Framing Questions

Sunsetting IT Services

“Something unpleasant is coming when men are anxious to tell the truth.” — Benjamin Disraeli

This piece offers a simple, if painful, message: Developing an approach to sunsetting IT services has become necessary due to the current economic climate on all our campuses. This column makes the argument for why this is true and offers some suggestions on how to implement the approach.

In the presence of unpleasant change imposed externally, one’s first thoughts are on how to preserve the best of what is currently being done:

  • How do we keep the IT staff from becoming overwhelmed?
  • How do we maintain the spirits of the most innovative and courageous users, who might otherwise become disheartened?
  • How can we continue to provide the greatest good for the greatest number, even if the scale and scope of operation must shrink?

With many campuses around the country facing massive revenue shortfalls and some already implementing a furlough policy, a layoff policy, or a workforce-reduction-through-attrition policy — and with us all watching each other, hoping that somebody else will figure out how to do this well before we make more of a mess of things — the desire to cling to what we do well is strong indeed. This is true for all activities on campus and for all providers of campus services. It will be very hard, perhaps impossible, to prioritize among the areas that should be cut less than the rest. Almost certainly, IT services will take their fair share of the cuts, and maybe more.

One might try a moderate approach, keeping all the items on the menu but switching from table service to cafeteria-style offerings. Unfortunately, the restaurant metaphor goes only so far. With IT services on campus, users have a role in defining the service offering. Moreover, users who are quite conscious of the impact of budgets cuts in their own areas will nonetheless be oblivious to the effects on IT services if they don’t have to put two and two together. They will go to their providers and ask for accommodations on service delivery, IT staff will get overwhelmed with such requests, and staff will wear down. (This is already happening.) Staff productivity will decline as a consequence, and they will wonder, where is the IT leadership? Why isn’t the downturn in revenues being managed better? They will be right in asking these questions.

The case for sunsetting IT services is clear — it is a way to protect the staff who are retained from being overwhelmed by the demands of the user community. And it is a way to alert the user community that they need to reduce their expectations of service delivery in the face of budget cuts. The message that services will be sunset and eventually brought to a close is hard to deliver and might not be well received. It is not a message users will want to hear. They may very well respond angrily. Nonetheless, the choice to sunset services is better than the alternative in the current environment. It is the lesser of evils.

Since there is still much uncertainty about funding levels, it is reasonable to expect a sequence of service sunset announcements rather than having all the announcements up front, with the long-run service levels attained after one round of service retirements. Rather, one can envision periodic announcements of additional services to sunset, to match current staffing levels and any news about further budget cuts. Anticipating such a sequence, it is imperative to establish a process that is orderly and fair as the first order of business.

IT service providers should avoid unilaterally making service sunset decisions, if at all possible. It would be much preferable to have a committee with faculty, staff, and student representation (the usual suspects on IT committees). In addition, the group should include representation from IT staff and IT management (somewhat unusual), who can speak directly to the need for service cuts and insist that the committee get on with its work and not delay.

Two policy issues are likely to occupy this committee before specific service sunset decisions are made:

  1. The first regards the period from the sunset announcement to the service retirement. This period needs to balance the reduction in staff support with the users’ legitimate need to find an alternative service and migrate to that or to opt to discontinue use of that function because no alternative can be found. Users who experience a sequence of IT service cuts will learn how to adjust based on prior migration experience. As a consequence there is a real benefit in keeping the rules as similar as possible from one service sunset announcement to the next. However, this is not the only consideration. More severe staff reductions necessitated by more drastic budget cuts will require shortening the adjustment period to get the resulting menu of service offerings in line with staffing. The committee will need to balance these considerations.
  2. The other policy issue concerns the selection of services to sunset. The committee needs to develop a list of criteria for service selection and then dutifully appeal to the list when choosing particular services to sunset. A set of reasonable criteria might include determining:
    • The set of substitute services available to the user, either from among the list of retained services or by the user opting to outsource on his own
    • Which services will be hard to support given the loss of certain skill sets from recent staff reductions
    • The importance vis-à-vis campus priorities of the function the service enables
    • Whether the service cut in conjunction with other IT service cuts is born disproportionately by a narrow slice of the community or if the burden is broadly shared
    • Whether the set of services chosen for sunsetting have staffing requirements that match the loss in staffing necessitated by budget cuts

Armed with the resolution of these policy issues, the committee can then proceed to service selection. Note that the committee has some specific information requirements. It needs reasonably accurate cost-of-service information, usage data, and analysis of available substitutes. This information needs to be presented to the committee in a way that they can understand, recognizing that they are a diverse group and not necessarily IT experts. Assuming that the responsibility for providing this information rests with the CIO, this inventory of IT services becomes crucial, and filling that need becomes an important function of the CIO office.

The CIO’s office also needs to evaluate the transition to substitute services. What fraction of the user base successfully migrated? How hard was it for them to migrate? What would make a similar migration easier in the future? The committee needs this evaluation information because it directly informs the policy that guides the committee’s function.

The traditional metrics for measuring how well IT is performing and aligned with campus mission might have to modified or abandoned entirely. Subsidy-consuming activities across campus will have to shrink to bring budgets back into balance. If those units are consumers of particular IT services, their “votes” will invariably be weighted less in valuing the importance of those services. Conversely, if there is a way for net-revenue-generating units to expand, obviously the institution will look to promote the growth of such units. Hence the IT needs of these units will get disproportional weight in valuing IT services. We are not used to discriminating across our user base in this manner when thinking about what we do — it cuts against long-standing values held on campus. Yet the new realities might necessitate this change in perspective.

Consequently, our business practices might change along with the service cuts, where less of IT is funded off the top and more via cost recovery — a switch in approach that more or less guarantees that if further institutional shrinkage occurs, IT will shrink along with the rest. This shift will also help enable the net-revenue-generating units to get the IT they need. Seeing where this emerging trend is headed, some might want to resist taking the first steps down that path. That would be a mistake, however. IT leaders can’t allow their retained staff to get overrun until they figure out what is the right new approach to supporting IT services. Something must be done now, and that something is to sunset some IT services. Our IT staff members are too valuable to delay that decision.