Communicating the Business Value of Enterprise IT

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Key Takeaways

  • How can IT leaders focus campus conversations on the business value of enterprise technology systems and services and help the institution understand the returns these expenditures will bring?

  • IT leaders from three campuses describe their communication efforts addressing this gap in understanding of enterprise systems.

  • For effective communication, IT must understand the needs of the community, communicate in ways that show an understanding of those needs, and demonstrate the value of IT as it relates to institutional mission and goals.

[This article is the first in a series that presents case studies related to the theme of integration and partnerships as reflected in enterprise IT:

  1. Communicating the Business Value of Enterprise IT
  2. Integrating Data and Systems to Support Next-Generation Enterprise IT
  3. Aligning Institutional Processes Through Business Process Redesign
  4. Supporting Analytics Through Data Integration and Governance

In this article, three institutions describe the challenges of communicating across the institution about the cost and value of enterprise IT.]

Campus leaders need to understand not only the cost of enterprise technology systems and services, but also the value they bring to the institution. The sometimes-startling cost of these expensive services can easily get in the way of an important conversation about the relationship between enterprise technology and the mission and goals of the institution. These difficult conversations are further complicated by the fact that defining the value of technology can feel more like an art than a science. How can IT leaders focus campus conversations on business value and help the institution understand the returns that these expenditures will bring? IT leaders describe their communication efforts in the three case studies that follow.

Allegheny College

Richard Holmgren, Vice President for Information Services and Assessment

Jason Ramsey, Associate Director of Information Technology Services

Allegheny College is a residential liberal arts college of about 2,000 students in Northwest Pennsylvania, and, like all of our peers, we continuously seek ways to gain an enrollment edge. In 2012, the college welcomed a new division leader for enrollment who immediately began promoting an admissions customer relationship management (CRM) system as a strategic priority. Unsurprisingly, the new leader's enthusiasm helped gain project approval from senior leadership and free up sufficient capacity in the admissions team to implement the CRM.

On the whole, we consider the resulting project a success. The admissions office and the larger college community generally agree the tool provides enough value to justify the investment. However, we have not realized all the gains and process improvements one might expect from a CRM, especially given the significant time and capital investment devoted to it. Undoubtedly, this is largely an artifact of a project driven by one key individual who is no longer associated with the college. Although this project has not ultimately hurt the community's assessment of the value of information technology (IT), it has not necessarily helped it, either. This experience and that gained from other recent projects have given us ample opportunity to reflect on what drives the community's perception of IT value.

Communicating the Value of IT Services

We learned early on not to confuse telling the community everything we think is great about IT with communicating the value of IT services. In our experience, most people do not want to hear about the victories and challenges of others — they want others to listen to their own troubles and triumphs. We will grow perceptions of value if we can provide reason and opportunities for our community to report how much they value our services, letting them do the telling while we listen. Doing so requires establishing a foundation of trust in IT as well as developing project criteria that guide the community to implement only those projects with the best chance of growing value.

To build trust, we must spend enough time listening to and observing our community to identify those IT services that are truly mission critical for our particular institution. This qualifying point is important. Whether an IT service is mission critical or perceived as valuable will depend at least as much on the local context as it will on the technology, even among similar institutions. For example, a best-of-breed advancement solution that is not fully embraced by the advancement office quickly becomes an expensive nuisance rather than an essential tool. Likewise, the value of data warehouse and business intelligence (BI) tools has been apparent to the IT community for some time, but if our institution's decision processes are driven by qualitative observation and anecdotes, a full-on BI effort will be perceived at best as an entertaining sideshow, at worst as a colossal waste of scarce resources. Most readers are no doubt familiar with other examples of great technologies that are viewed with disdain, not because they are poorly run and maintained by IT, but because they were never fully embraced, understood, and implemented by those they are supposed to serve. To gain trust, we must deliver services that are critical to our specific community in ways that meet community expectations while minimizing cost (time, money, and frustration).1 To avoid being judged by unreasonable or ill-informed expectations, we must also take the time to listen carefully to our community's frustrations and desires and provide ample opportunities for them to develop their own understanding of what is possible at what cost. Clear and honest answers to community questions are essential.

Once we have established a foundation of trust, we can help the community think carefully about which new services or service enhancements to pursue. Given the reality of many more great projects to implement than we could possibly support with existing resources, the critical task is identifying those one or two opportunities that will deliver the most value (as measured by the community) at a given time. Through hard-won experience, we have learned to look for three attributes when selecting projects:

  1. project goals aligned with institutional strategies or vision,
  2. enthusiasm for the project in all of the affected offices and at multiple levels, and
  3. sufficient capacity in IT and client offices to enact meaningful change and implement a new tool or process.

We encourage the community to take a pass on any project that lacks any one of these attributes.

