A Building With a Vision

Big dreams to propel your organization forward are often interrupted by the harsh reality of budget cuts, nay-saying in high places, and the slow but steady erosion created by incremental compromises that add up to huge deviations from the original vision. While yes, it would be easier to conform to the limitations imposed by multiple layers of decision makers reacting to their own pressures in a large academic institutional setting, that’s just not the way the Colorado State University (CSU) College of Business gets things done. There’s always another way.

The CSU College of Business relies heavily on its technology, not only for the on-campus classroom experience, but also for its leading distance-learning MBA program that reaches students all over the globe. In total, the College serves approximately 5,000 undergraduate, graduate, and minor students, and it employs hundreds of faculty, instructors, and staff members. Like any dynamic growing organization with thousands of people affected daily by internal systems, missing a rare opportunity to build technological capacity, increase efficiencies, and improve logistics would be difficult to correct.

That rare opportunity surfaced when Colorado State University launched a campaign to raise student fees to fund new facilities on campus. Rockwell Hall-West, a 54,600-sq.-ft. expansion of the existing College of Business building, finally reached the drawing board in early 2007. The $17.5M expansion was completed in late 2009 and officially dedicated in April 2010. While student fees funded most of the building, about $7M in private funds also needed to be raised.

“We were very lucky,” said Jon Schroth, director of Information Technology for the College. “Things could have blown up in a lot of ways,” he said, referring to the challenges of protecting the vision for a progressive technology plan for the building. “Because the technology is the last thing to go in, a lot of things can happen to the budget. Like if a water main breaks, it can cost $20,000… or if someone decides they want slate instead of tile.”

“There was a lot of resistance along the way, and a lot of things that could have killed it budgetarily,” he said. In spite of Schroth losing a lot of sleep over the whole process, CSU College of Business Dean Ajay Menon and Associate Dean John Hoxmeier championed the new technology plan. “That’s why it worked.”

“There was a critical meeting,” Schroth said. “After the bid specs were together and Dohn Construction won the contract, Ajay spend 45 to 60 minutes talking to us about what this building meant to the business school. He worked hard to get everyone involved to understand that we were not going to have another chance.”

Most Advanced Technology Solution in the Region
So, what do casino and military technology have in common with CSU’s business school? Hub and spoke designs, with peripherals controlled from a central operations room.

“It’s extremely efficient, both in terms of square footage and functionality. All the complexity has been pulled into the operations room,” said Schroth. “The solution was born out of the pain and suffering of the daily challenges of servicing the existing IT infrastructure and hardware in the old building, much of it dating back to 2000.” Like most educational settings, the old technology was decentralized and housed in podiums in each classroom. The wiring was a mess. When instructors had problems, they had to call a technician who would come to the classroom to fix it. “Faculty were upset. Students were upset. It was an unpleasant experience for all involved.”

“If we wanted to do recordings or videoconferencing, we had seven minutes between classes to run VGA feeds and mikes and string out cables for a portable system. These events were important, and setting up temporary equipment with short set up times did not always produce the quality we wanted to deliver. There were all kinds of problems and logistical issues,” Schroth said.

To address these problems in the new technology design, several parties were involved. Schroth and Rob Peters, multimedia coordinator for the College, did the groundwork to form a cohesive vision that would improve the classroom experience and create a platform for enabling plans to ramp up delivery of more business education at a distance. They attended trade shows, visited peer institutions, and got reference accounts from vendors to learn everything they could about solutions on the market. “It’s rare for the IT director to be so involved all through the process, but in this case, it helped ensure success,” said Schroth. The team that facilitated the planning and budgeting process also included Ernie MacQuiddy, assistant to the dean for Budgets and Financial Management.

Four key areas needed to be addressed to achieve successful integration of the new technology:

  • The process started with input from a wide array of constituents: faculty, students, staff, administration, consultants, and a whole host of University personnel and departments. “Funneling the input into a manageable scope, with proper priorities and competing interests is extremely challenging. Communication is critical in this process to build consensus and keep constituents engaged. After the bids are accepted, there are always ongoing changes, and again communication is key and hard to do with pressing timelines. It was a challenge to maintain priorities through this process. A champion like Ajay helped,” said Schroth.

  • Next, for any complex project with no baseline of experience, prototyping, modeling, and demoing equipment were absolutely critical. “We built out a classroom and ran it through its paces in front of our constituents for two semesters. That way we knew if something failed.” Also, with 12- to 16-month technology life cycles, the team knew that a lot of emerging solutions might surface during the planning period. The modeling stage provided the lead-time to experiment, solve problems, and find balance between cost and capabilities.

“The podium changed… the projector, screens, lighting… All the variables had some impact,” said Schroth. “In any technology project, you only go to production once, so you have to get it right.”

  • Next, the limited IT staff was spread thin. It had to maintain existing services, spend time prototyping and making modifications, and work on new projects as needed.

  • Finally, the actual integration was not a simple task. “We had a large number of vendors responsible for components, so the big challenge was how to plug them all in together. There was a lot of opportunity for finger pointing at this level. Fortunately, we had a high level of cooperation amongst the integrators and subcontractors. We really looked at the relationships when choosing partners. For example, Magenta Research flew out its chief scientist two times to address our concerns. We chose them based on their commitment because all of our A/V rides on that Magenta switch down there,” said Schroth, who explained that the College also has a backup plan if there is a problem.

Besides Magenta Research and Dohn Construction, other key partners played critical roles in integrating all the technology solutions. Linx was the primary integrator; Rimrock was the original technology designer; Colorado vNet provided automatic room setting controls; Hewlett-Packard provided a generous hardware donation; MediaSite provided recording equipment; and Davis Partnership Architects took input about physical spaces and technology and gelled it together, bringing it into focus.

“You have to have to operate on a little bit of faith to get on the other side of a project like this. Since so much happens in the last 10 percent, you really have to hold your breath if you are on the technology side of things,” Schroth said.

Mary Zenzen works in the Office of Communications for the College of Business, Colorado State University. She can be reached at 970/491-3528 or via e-mail at Mary.Zenzen@coloradostate.edu.

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