Rethinking Governance in a Centralized IT Organization

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Key Takeaways

  • An outside assessment found high-level strategic oversight of IT in the Colorado Community College System (CCCS), but also that most of the actual IT work was carried out at lower organizational levels with little oversight or assessment of project merits.

  • To address this, CCCS-IT implemented a lower-level representative governance committee to review projects across the enterprise and assess them for factors such as strategic alignment, impact, and risk.

  • Although establishing this committee posed considerable challenges, the benefits have been worth it in terms of creating community and transparency throughout the process and ensuring that the projects implemented have both support and merit.

Many states have college and university systems that centralize IT at a high level and rely on input from various constituencies to recommend and prioritize projects. The problem with this approach is that projects are often pushed through or neglected based largely on their advocates' power, personality, and passion (or lack thereof). It is also difficult to create transparency in such a system. As a result, stakeholders often don't know about projects, let alone why they matter.

We faced some of these IT challenges in the Colorado Community College System (CCCS). As the state's largest higher education system, CCCS serves more than 137,000 students at 13 community colleges on 39 campuses. The colleges range in size from Lamar Community College in rural southeastern Colorado, which serves approximately 1,600 students annually, to Front Range Community College, which has three metro-area campuses and serves more than 27,000 students a year.

In this highly centralized system, governance is critical as decisions can have far-reaching implications. Our IT governance process must represent all 13 of our colleges, as well as key functional areas such as student services, financial aid, finance, and HR/payroll. We also need committee members who are willing to take a broad enterprise perspective across all functional areas.

CCCS-IT supports enterprise systems at all 13 colleges and sets the high-level strategy for IT, making recommendations to all the college presidents and the State Board of Community Colleges and Occupational Education (SBCCOE) as appropriate. Our IT strategy has long been governed by the ERP Executive Steering Committee (EESC), which consists of the system president, four college presidents, and the system's executive staff: the chief financial officer; chief legal counsel; provost/VP of academic affairs; VP of organizational effectiveness, student affairs, and strategic initiatives; and me, chief information officer and VP of IT.

Several years ago, SBCCOE requested an IT assessment that covered IT governance, decision making, and all IT areas — from security, change management, policies, and procedures to staffing and training. The goal was to ensure a robust and stable IT environment that was focused on organization strategy, needs, and best practices. The results led to a radical change in how we govern IT across the CCCS system.

IT at CCCS: Before the Assessment

Among the enterprise systems that CCCS-IT supports at our 13 colleges are Microsoft Exchange, a wide area network, Cisco Universal Messaging, EAB's Student Success Collaborative, and the Ellucian Banner [] modules of student, financial aid, finance, and human resources and payroll, along with other Ellucian products such as Recruit, Degree Works, Luminis, and the Banner Operational Data Store and Enterprise Data Warehouse.

Our previous governance structure rested on various functional groups with representatives from the 13 colleges. These groups requested projects, modifications, and enhancements through their system-level representatives, who then sent the requests to CCCS-IT. The functional groups included registrars, controllers, HR directors, financial aid directors, business officers, VPs of instruction, and VPs of student services. Other groups, including advisors, admissions/recruiting, and disability services, had little or no voice in IT projects.

This functional-group approach resulted in siloed projects and projects that sat on "to-do" lists only to be frequently pushed off due to statutory requirements, ongoing maintenance, and other competing priorities for limited IT services. Further, many projects suffered from incomplete specifications and deliverables, lacked broad stakeholder involvement, and, given the silo approach, often had unintended consequences for other functional areas.

A New IT Governance Approach

At SBCCOE's request, we hired an outside company to conduct an IT assessment, which included a review of our IT governance. The assessment lauded our high-level strategic oversight of IT, but correctly noted that 80 percent of CCCS-IT's work was requested, prioritized, and implemented at lower organizational levels, with very little strategic oversight or enterprise assessment.

The assessment team recommended that we implement a lower-level, representative governance committee that would review projects across CCCS and assess them for strategic alignment, impact, risk, and other factors. To achieve this, we formed a new governance committee.

The VP IT Governance Committee

Unlike other attempts at lower-level governance, system representation in the VP IT Governance Committee is minimal, as is IT representation. Committee members are mostly VPs from various metro and rural colleges, but to ensure that the committee functions smoothly, not all colleges are represented.

Committee members are nominated by their college presidents; the current committee consists of three business officers; three VPs of student services (one of whom was previously a college business officer and a VP of instruction); a VP of instruction; and an HR director. Further, three CCCS-IT staff members — the director of business technology, a senior project manager/business analyst, and me — staff the committee, but do not vote.

At the beginning of the committee's inception, our CCCS-IT staff provided a rough draft of our review and decision-making process, charter, and project request form. After several meetings, the committee refined the process and added several significant steps.

Request and Review Process Changes

Our new request process focuses on gathering detailed information. The requestor must explain the project; success measures; planned outcomes; alignment with the strategic plan; estimates of the impact on students, faculty, and/or staff; and whether the project implements a best practice and (if so) the nature of that best practice. Further, each project request must be approved and sponsored by a VP at a college or at the system office.

The most significant process change, however, was to modify our review process so that committee members — rather than IT staffers — take projects to various stakeholder groups for input and discussion. This has created a far more inclusive process that gives each project and its requirements a significant review prior to submission for approval.

It has also resulted in far more shared knowledge regarding the true impact of projects and has fostered considerable transparency regarding IT projects. It is amazing and wonderful to see non-IT staff discussing a project's details and merits, becoming aware of the amount of work a project can require, and engaging in cross-functional discussions on priority and strategic need.

