Enhancing IT's Institutional Value through IT Rationalization

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IT rationalization can guide a reorganization of staffing and procurement to reduce costs, increase efficiency, and foster innovation.

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Credit: Radachynskyi Serhii / Shutterstock © 2018

Both central and departmental IT organizations play vital roles in today's higher education technology environment. Not to oversimplify, but the former provides the enterprise technology foundation and the latter responds to specific academic and administrative areas' needs. But over time, duplication and redundancy of services, helpdesk organizations, data centers, email, and other technology can occur — especially in highly decentralized IT institutions — that impact efficiencies, costs, and security risks. Additionally, the technology balance may get out of whack; supporting department IT expansion — such as fulfilling new server-room or cloud service integration requests — can tax even the most able central IT organization. Eventually questions can arise about the most valuable, cost-effective way to architect all this technology. How can an institution balance central and local IT resources and services optimally?

IT rationalization is the process of using data to make decisions about how a department or organization buys and uses its technology to become as effective as possible,1 and it helps an institution harness its technology in a way that reduces costs, achieves efficiencies, and fosters innovation.2 It can improve interoperability of applications, products, and services across campus, thus achieving faster deployment of new shared products, infrastructure, and services.3 And it can be the blueprint for institutional technology transformation, as in these examples:

  • University of Central Florida (UCF), IT2020 initiative [http://itr.ucf.edu/it2020blog.asp]: UCF is recalibrating its institution-wide IT structure to support the university's growth. IT2020 is an initiative to advance UCF's mission through innovative technology services and support for the university community via a shared services model. At the heart of this initiative is UCF IT, a new enterprise IT department created by blending central and departmental IT personnel and resources. Colleges and divisions transfer their local IT staff and equipment into UCF IT, which subsequently manages technology in accord with MOUs and SLAs. Five major colleges and one major division became the first cohort of departments that moved to UCF IT. The program is now on its third cohort, which involves departments in the division of administration and finance.
  • University of Chicago (UChicago), UChicago IT [https://it.uchicago.edu/]: A world-class research university, UChicago wants to rationalize commodity technology in order to invest in mission-critical technology to support its faculty and researchers. One challenge is the institution's highly decentralized culture, which extends to IT. UChicago IT is a holistic approach, wrapping IT rationalization into a broader initiative to build campus-wide thinking and culture about technology as an institutional resource. Aside from the IT rationalization process, other components include an IT Leadership Council [https://it.uchicago.edu/it-leadership-council/], where senior campus IT leaders make investment decisions about university technology; an IT Academy [https://it.uchicago.edu/it-academy/] to create an even skill set among all IT staff members; and IT Connects [https://it.uchicago.edu/it-connects/], an IT community-building program.
  • University of Michigan (U-M), NextGen Michigan: After the 2008 economic downturn, U-M wanted to optimize technology investment while realizing some potential savings. The university used IT rationalization to identify and reduce investment in commodity technologies to "advance investment in next generation technology as well as develop a community of unified IT professionals."4 Unlike UCF and UChicago, U-M wrapped up its IT rationalization in 2016, though it continues to improve its IT services.

All this sounds great, but let's not sugarcoat it. An IT rationalization project is a significant, long-term undertaking, involving considerable social and technological change across the entire institution. How do you get started? And how can you best manage the project? This post presents the following six-point checklist from UCF, UChicago, and U-M IT leaders who have experienced IT rationalization firsthand.

1. Get the Facts

The first step is to understand your institution's technology situation. For example, UCF needed to recalibrate its IT structure to support its rapid growth trajectory and reduce duplication and redundancy. Both UChicago and U-M wanted better campus-wide IT spending and investment information for their long-term technology planning. The universities quantified their issues by developing an accurate snapshot of how IT is distributed and provided across campus. These campus-wide IT assessments provided complete operational and financial inventory of each IT unit, including services, staffing, and personal computing environments.5

Each IT leader suggested ways to facilitate this rather laborious process. UCF hired an outside consultant, who was regarded as an objective third party, to gather departmental IT information. UChicago used externally developed tools, but an IT staff member with an excellent campus-wide reputation for collaboration led its assessment. Reid Paxton, interim assistant director of End User Services at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, and his team put a human face to U-M's discovery effort, with personal meetings with faculty and administrative staff about their IT activities.

The result is a campus-wide IT baseline from which to develop an institutional IT vision. For example, UChicago learned that its IT staffing was split about 55% central to 45% distributed IT, but each spent money in very different ways; UCF's consultant determined that the university's IT structure was overly decentralized, identifying technology redundancies and duplications across the campus.

2. Use Value, Not Cost, as the Driving Motivator

It can be tempting to regard IT rationalization as primarily a cost-cutting measure, but this approach can be problematic because the cost basis is going to change considerably over the course of the project. "Cost is a hard goal to meet, especially when you consider that an IT rationalization project lasts multiple years," stated Robert Jones, executive director of Support Services, University of Michigan–Ann Arbor. "The technology environment and needs — user devices, software complexity, and where the application resides — change during a typical project, and cost targets can get closely tied to what can become outdated assumptions. Instead, recognize the value that can be achieved from an IT rationalization initiative. It gives you capabilities that you don't have now, like elevated level of desktop services at scale or security posture of the university."

3. Frame IT Rationalization's Value Within Your Institution's Mission

A focus on value can also encourage leadership buy-in for the many aspects of an IT rationalization project — for example, participation in the initial assessment and support for any recommended changes. One compelling value argument is mission. At UChicago, IT rationalization's value involves bringing IT closer to faculty in support of its institutional mission of new knowledge discovery. An institution focused on teaching and learning or student success can use IT rationalization to streamline operations to reinvest more energy and resources in support of those initiatives. UChicago's Cole W. Camplese, associate vice president and CIO explained, "You can encourage your leadership to think how we are going to produce X millions of dollars of new productivity to advance the mission, not taking X millions of dollars out of the existing operations. Eventually we think we'll save a considerable amount of money that can be reinvested into new services or pushed back out to the divisions and schools to do other things."