A moment's reflection demonstrates the value of each criterion: We sometimes get departments that are enthusiastic and capable of implementing some new technology, but the project itself either will not return anything of value to the institution or will improve local efficiencies in the sponsoring office while adding burdens or uncompensated costs elsewhere. Pursuing such projects may make one office or one individual happy, but the rest of campus will see IT wasting resources on nonessential or counterproductive projects. Keeping such projects in check requires an effective formal or informal decision process in which all voices and viewpoints are heard and in which we trust the campus to make good decisions once fully informed. IT should actively support such decision processes, but in our roles as good listeners and communicators, we cannot be the sole arbiter.

In other cases, we have offices that, although enthusiastic about a project that will meet institutional goals, do not have the capacity to see the project through. Often these projects rise out of departments already drowning in work and seeking a technology miracle to save them. In this case, focusing the department's attention toward existing solutions, highlighting best practices, and identifying quick wins for key change advocates will build a department culture to support future larger initiatives and develop trust in IT as a valued partner.

The last category, those projects that align well with the institutional strategy and for which there is sufficient capacity but not adequate enthusiasm, includes the admissions CRM project described earlier. Enthusiasm now is limited to maintaining what was built during implementation, missing the opportunity to leverage the new tool for greater gains. Implementing any new technology and the associated processes requires immense investments of time and effort on the part of many people in many different roles. Absent widespread enthusiasm for the work and its benefits, it is difficult to sustain the effort required to reap additional gains when many staff already feel overwhelmed just keeping the day-to-day operations going.

This last category of project also represents an attractive trap for IT organizations, particularly when we identify a technology that clearly meets a strategic goal but for which the larger campus does not share the same assessment. The BI example mentioned earlier provides one such problematic scenario. Unless and until members of the broader campus generate their own enthusiasm for the project, no IT investment, however promising, will enhance the community's belief in the value of IT services. For that reason, we do not include identifying and implementing best-of-breed or cutting-edge technology as a criterion for delivering value: We have had more success growing community support by using existing but perhaps less current tools to help users solve problems now rather than asking them to wait for the newest and greatest technology to come on line. Too often, we let perfect be the enemy of the good enough.

Demonstrating Value

By comparison, projects with all three attributes — alignment with institutional goals, widespread enthusiasm, and sufficient capacity — do demonstrate value. In 2012, also at the urging of the new enrollment division leader, the college launched Volunteers in Support of Allegheny (VISA), a strategic initiative to tap the alumni network to assist admissions, help students locate internships and first jobs, serve as mentors for current students and recent grads, and support the college in myriad other ways. As more college offices began to understand how an enhanced alumni and volunteer network could add value in their areas, a CRM to manage the growing volume of communications and logistics associated with the initiative emerged as a preferred solution in late 2014. With two years of program development behind it, the initiative had broad and enthusiastic support: Widespread support in senior leadership guaranteed ample capacity in affected offices and IT, including a new director-level position responsible for implementing and taking full advantage of the VISA CRM. A broad project scope coupled with clear priorities and a well-articulated set of implementation steps encourages enthusiastic support for ongoing development, bringing other departments on board while tempering expectations with a realistic understanding of when each office can expect functionality in their area to be addressed.

The tool we have implemented and continue to develop is tailored to Allegheny's unique requirements, which means we are building functionality from the ground up on the Salesforce CRM platform. Not surprisingly given that context, we have encountered unexpected challenges and setbacks, but the support this project enjoys has been sufficient to carry us through to a solid implementation. Two and a half years into the CRM project, we have a fully functional administrative backend that is more than compensating client departments for the effort required to get us to this point. Thanks to enthusiastic support in multiple campus offices, we are now launching new functionality as well as student and alumni services that build on that firm foundation while providing a positive feedback loop as usage grows. From this point forward, it appears to be all upside. Our biggest problem may be keeping expectations for new projects in check.

Our Experience at Allegheny College

To recap, once a foundation of trust is established, it is not the technology that increases the perception of value. Rather, perceptions of IT value are nurtured by:

  • project alignment with strategic initiatives gained by listening carefully to the needs and goals of the community;
  • time spent building support, enthusiasm, and understanding of what is and is not possible for any project; and
  • time invested securing sufficient capacity in all affected areas to realize project goals.


  1. For more on service categorization, we refer the interested reader to Niel Nickolaisen's excellent article, "Aligning to Purpose," which appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of EDUCAUSE Review. The services discussed here, mission critical but not differentiating, fall in the parity quadrant of that model.

College of Charleston

Mark Staples, Senior Vice President, Technology Services, and CIO

"Communications" has been defined as the act of conveying intended meanings from one entity or group to another through the use of mutually understood signs and semiotic rules. The operative phrase in this definition is "mutually understood," because when it comes to technology, there can be a great divide between how the IT department delivers its message and how the intended audience understands it.

