain all systems and networks with vigilance.
Budget cuts may mean fewer resources, but fundamental responsibilities remain unchanged. This includes security measures and processes/procedures required to ensure the integrity of the institution’s information systems. Institutional conditions may mean the need is even greater, and staff members often benefit from heightened focus on fundamental responsibilities.

Strategic

Invest wisely in new technologies and services that benefit institutional operations. Entrenchment is one of the first tactics many institutions employ in light of financial problems, but this is often shortsighted and maladaptive. Technologies that help improve functionality and productivity can be an excellent investment for cost control, as well as increasing competitive advantage over institutions that choose to suspend their efforts.

Achieve the highest level of system virtualization and consolidation possible. Reducing the number of operating systems and the number of servers that must be maintained and replaced is an excellent move. While these initiatives require an investment and are often driven by situational opportunities, the savings can be substantial.

Diligently explore what you can stop doing in order to reallocate resources to initiatives that become higher priorities as conditions change. Most organizations don’t take the time to identify things that simply don’t need to continue. And the resources can make a much bigger difference elsewhere.

Carefully explore outsourcing and contracted services.
Focus on areas that are non-strategic for outsourcing, and highly strategic for contract and consulting services. Tough times often mean recurring budgets are reduced, and consequently, one-time funds may become an important bridge to continue vital projects.

Institutional

IT organizations are comprised of individuals with strong systems analysis and design skills. Difficult times mean those skills may be highly valued in functional areas on campus that will benefit from process improvement and reengineering as they seek improved efficiencies and effectiveness. Leaders in other areas will typically respond well to such proposals, particularly if they involve partnerships.

Support increased information accessibility and availability to decision-makers. The old adage that “you can’t manage what you can’t see” is true, and becomes particularly problematic in tough times. Key performance indicators and basic business analytics will help the institution monitor performance and make vital adjustments.

Work with key institutional partners to strengthen competitive advantage in critical areas such as student recruitment. Technology is integral to students today and can be used to strengthen student recruitment systems and strategies. Opportunities for gaining advantage over competitors are greatest in times of stress, if we are wise enough to grasp them.

Focus on key relationships with colleagues. Stress often creates friction and conflict. Move beyond that and find ways to work together. True leaders will find ways to strengthen relationships and create opportunities for navigating the institution through difficult times.

Tough times require the best from all of us. There is no better time to demonstrate the transformative force of IT as we navigate the way ahead together.

About the Author

David W. Dodd is vice president of Information Technology and CIO at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. He can be reached at 201/216-5491 or david.dodd@stevens.edu.

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