Redundant Technology: Which One Do I Use?

min read

Key Takeaways

  • Decentralized systems at Cal Poly Pomona resulted in multiple versions of technology, rather like having three different blenders in a kitchen — did they really need them all?
  • A focus on a student-centered academic and administrative approach across campus led to reimagining technology provision and reducing system redundancy and costs.
  • A major part of initiating this change across campus meant acknowledging emotional attachments to technology and familiar processes and building support for the change.

A colleague recently admitted to owning three different kitchen blenders, each with a specific role. For example, the stick blender handles small jobs. The bullet blender is the choice for smoothies. The multipurpose flexible blender tackles most jobs — except when it's easier to use the stick or bullet blenders. This arrangement works for my colleague, who has ample kitchen cabinet space to store these blenders. But what if there weren't enough space? What if the three blenders came with ongoing maintenance costs and required regular upgrades?

As a CIO, I find the blender example a fitting comparison to IT systems and my technology stack. Of course, my colleague does not pay major maintenance costs for these blenders like we do for IT systems. If monthly or annual maintenance fees, upgrades, integration, and training were required, this would create a sense of urgency and a need for more "one-size-fits-all" solutions — like the large, multipurpose blender that handles everything.

Campuses across the country have multiple major IT systems in place, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, student information systems (SISs), enterprise content management (ECM) solutions, and learning management systems (LMSs). Many of these systems have overlapping actions, offering similar functionality such as imaging and workflow. Which system is optimal? Is one easier to maintain and upgrade? Will one system help staff members and students save time? Do you allow each office to decide which tools to use for the job?

A Tech Revolution

Cal Poly Pomona — one of 23 campuses in the California State University system — is one of two polytechnic universities in the state. The university is known for its learn-by-doing philosophy, and education takes place both within and beyond the classroom: students tackle real-world challenges, giving them an advantage as career-ready graduates. The university offers more than 60 majors and degree programs in eight academic colleges and enrolls over 22,000 undergraduate students and 1,500 graduate students. The division of Information Technology has approximately 125 employees, with another 35 IT employees working outside the division.

Cal Poly Pomona welcomed Soraya M. Coley as the new president at the start of 2015. President Coley, a student-centered professional, wanted our institution to reflect those values. As I thought about how our IT systems were designed, I realized that we needed to enhance the student experience as it relates to technology.

The Information Technology Division is working toward what we call complete "flow-through." This means that our students will get the best possible service because they can access the information they need and resolve issues without unnecessarily engaging administrative offices. This evolving self-service model is forcing us to rethink how we engage with students and is a major force in driving powerful change across the campus IT systems.

Students should be able to electronically find or search for the service they need. They shouldn't have to think about which system to use or drive across town for face-to-face support.

To reach our online and mobile self-service goals, we need to decide which IT systems provide the right core capabilities. We evaluate how students engage with us, and we want to create a more unified online experience for them across campus, not just within departments.

Consolidating Systems

Creating a more unified online experience required a consolidation of sorts that had already begun. Three years ago, Cal Poly Pomona started centralizing much of the administrative computing environment. Similar to making better decisions about hardware purchases, we started making more strategic decisions on the purchase of our software systems. This shift helped us be more conscientious and strategic about our technology procurements.

Moving forward, I'm focused on a few important functions in our major systems. I want systems that are also used in industries outside of higher education because I want to ensure that staff have the opportunity to learn how other industries have solved similar challenges. They should be flexible, configurable, and capable of meeting a wide variety of needs across campus. Instead of using many departmentally specific systems, we are deploying more comprehensive solutions that solve a variety of problems.

As the number of vendors and IT systems on campus shrinks, so do our maintenance costs, IT staffing requirements, integration demands, and training expenses. As we move toward more centralized systems, the central IT organization supports the costs of these licenses. The initial license cost savings are expected to be in the tens of thousands, with the largest savings anticipated from eliminating the need to purchase future systems that could cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, not including support costs. For example, rather than purchasing a one-stop-shop solution for our enrollment services group for tracking end-user support, the group adopted ServiceNow, already in use by other groups across the university. Similarly, a few years ago each division operated their own imaging solution; today the campus uses Hyland's imaging solution.

This not only simplifies the financial aspect of technology, it makes things easier for our staff members and students. In other words, we are making careful, calculated decisions about where and when we need to use the stick and bullet blenders vs. the multipurpose blender.

Working with a smaller number of vendors that we refer to as strategic partners, we can turn our attention to how these systems could help us provide the highest level of service to our students. For example, three systems help us reach these goals with a new "center of functionality" defined:

  • PeopleSoft: transactions and storage of student data
  • OnBase: document management and workflow
  • ServiceNow: service support

As we continue this journey, these systems will enable us to create a more complete single sign-on student online experience across all departments and provide better student service by ensuring that appropriate administrative personnel have access to relevant student information.

The Year of Execution

As mentioned, 2015 was our year of redefining the student online experience. However, changing that experience doesn’t come easily. One of the largest obstacles we had to overcome during the transition was emotional attachment. Technology spans every part of campus, so when we work with an office and talk about how things might change, we examine how people do their jobs on a daily basis. We engaged many staff members to help with transitional activities, including ongoing one-on-one training for ServiceNow and OnBase.

The first step in driving this ongoing evolution was to realize that we sometimes have an emotional attachment to our habits and routines — and even to our systems — and understand that we can make strides to provide better service for our students. Tying back to President Coley's direction and with extensive conversations to focus on the student online experience, the staff accepted our strategy and the benefit of that approach.

Although we haven't realized an immediate change in IT performance and productivity, I've seen a renewed excitement among the IT staff. Instead of expecting immediate productivity increases, we anticipate reaping future benefits as we continue to look toward the number of (decentralized) systems that would otherwise be required, along with the total resources available. To that end, distributed independent systems are much more expensive and ineffective when compared to our centralized model.

With this in mind, my responsibilities have shifted, and I devote much of my time on understanding and leading the enhancement of the online experience. Now, it's critically important to show my colleagues how we can use our new IT approach to better serve the student population. Students are our focus, and technology is our tool. With the right systems and approach, we can accomplish our goals and provide the best experience for students, faculty, and staff.

If you're like us at Cal Poly Pomona, you don't have room or budget for three blenders. Sometimes less is more. Through strategic evaluation of systems and appropriate governance, with our focus on the student experience, we will be able to elevate our service and meet our institutional goals of increasing student success and operational efficiency.

John McGuthry is vice president for Information Technology and CIO at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

© 2016 John McGuthry.