Technology has become the engine by which our institutions advance. However, just like engines, many see technology as a black box that no normal human can really understand, either how it works or what's inside. This is only complicated by the fact that people don't understand much of the technology we provision, including how it applies to them or can enhance their professional and/or personal lives.

So where is the disconnect? Many of our IT shops provide training, publish a newsletter, send out individual messages to their constituents letting them know of new projects, and schedule events like lunch and learns to create buzz. Yet when we assess overall user understanding of the vast services we provide, we see only a vacuum of understanding.

When I was at Wentworth Institute of Technology, we began to analyze the vacuum of understanding and then attempted to identify ways we could better inform and engage with our stakeholders about the many services we offered. For our first step, we began the process of modifying our communications based on three basic principles:

  • Evaluate each point through the recipient's viewpoint. After writing the first draft, evaluate each point (sentence) to determine if what is stated is something that the reader would consider important and salient to their needs. If not, take it out. Essentially, if the message doesn't improve the recipient's knowledge of the issue (or lack thereof) and doesn't change their level of understanding or engagement, then consider removing it. I usually ask, does the president, the provost, or a faculty member really care about that statement? If the answer is probably not, then it's not necessary.
  • Keep the communications brief. If it's an email announcement, it should pass the "scan test." The "scan test" evaluates the message's structure to verify that the reader can get the essence of the message with a quick scan. It should answer the questions:
    • What?
    • Why?
    • When?
    • Who's impacted?
  • Add a web link for more information. If the message needs more detail to satisfy inquisitive minds, consider creating a place on the website that provides more detail and add the link in the email message.

The next step was more strategic. We determined that we needed a person dedicated to IT communications. So, we repurposed an open position and reviewed job descriptions from across industries. We decided to go with the title of IT communications specialist reporting to the associate vice president.

Initially the job description required no technical knowledge because we felt that this would only compound our problem with "tech speak." The new role would be responsible for strategic and tactical communications of the technology division to all external stakeholders (faculty, staff, students, alumni, corporate partners, etc.). The person hired would be responsible for understanding the effects of technology changes on all stakeholders and groups and then designing a communication strategy, plans, and materials to address these changes. In addition, the role would assist with building a communication strategy and develop materials for each of our advisory committees.

We also identified four steps to take to help establish good communications habits:

  • Run a message past someone who doesn't have a stake in the message. If they aren't very technical, that's a bonus. Ask that person to tell you what the message means to them.
  • Don't confuse brevity and simplicity. While keeping things simple is important, don't sacrifice clarity for confusion — sometimes a message can be so simple that it generates more questions than it answers.
  • Contextualize the message. Contextualize the communication as much as possible and eliminate jargon. Rather than stating that the ERP system will be down for maintenance, use the terminology that recipients use on a daily basis. Do not tell them that we're rolling out a new unified messaging system. The message should be what they can understand — from that which they know to that which they do not know. Most of us will never remember anything we can't relate to.
  • Answer the "why" question early. Knowing the reason why is very important — in the context of the recipients' world — because if they understand the why, understanding the rest of the message is easier.

Note that this new role does not allow my senior staff to abdicate their role in communication, which is everyone's responsibility, but it works to collaborate with them to develop creative campaigns to plan, produce, and distribute information about our services, programs, and projects through a variety of media channels, including web sites, email/distribution lists, social media, special events, and print collateral. This person would develop action plans based on evaluation of the effectiveness of strategies and explore new methods to promote initiatives and services to constituents, stakeholders, and partners across campus and beyond.

We believe that this role will help coordinate a consistent and intentional communications operation that effectively uses all the appropriate digital and physical communication modalities. Keeping the communication "bite-sized," consistent, and intentional will go a long way in ensuring that our technology investments are fully realized.

Unfortunately, the lack of technology understanding became an insurmountable challenge for the person we hired. It was hard enough to get acclimated to a complex institution — its culture and the organizational structure — along with the herculean task of gaining an understanding of the technologies' features and functionalities.

Our lessons learned? We ultimately had to do a reset to find a person who was an effective communicator, could interact with the IT staff, and then could translate the message to the campus. We also realized that the role needed to be more senior, someone who had experience in marketing and communications with technical acumen.

In summary, technology expenditures are significant at most of our institutions. So, it is important that we find ways to communicate the benefits and the value to each of our stakeholders: faculty, new and existing staff, men, women, and first-year to fourth-year students. Each year we receive a whole new set of students and faculty, so our communications must be like shampoo — "rinse and repeat" regularly.

Douglas College

Ian McLeod, Chief Information Officer

Douglas College is a public postsecondary institution in Greater Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Douglas has two main campus locations, offering a combination of two-year diplomas, bachelor's degrees, and post-degree diplomas. The college serves 23,500 students from across Canada and more than 80 countries around the world.

