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Using Technology Dollars Wisely

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Key Takeaways

  • With technology costs a growing part of campus budgets, how can campus leaders know they are spending wisely on technology?
  • To avoid overstaffing to meet peak times, IT leaders can bring on outside technologists during service and upgrades to core software that would otherwise force core IT staff to neglect everyday tasks to handle.
  • In addition to the added flexibility, outside technologists bring a new perspective and expertise that can energize IT staff on campus.

Leaders of colleges and universities face major budget decisions daily, with technology costs representing an increasingly larger part of campus budgets. How can administrators be sure that they are spending wisely on technology, avoiding over-spending and getting the best return on their investments?

Managing Highs and Lows in IT

IT workloads have peak times and slow times. Peak times occur during upgrades, patches, major system problems, or installation of new products. Often campuses can hire enough permanent employees to handle peak times, but this can mean having more staff than needed during slower times. No manager likes the budget consequences involved.

As the CIO of a small university, I found (as have those in many other organizations) that a more cost-effective system was to maintain a core IT staff in all areas of IT service and support, but to keep this permanent staff at a level just high enough to handle everyday demands smoothly. At times when IT needed additional help, I turned to outside agencies to provide expert assistance, ranging from several weeks to handle short surges in demand to a couple of months for new installations or major system adjustments. In this way, I could add additional expertise as needed while avoiding hiring employees not needed for day-to-day activities.

IT Service Providers

Cutbacks in higher education have led entrepreneurial and experienced individuals to start independent IT support and service businesses. As a result many companies have the talent and skills available to supplement IT staff levels. Most work hard to develop and maintain a reputation for quality, and they understand the value of a good long-term relationship that stems from dependable and timely service with reasonable pricing.

Smaller firms are frequently more willing to scale up or down to meet client needs and timelines and, in my experience, can keep the same technician on the job for the duration of the contract. Often with larger firms a different technician may be sent in the midst of the task to better serve the company's needs rather than those of the campus.

Benefits to Outside Expertise

I found other benefits from adding short-term outside technologists. First, these outside contractors had developed broad perspectives, based on their wide experience at many different institutions. They also helped me identify potential problem areas within our IT system and formulate tough questions that we weren't always asking internally. For example, those with an outside perspective might point out that these questions need to be asked:

  • Is the right level of innovation being achieved?
  • Is the ERP used effectively?
  • Are all users trained appropriately so that they understand and can operate their part of the ERP effectively?
  • Are all the bought-and-paid-for features of the ERP being used?
  • Are business or IT processes smooth, so maximum efficiency is reached?
  • Are current practices still the best practices?

Fomenting Efficiency

In many institutions, various departments exist in their own silos, with little communication between them. Supplemental staff can bridge the gaps between the departments and ensure that common users of technology have common goals, employ common practices, and use IT resources in the most cost-efficient manner.

Moreover, employees often retain old, "comfortable" practices, which can result in expensive duplication of effort at the institutional level. One common practice is maintaining information in separate files outside the central system. This practice not only requires extra work in entering data but also can result in a higher error rate. I like to use this simple example because it's most likely a symptom of larger problems, specifically distrust of the software, in which the institution is heavily invested. This distrust leads to duplication of effort, confusion about which data is actually the source material, and often unnecessary work, requiring additional staff. Instead of achieving more with less, which we're all asked to do in these critical financial times, we can end up doing less for more. An outsider's perspective can be invaluable in examining business processes and making recommendations that the community may accept more easily because they come from outside.

Then there are the new department heads or new employees who perceive inadequacies or frustration with the software. An outsider who understands the business process and the various software packages can help the new employee translate his or her old skills to the new environment. More times than not, I have seen institutions invest millions of dollars in new software initiatives yet see little or no return on investment, leaving the staff to wonder why they were put through such a difficult transition. At one campus, the advancement office VP was constantly told by his staff that his current ERP couldn't produce what they needed to accomplish their goals. They pushed for a third-party product that they had used at previous institutions. A technology firm hired to review the situation discovered that the software they already owned could deliver the results they wanted. The firm then provided the needed training, and the problem was resolved at a fraction of the cost of a new software purchase and implementation.

Energizing IT

Temporary staff members who bring a high level of expertise can ensure that the in-house workforce is up to speed in skills. Their fresh ideas and knowledge of best practices can energize a staff. One example that comes to mind was our need to collect students' local addresses. IT and temporary staff working on that task came up with a new idea that led to streamlining of the online registration system. The end result was that the time and frustration students experienced during registration plummeted — a great outcome. I'm convinced this would not have happened so quickly if the IT staff had not had the insight provided by an outsider, forcing us to lift our focus from the tasks of daily operation to a new way of solving a problem.

Yet every campus needs a core IT staff who are aware of the latest technologies but also understand and appreciate the local culture and unique aspects of their institution. The local IT personnel know who to listen to and how to respond appropriately.

Setting Budgets

To develop budgets to accommodate outside staffing, begin by scheduling service and upgrades to core software. Over time, you can estimate the level of budget dollars expended on consultants and temporary staff. The institution saves significant dollars in salaries and fringe benefits while reducing IT staff downtime and taking advantage of increased flexibility. The core IT staff maintains control of IT on campus and continues to enjoy support and confidence from the user community.

What's the expenditure your senior management would most like to see? One that results in increased efficiency and probable long-term saving? Adding IT supplemental staff can do this. My school was able to keep pace with the demands of the campus community and keep up with the competition. This is significant when you consider our institutional spending on IT was just below 3 percent of the overall budget, where the range of IT spending nationally is probably around 5 percent. Keeping my IT staff cost low through supplemental staffing played a big part in these short- and long-term savings.

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