Further, project requestors are invited to present their projects to the committee and answer questions; they can do this in person or via WebEx or a conference call. This step is important to ensure an open and clear review process.

Committee Decision Making

The committee usually responds to requests in one of several ways. It might send the project back for further details if needed. Or, it might put the project on the agenda for presentation to and discussion by various VP groups (business officers, student services, or instruction) or functional groups (such as registrars or controllers).

Occasionally, the committee will immediately disapprove a project because it is not strategic, represents too small a benefit or population, or conflicts with other strategies or projects. Most often, however, the committee takes projects out into the community for input from numerous stakeholder groups.

Even when projects fall into the "mandatory" category — such as those related to financial aid regulations — the committee still takes them out for broader discussion because the changes often impact the business process, enrollment, or other areas. For example, CCCS's Course to Program of Study project evaluates a student's course load and ensures that all courses apply to the degree program and thus are eligible for financial aid. This is important because if students take a course that doesn't apply to their degree, they could lose part of their financial aid. Although clearly financial-aid focused, the project has broader implications as well; it thus required a review of program requirements and business process development to support it. We also sent it to the EESC for input.

Following each governance committee meeting, the project requestor receives a detailed e-mail outlining the action the committee took and whether any follow up is required. Minutes are taken at each meeting, and, in advance of each meeting, we send out the agenda and all associated projects that are up for review or presenting updates.

Benefits, Challenges, and Project Highlights

The end results of this process have been amazing. Yes, there is still more work for CCCS-IT to complete, and yes (as I describe below), prioritization is still a struggle, but our benefits far outweigh all such issues.

Benefits: IT and Beyond

Overall, our IT projects today are far more thoughtful, strategic, and seriously vetted before IT even begins to work on them. Business requirements are more clearly defined, and the right stakeholders sit at the table. CCCS-IT has had far fewer projects requiring either midstream adjustments or changes after completion than ever before.

IT no longer handles outward communication about projects; that is the job of committee VPs. This has been a huge change and a great improvement, especially in terms of engaging stakeholders. These VPs facilitate discussion, take note of the issues, and evaluate the responses and inputs. Further, IT no longer has to justify projects, as this is now the job of the stakeholders and requestors themselves.

The committee meets each month for three hours, with food provided through our IT budget. And yes, the discussions can be quite interesting! We also now publish an Active Project list that provides monthly updates of all active CCCS-IT projects. The list goes out to approximately 500 people, who often share it with their colleagues.

Ongoing Challenge: Prioritization

As I noted, the governance committee continues to work on prioritization. We have found that meeting and reviewing projects every month makes prioritizing projects difficult. Starting this fiscal year, the committee will continue to review projects monthly — primarily to enable follow-up, to gather additional information, and to solicit input. However, projects will be approved and prioritized quarterly.

This change might slow the approval process, but proper prioritization will help us better manage the multitude of projects. Also, projects already in progress will not be stopped, except under extreme circumstances, because stopping and restarting IT projects can be expensive and time consuming.

We moved to a quarterly approval process to address several concerns:

  • The monthly review created issues with the quantity of project requests vs. available IT resources and promoted unrealistic expectations and assumptions.
  • The existing project-intake process exceeded our ability to initiate, plan, implement, and complete projects.
  • The governance committee had to rush its review of the monthly project requests.
  • The monthly cycle made it difficult to estimate the resources required for successful project implementation.
  • Submission of project requests just prior to the governance committee meetings did not allow sufficient time for review.

As a result of these issues, the committee had a difficult time prioritizing projects in accordance with CCCS strategic initiatives. The quarterly approval system will address many of these constraints.

Project Highlights

Highlights of our two-year committee process development are as follows:

  • Established a formalized project review process
    • FY16: reviewed 19 of 64 total projects brought to CCCS-IT (30 percent)
    • FY17: reviewed 44 of 77 total projects brought to CCCS-IT (57 percent)
    • FY18: reviewed 14 of 15 total projects brought to CCCS-IT as of September 2017 (93 percent)
  • Completely reworked the project request form
  • Established a communication process related to project review
  • Established a stakeholder-input process as part of the project review
  • Established a project-prioritization process
  • Supported further development of the CCCS-IT project management office by serving as a sounding board in two areas:
    • Project charter reviews
    • Process and documentation reviews
  • Promoted and supported development of quality project requests
  • Supported in-progress projects upon request

Reflections and Next Steps

Although establishing the VP IT Governance Committee required our CCCS-IT team to "let go" of the IT decision-making process and take a leap of faith that the review and approval process would work, the benefits to CCCS-IT have been significant.

For example, some projects that previously would have been completed solely because of the "force of will" of the requesting individual have been rejected because they lacked sufficient merit. Also, several worthy projects that would have never been introduced before have been requested and approved, promising significant benefits for students.

The VP IT Governance Committee members have earned the respect and gratitude of their peers for the amount of time, effort, and fairness they bring to the project review process and for the inclusive communication that occurs about projects. We rarely hear what used to be a somewhat common refrain: Why is IT doing this project?

We are now making the rounds again, meeting with all CCCS functional groups to review the IT governance process, discuss the new project-prioritization process, and solicit input on the governance and project-communication processes. Transparency and collaborative decision making is hard, but well worth it.

Julie Ouska is CIO and vice president of IT for the Colorado Community College System.

© 2017 Julie Ouska. The text of this article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0.