In 2012 when I arrived as CIO, a survey of employees indicated that communication was one of the poorest ratings for the IT team. In the following four years, the satisfaction ratings for communication rose from 50 percent to 80 percent of respondents satisfied or very satisfied with departmental communications.

In conjunction with the improvement in communication, the department has seen similar increases in service quality, strategic direction, and leadership. A number of factors have contributed to this success.

The start of the story will be a common one for many institutions. The IT teams were seen as slow, unresponsive, and uncaring. Service was variable, and often clients did not know the status of their help desk request. Teams in IT felt understaffed and undervalued, and the college was unsure of priorities for technology, both administrative and academic.

In addition to new leadership at the CIO level, the college put in place a governance structure for technology, with an enterprise technology steering committee (ETSC) and two specialized committees for academic (Learning Technology Steering Committee) and administrative (Administrative Technology Steering Committee) areas. Both the LTSC and ATSC report to the ETSC, which has the mandate to address issues of project priority, budget, and technology policy. The ETSC makes recommendations to the college's senior management team. Each year this group reviews technology requests from IT and the general college community and makes recommendations on priorities and fit with available budget resources. Requests are submitted via an online database process, where the status of each submission is recorded and can be checked in real time.

Two years ago, the college's board recognized the need to focus on key strategic IT concerns and risks, including security and critical improvements in software to maximize the student experience. A board subcommittee was established as a technology steering committee (TSC). This coincided with a new college strategic plan that included technology as one of the foundations supporting the entire plan.

Every two months IT management report to the TSC on progress with strategic initiatives, selected metrics related to volume and quality of activities, and any issues requiring further attention. During the annual budget cycle, the TSC is asked to review and support proposed strategic projects, particularly where cost exceeds $100,000.

IT management also report regularly to the ETSC, ATSC, and LTSC and seek input on more operational issues, including priorities for budget funding of educational technology requests.

Internally, the IT team have put in place a number of initiatives to respond to client requests. A new help desk system has improved the ability to log incidents, identify problems, and generally stay on top of outstanding requests. A hotline is in place for faculty in classrooms who have a critical technology failure, and technicians will respond within minutes. All closed calls are surveyed for client satisfaction.

Regular communications between IT and the campus community have improved, with critical processes documented and posted on both the public website and the employee intranet. A communications plan has been developed in partnership with the Communications department, with a schedule of articles and postings planned well in advance. This planning process has allowed IT to report more regularly on direction, new initiatives, and accomplishments — a priority for the board TSC committee. This is in addition to the regular communications to students and staff when outages or maintenance windows affect services.

For many IT staff, writing and communicating clearly with the general community is not a strength. I created a communications specialist position within the department to help translate technology acronyms and complex instructions for the college population. This position is a writer, not an IT person, and focuses on communicating the IT message as their primary role, rather than having communications compete with other priorities.

What are we working on now? The college is embarking on a data governance project and considering how data analytics can be applied effectively to improve the student experience further.

At Douglas College, the CIO reports to the vice-president, Administrative Services and CFO, which has been a significant strategic advantage for IT. Opinions abound around the best place for the CIO to report, but in the case of Douglas College, the CFO has made an effort to understand technology, supports the IT team, and helps communicate the importance of our strategic projects at the senior levels of the organization. No one in IT has any doubts about the support and interest displayed by our vice-president. Of course, it is also nice to report to the person who manages the money, but we are held to the same or higher levels of accountability and business case rationale.

In summary, IT departments must ensure that they are both delivering on the basic "utility" functions and working as collaborative partners with the business owners, senior management, and board to ensure that value and strategic focus are communicated and delivered. As the CIO working in such an environment, it makes the job much easier, more effective, and even fun!

Meeting the Communication Challenge

As these case studies point out, it takes work to communicate effectively about the value of enterprise IT. That work involves listening to and observing the community, understanding the needs and goals of the community, and ensuring that enterprise IT is in close alignment with strategic initiatives. Some institutions are hiring staff whose role includes a specific focus on cross-enterprise communication. These staff members can act as bridges between technical staff and the rest of the community. With or without dedicated communications staff, these case studies demonstrate that for effective communication IT must understand the needs of the community, be able to communicate outside of IT in ways that show an understanding of those needs, and demonstrate the value of IT as it relates to institutional mission and goals.

Richard Holmgren is vice president for Information Services and Assessment at Allegheny College.

Jason Ramsey is associate director of Information Technology Services at Allegheny College.

Ian McLeod is chief information officer at Douglas College.

Mark Staples is senior vice president, Technology Services, and chief information officer at the College of Charleston.

© 2017 Richard Holmgren, Jason Ramsey, Ian McLeod, and Mark Staples. The text of this article is licensed under Creative Commons BY 4.0.