Evolution at the University of Alaska SWOIT

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Faced with massive budget cuts, a distributed bureaucracy, and resistance to change, the University of Alaska Statewide Office of Information Technology found success by focusing on small improvements that are paving the way for significant future progress.

Series of seedlings at different points of germination
Credit: Singkham / Shutterstock.com © 2019

The University of Alaska is a very complex institution categorized as a Doctoral University with High Research Activity by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. We have three separate universities with thirteen community campuses spread across the state. Administration is split between a statewide organization and internal academic units. Our current enrollment is approximately 26,000 full- and part-time students. We offer approximately 500 degrees, certificates, and endorsements. We have a Statewide Office of Information Technology department (SWOIT), as well as campus IT offices and a few smaller department IT teams.


Dealing with budget cuts, internal bureaucracy, and resistance to change is never easy. In an ideal world, we would stop everything, reorganize ourselves, redesign our procedures, and restart everything in a more efficient way. However, it is not feasible to stop all work in any area, much less all of them. So, we try to make changes in small ways with spare effort while continuing to provide regular services, support, and maintenance. With years of budget cuts and expanded responsibility, this has become increasingly difficult to do. Many teams are struggling to keep their heads above water.

Budget Cuts

Like many other higher education institutions across the country, the University of Alaska has had numerous budget cuts over the past several years. Then this year, the university was threatened with a $130 million cut. Fortunately, this was reduced to $70 million and distributed over the next three years, but this still represents a massive cut that will require extreme changes to address.

We often manage budget cuts by eliminating vacant positions and occasionally by eliminating filled positions. This means that the remaining employees have as much or more work to do with fewer resources. For example, my team, which supports the ERP applications, has decreased from a peak of eighteen positions to its current size of just ten. Most of these reductions have been Application Programmer positions, which reduces our ability to automate processes that would help other areas deal with their own staff reductions. Another team we work closely with—Infrastructure and Cloud Engineering—has seen similar decreases. Reductions in infrastructure support mean that regular maintenance on our applications slips, leaving us behind on critical updates, which can include feature enhancements and security improvements.

Internal Bureaucracy

The University of Alaska is divided into several major units that are subdivided into departments, which are split into teams. It is difficult, if not impossible, to get the entire organization on the same page and in agreement on which changes to make. Each group wants to do what is best for their customers and most comfortable for their employees. Some groups put more effort into changes than others. Some groups make changes that directly contradict changes in other groups. These pockets of isolation restrict the benefits of all efforts.

Resistance to Change

Individuals often resist change, assuming that the need for change reflects negatively on their performance; as a result, they can become very defensive. It is a challenge to get the full team to buy in to making changes. Even after attending training and agreeing to make changes, people can remain reluctant and drag their feet, reverting to the old familiar and comfortable ways of doing their jobs.

Steps Forward

While we continue to struggle with many of the same issues we always have, we have also made progress. By listening to our peer institutions, we can learn about best practices and strategies that have proven to be successful. The following improvements have helped pave the way for more progress in the future. As we get better in one area, it frees us up to make improvements in other areas. With dedication, this dynamic can build on itself and allow us to make major changes.


ITIL is a framework of proven best practices for IT service management. The University of Alaska SWOIT has adopted ITIL as a principle, and we have completed several training sessions and had many employees ITIL certified. Several years ago, we organized two teams to design and implement incident and change management processes. A process manager was assigned to both teams and included representatives from each team in the department were included.

Each team focused on what the process should be. There was always a lot of discussion about the current process—both what worked well and what caused problems. While this process was difficult at times, it produced well-considered and well-reviewed products. These processes were widely adopted, greatly improved several of our services, and are still in use today. However, we have not completely adopted all of the ITIL processes, and we have not followed through with the recommended continuous improvement steps for the processes we have adopted.


