Insourcing: Campus Geeks Unite!

min read

Key Takeaways

  • The Office of Information Technology and the Libraries at CU–Boulder partnered to insource a solution to a campus-wide need for a streaming service.
  • We identified common goals and needs that support our campus mission and leveraged existing collaborative relationships between central and local IT departments to move the project forward.
  • By applying the peace child concept — sharing a project manager — we not only addressed specific resource needs but also strengthened trust and cultural understanding between our organizations.

We've all been there: too many projects, not enough time. IT departments and libraries frequently have limited resources to effectively address faculty needs, for example. Both organizations face new and effective technologies that demand immediate implementation, and all too often both encounter stalled projects all around. We don't necessarily want to hire permanent staff to get these projects moving — and often we don't have the staff to do so without more help — so we consider outsourcing some of our project work. We hire contract workers and consultants, and sometimes students. We go to the cloud or even abroad to get a service up and running. Those options take time and resources, though, especially because we need to — or should — acquaint our contractors and others with the mission of postsecondary education and the specific business needs and culture of our campus.

So what do IT and libraries do when we need to get a project out the door or a new service started? Especially when our resources are stretched so thin that we don't even have the bandwidth to hire and work with a contractor to move things along? Instead of outsourcing, insource.

Partnering to Make Progress

At the University of Colorado Boulder, the Office of Information Technology (OIT) finally admitted that it wasn't the only game in town. Campus IT partners indicated they were willing and ready to join in getting a central streaming service out to campus. At the same time, the CU–Boulder Libraries were trying to scale a streaming pilot project to meet both projected audiovisual course reserve needs and nonacademic streaming needs across campus. Together, the two units took a logical approach to moving this project along: instead of outsourcing, we decided to insource.

Insourcing might not be a viable solution for every campus, of course. CU–Boulder features a mix of central and local IT resources, all valuable assets. Relationships between central and local IT departments were growing at the time the streaming project was taking shape. The partnership between OIT and the Libraries in particular was getting stronger, and both units were open to opportunities for collaboration.

Geeks Like Us: Libraries and IT Find Common Ground

Beyond the specific nature of the project, there were other compelling reasons for the Libraries and OIT to engage in this partnership. Every unit on a campus, particularly any IT unit, is somewhat dependent on the central IT unit for core services and support. In the past few years at CU–Boulder, we've seen a marked change in the relationship between the Libraries and OIT. Beginning with director-level discussions and the incremental transfer of support of public terminals from Libraries IT to OIT, the two units began to see how much they had in common — how many goals and needs they shared. As an information commons was planned and implemented in the main library facility, the two organizations began a joint undertaking to support the use of that space in a way that necessitated ongoing meetings. These meetings led to a greater shared understanding and paved the way for deeper collaborations. They also emphasized roles and responsibilities and illustrated how the campus's teaching and learning mission played out in the commons.

Jump-Starting a Stalled Project

This streaming project, vital to CU–Boulder's academic mission, was stalled, despite the fact that campus funding for acquiring a rich media streaming service had been allocated. The roadblock actually helped bring the two stakeholders closer together, as both the Libraries and OIT shared a strong interest in the project gaining and keeping momentum. The Libraries in particular were eager to identify a third-party provider for a rich media streaming service, for the following reasons:

  • The Libraries had traditionally been the gatekeeper and provider of services for making audiovisual materials available for instruction (i.e., for course reserves).
  • Because its media lab was undertaking the campus's largest conversion of legacy analog audiovisual materials into digital formats, the Libraries wanted to ensure their own organization was fully represented as a stakeholder in the selection process of a campus-wide streaming service vendor.
  • In the spirit of a robust, decentralized campus IT community, the Libraries had launched a pilot project to enable the streaming of video (and potentially audio) content for course reserves. During this process, they had identified many dimensions along which this pilot project would not easily scale to encompass all projected course reserve streaming needs, much less other projected campus needs.
  • The Libraries, and especially the music library, had participated in a second pilot project using iTunes U as a platform for the provision of audio course reserves. With the limitations of that service (especially around authentication based on course enrollment), a new platform was needed to adhere to fair use requirements.

Because campus needs for streaming services — primarily for outreach — were also pressing, the Libraries were ready for OIT to take the lead on providing a streaming tool for all to use.

Applying the Peace Child Concept

As the groups worked together more closely and frequently, they saw firsthand how they differently and collectively supported the campus's mission and began to better understand each other's culture. During one of the frequent conversations, an interesting idea surfaced: one way to see the other organization's perspective — to understand and successfully navigate its culture — would be to share a staff member for a period of time. Akin to the peace child concept, in which a tribal leader's child is raised by an opposing tribe to reduce or eliminate motivation for aggression and create a future de facto ambassador, the staff member who had spent time in the other organization would develop both compassion for and intuition regarding the "other side," to say nothing of an appreciation for why "they" always take so long to get anything done.

Buoying these conceptual arguments were more tangible phenomena that suggested the time might be right for testing the peace child idea. The project management team in OIT had just undergone a transition to a new manager who had no particular allegiance either to "old" or "new" project managers. Additionally, OIT had begun a trend of deputizing its own staff from elsewhere within its organization to act as part-time project managers. This structure, which allowed for and encouraged part-time project managers who were often from outside the project management office (and continued to report to their "regular" supervisors), was ripe for exploitation. It included support mechanisms for bringing deputies up to speed on project management practices and software (TeamDynamix).

As Libraries and OIT staff were lamenting the lack of a project manager for the campus-wide streaming project and therefore the lack of progress on it, a light switched on, illuminating a clear path toward project success. Libraries had a PM, and OIT needed one. Why not share this resource? And so, OIT deputized a Libraries PM who spent six months funded partially by OIT and partially by the Libraries, to jump-start the streaming project. We dutifully signed a memorandum of understanding, arranged financial transactions (the funding was used by the Libraries to hire additional temporary staff to cover their "missing" person), and introduced the Libraries PM to the new OIT PM director. Within a reasonably short time (six months), we had campus (and procurement service center) consensus on a new streaming platform (Kaltura). By that time, OIT had PM resources available (because other projects had reached completion) to move the service into implementation, and the Libraries PM returned to full-time in the Libraries, albeit with a new appreciation for how OIT handles project management.

Making It Work on Your Campus

What worked for us? Engaging in frequent conversations and collaborations that underscored shared goals and mission was an effective strategy — and keeping open minds. Choose co-leads, one from each unit, who hold each other accountable for conducting effective meetings (ones with goals, agendas, and action times) and start those meetings by stating and re-stating shared objectives.

If you're interested in seeing if the peace child concept could work on your campus, first look around. What other departments have roles (like a project manager) similar to what you need to get your technology project off the ground? Do those departments want to implement technology solutions similar to the ones you want? Invite anyone you can think of to a kick-off meeting to explore business needs — use sticky notes, small group work, whatever it takes to begin the process of articulating a shared vision for solving a shared challenge. Co-leads can move the process forward between the first two meetings, with peer or local research; once you establish some momentum, begin discussions about insourcing to keep the ball rolling.

Your campus is filled with hard-working, well-intentioned people. It just might be that cultivating trust and mutual understanding more deeply and more intentionally across organizations is the key to resolving challenges with successful solutions.