On the Future of Administrative Information Technology

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This is the first post in a new blog —“Got a Minute?”—that I will be writing from my perspective and position as EDUCAUSE Presidential Fellow. EDUCAUSE President and CEO Diana Oblinger asked me if I would use this platform to share some of my thinking on key issues and present some kernels around which the community could engage in broader discussion. My role, she said, would be to get the conversation started—even if I stirred up a little controversy in doing so. Be careful what you wish for, Diana!  I sought out the role of Presidential Fellow to do exactly that: advance the discussion of critical issues and challenges facing our profession in this second decade of the 21st century, at a time of disruption to the status quo of higher education.

One of the main items that I hope to help EDUCAUSE and the higher ed community explore is what we’re calling “Administrative Information Technology”—or “Admin IT,” for short. We used the phrase “Enterprise IT” for the past decade, partially because we felt that administrative was a word with too much baggage at our institutions. Well, based on my reading of Benjamin Ginsberg’s book The Fall of the Faculty, I think we were right: it is a word with a lot of baggage.  Nevertheless, it is the correct word and the baggage earned.  Thus, I believe that now is the time to return to that word and to focus on the true issue: the cost of administrative IT.

So let’s begin the exploration of an EDUCAUSE Administrative IT Initiative. Three points illustrate why such an initiative is critical for our community.

1.     Many administrative systems will reach their twenty-year anniversaries in the coming years of this decade. Although these systems have generally been updated regularly since they were implemented and can operate into the future, they are approaching the end of their functional life.  And some institutions (such as my own, UMD) are still using legacy 1980s-origin systems—catastrophes waiting to happen!

2.     Many commercial providers of administrative systems end their support for older products, even if those products have been maintained and updated. This typically happens as new products, with different functionality and/or architecture, establish themselves in the market.

3.     These two milestones—functional obsolescence and loss of vendor support—mean that many institutions will be considering restructuring or replacing their core administrative systems over the next few years. This, in turn, means that the stability of administrative systems will give way to 1990s-style uncertainty and change.[1]

We must also raise awareness that IT spending is done in support of functions across the institution, not just in or for information technology. As CIO at the University of Maryland, I spend many millions of dollars providing a host of services and provisioning much in the way of infrastructure—very little of which is used by me or my organization. I’m buying these items and providing these services on behalf of the campus community, for its consumption and based on its needs. We need to change the narrative away from “reducing IT costs” to “reducing the costs of administration and its attendant IT costs.”

We all have heard the horror stories of $100 million implementations of ERP. One might ask: Why are information systems so expensive? I do not believe it is because IT people are inefficient in their acquisition, development, deployment, and ongoing hosting of these systems. The spending is being done by the IT organization—on software licenses, system-integration expertise, and software-modification work—because functional areas and institutional activities demand customization of the systems for their specific and diverse wants (though termed “needs”). An ECAR study (not yet released) found that ERP projects involve as many non-IT FTEs as IT FTEs and that something similar can be seen with ongoing administrative system support. Projects took 43 percent longer in institutions whose functional units had high degrees of autonomy.

I believe that we are now in a period where a great many institutions will be considering, yet again, the prospect of spending a great deal of money on renewing their administrative applications. They will do RFPs and search for the lowest-cost option, but they will still spend millions of dollars individually and billions of dollars collectively on this effort. This will come at a time when they need those dollars to re-envision and revolutionize their teaching and learning in new pedagogical paradigms brought about by MOOCs and other elements of online education. This will come at a time when they will see shrinking research grant funding. This will come at a time when they will remain under the stress of reduced government funding, limitations on increases in tuition, and even reductions in philanthropic giving. In the popular vernacular, this will come at the time of a perfect storm of disruption.

Our colleges and universities are dealing with a significant disruptive event: online education.

One place where there is a lot of money being spent (and about to be spent) is in the area of admin IT. If we were to chart intelligent and collective paths forward, we could systematically reduce the spending in the areas of administration and thus free some funds to flow into the academy—to reallocate dollars from doing the “business” of higher education to performing the core functions of higher education.

EDUCAUSE and I believe we should focus on a critical question: How can colleges and universities find ways to significantly reduce the cost of administration and the attendant IT spending that supports it? If EDUCAUSE focuses its attention specifically on the IT elements (e.g., organization, people, spending), we will be addressing only part of the challenge; we will not be involving those who direct the nature of the work and require the spending of the money. We must expand our discussion to include these functional areas, perhaps via the various associations that serve them: NACUBO for finance and administrative functions, for example.

Below are some key questions to spur the community conversation about Admin IT. In upcoming blog posts, I’ll comment on particular aspects of this challenge, which will also help advance the broader efforts of the EDUCAUSE Administrative IT Initiative.  I encourage you to join the discussion and share your views and ideas – via comments to this and other posts I’ll make, or in response to surveys that EDUCAUSE will be distributing in the days, weeks, and months ahead.

I look forward to the coming dialogue and to our exploration of this critical topic.

Admin IT: Key Questions

1.     What are the core elements that might significantly reduce the cost of institutional administration and the attendant IT spending that supports it? Examples include the following:

a.      Realistic and pragmatic functional requirements

b.     Project management and development methodologies and roles

c.      Process and continuous improvement

d.     Sourcing strategies for staffing, systems, and services

e.      Management and organizational models

f.       Development of other critical capabilities and roles (e.g., vendor management, change management, or service management)

2.     What data is needed to benchmark and manage institutional spending on administration and attendant IT?

3.     What are the professional development (PD), research, and service tools that are needed to enable the community to significantly reduce spending on administration and attendant IT?

4.     What is the “argument” or “line of reasoning” that will create a compelling case for change?

5.     What goals should we have? Should we adopt the “50 percent reduction in such costs by 2020” battle cry?

6.     Who must our partners be in this venture?  And how should we engage these partners?  What challenges do they present to us (and which do we present to them)?


[1] Greg Jackson, ”Enterprise and Infrastructure IT at EDUCAUSE,” November 2012, http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/entsummary.pdf.