Another successful SWOIT effort was the Oz Principle Culture Change. The Oz Principle focuses on increasing accountability—at the individual and organizational levels—through a focus on fixing problems rather than assigning blame. This initiative helped SWOIT begin acting as a unified team rather than a group of segregated teams. Prior to this effort, each team in SWOIT worked in an independent silo. When cooperation was needed, it was often tentative and confrontational. When problems arose, teams pointed fingers at others.

To help with this, we consulted with Partners in Leadership to train our leadership team on the Oz Principle and to help us develop a plan for culture change. We identified several cultural beliefs that would positively improve our culture. These included build trust, speak up, and go team. We hosted a couple of workshops with the entire department to explain the need for change and how we expected the new beliefs to change our culture. Although there was some resistance to this effort, enough of the department agreed with and adopted the changes that we quickly saw significant improvements. We started looking for ways to cooperate to make things better. We started supporting each other when things went wrong.

We recently had an unexpected and severe power outage due to an accident during regular maintenance on our data center power supply. In the past, an event like this would have resulted in a lot of finger pointing and excuse making. With our new culture, the focus was on efficient recovery and an honest root-cause analysis. Rather than finding a scapegoat for this event, we identified several process improvements that will help with future power outages, whether they are planned or unplanned. The attitude change started with management and has successfully trickled down throughout the entire department.

Lean IT

Although SWOIT needs to be a Lean IT organization, this has proven extremely difficult to implement. We have a long-standing contract with Pink Elephant to support our transformation efforts with process reviews, consulting, and training for best practices. It has provided several courses and engagements for us to understand and implement Lean IT principles.

We have not, however, completely dedicated ourselves to this effort. Achieving Lean IT will be a long haul, and people seem to want the quick wins. Becoming truly Lean requires a lot of organized effort. The Pink Elephant consultants suggested taking small steps, which we have tried, but our progress has been slow. Everyone is consumed with everyday tasks, and there is little to no time to spend studying what we do and how we could do it better. That said, some teams have done better than others at adopting Lean IT principles. These tend to be the newer groups that are not already burdened with years of established procedures.

Future Efforts

For the University of Alaska to reach its goals, we will need to find ways to focus our efforts on making process improvements. As our budget becomes tighter, we will need to focus on becoming more efficient by adopting Lean Principles. We have to reduce bureaucratic overhead by implementing standard ITIL processes. We have to acknowledge and overcome our resistance to change by trusting and engaging each other with a positive and cooperative attitude.

Business Transformation Office

Our new chief information technology officer (CITO) has suggested forming a Business Transformation Office. This group would be specifically dedicated to making improvements across the department and institution. The primary areas of focus would be governance, project portfolio management, business process engineering, enterprise architecture, and organizational change management. All of these areas would help us ensure that SWOIT projects are carefully prioritized and aligned with business needs.

Disruptive Reorganization

Due to the massive expected budget cuts over the next three years, the University of Alaska is taking a hard look at its current organization and looking for ways to streamline every possible function. With our very distributed administration, there is a lot of redundancy that could be reduced. By merging separate departments and joining teams, people will be able to cooperate and benefit from each other's knowledge rather than competing against each other. While some of the changes will be difficult, they will likely offer us an opportunity to become more efficient and focus our efforts on making improvements that benefit our students.


While the University of Alaska SWOIT has not been able to revolutionize the way we do business, we have taken advantage of opportunities to evolve into a better organization. We face the same challenges as many other higher education institutions. By listening to our peers, we have selected steps that we can take to change our processes and culture to move in a positive direction. In order to meet the needs of our customers, we must continue this evolution.

The article is part of a set of enterprise IT resources exploring the role of digital transformation through the lens of business process management. Visit the Enterprise IT Program to find resources focused on digital transformation through additional lenses of governance and relationship management, technology strategy, understanding costs and value, and analytics.

James Milburn is Enterprise Applications Services Manager at the University of Alaska.

© 2019 James Milburn. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.