4. Motivate, not Mandate

IT rationalization directly impacts so many IT leaders and staff members around the institution that the ability to coalesce and engage them can make or break the project. All the IT leaders interviewed emphasized using a collaborative, trust-building approach, not a mandate. "IT rationalization has to be done on the basis of creditability, relationships, delivering on promises, and people believing that the future can be better than the present," stated Joel Hartman, vice president for Information Technologies and Resources. "For example, my president and provost were supportive of the plan, but neither mandated it. Rather, they created opportunities for me to engage and gain buy-in from leaders of campus units." As the new CIO at UChicago, Camplese held ongoing meetings with department IT leaders to identify ways to work collaboratively. He shared data from the initial campus-wide IT assessment with the distributed IT units, and interestingly, opportunities discussed during the initial meetings — e.g., licensing, printing management, storage, and desktop engineering — emerged as IT rationalization recommendations.

All IT leaders emphasized a message of a beneficial rethinking of technology on campus with departmental IT areas; MOUs and SLAs can formally spell out these benefits with departments, especially to address an area's customized or nonstandard technology needs.

At the staffing level, U-M took the coalescing approach to heart; IT rationalization project members from the various campus areas worked together in one big room. "The co-location was quite brilliant, particularly in the beginning," said Jones. "A cross-section of the campus organizations worked together, creating a feeling of one jersey, one uniform." UChicago's IT Connects brings staff together with events, lectures, recreational events, and eventually mentoring, and its IT rationalization project website [https://it.uchicago.edu/it-rationalization/] fosters the transparent sharing of information with the campus.

5. Mitigate IT Staff Members' Impact

IT rationalization directly impacts IT staff members, especially if their area joins central IT as part of technology redundancy or duplication elimination. For example, departmental IT staff may be uncertain about their new central IT roles and duties. To counteract staff fears, UCF IT committed to no IT job reductions directly from IT rationalization. And IT staff have had a hand in designing the new UCF IT organization roles and structure, working with IT management on a horizontal service matrix based on services and products, not job roles. "The kind of conversations and projects that are spinning up around campus are of a nature that would never have happened in the previous structure," stated Hartman.

Another challenge is uneven IT skill levels across the institution, making it difficult for staff from disparate IT departments to work together as a team. For example, different departments' funding resources impact IT staff development opportunities. To address skill unevenness, each former UCF departmental IT staff member receives a skill assessment, training opportunities, and career path mapping. UChicago's IT Academy is being designed with this in mind, too.

6. Develop Strong Governance to Manage IT Rationalization Intricacies

IT leaders stressed of the importance of multilevel governance to manage the IT rationalization's workings. Every institution's governance mirrors its culture, but the IT leaders discussed these governances examples used in their IT rationalization projects:

  • A senior-level committee — such as UCF's IT Strategic Governance Committee [http://www.itr.ucf.edu/it2020stratgov.asp] of vice presidents, deans, and other senior officials — recommends priorities in IT investments, guided by the initial IT assessment, institutional strategy, and mission.
  • IT-level committees, comprising institutional IT leaders, help make campus-wide IT decisions and create a cohesive IT culture. For example, UChicago's IT Leadership Council applied a concept called "Core, Common, and Unique" for its IT rationalization. They identified major areas of service overlap to pull back to the core for central IT to deliver; common services that all divisions would follow and fund collaboratively; and unique services that the divisional IT areas provide to support their faculty and researchers.
  • Steering groups can guide implementation. For example, U-M's IT used separate IT academic and administrative leader steering groups to lead the redesign of technology and processes to their respective areas.
  • Local IT unit governance addresses issues within specific areas. UCF implemented unit governance when departmental IT units were folded into the central IT organization. Each incoming IT unit head serves as the unit's business relationship manager, working within his/her unit to foster input and communication as well as with other unit business relationship managers to work on new service delivery models, staff migration, and other issues.

Given IT rationalization's multiyear duration, governance can help keep things on track if institutional leaders change during the course of the project. For example, most U-M university and central IT leadership positions changed before its multiyear project ended, but governance provided a steady, guiding reference point throughout the transitions.

A Long, Beneficial Journey

IT rationalization is a long, complex journey, but it's worth the effort. And each project is yielding benefits.

  • UCF's first IT architecture rationalization project was a collaboratively designed enterprise helpdesk based on ServiceNow, which is consolidating 15 distributed helpdesks and offers expanded hours, a knowledgebase, and a single work queue for the entire organization. UCF IT is collaboratively establishing four or five IT support zones around campus that are replacing department-by-department support yet are close enough to attend to immediate IT problems, providing cross-training opportunities to staff members as well as extended support hours and resources for users. Other projects include migrating local unit Active Directory domains into the university domain and email systems to the UCF IT managed Office 365. UCF's Hartman just concluded a round of meeting with the first cohort of deans and administrators, and all expressed satisfaction with the outcomes to date.
  • UChicago's campus-wide IT assessment yielded information on IT spending, data centers, end-user devices, FTE by unit, and other technology. This information was shared with all the distributed IT units and formed the basis for the IT Leadership Council to rationalize technology. A major item was a data-center consolidation. UChicago has 21 distributed data centers in varying sizes and scope and is identifying and prioritizing appropriate ones to migrate to centralized data centers. As UChicago's distributed IT divisions experience trust and see the rationalization's benefits, they're willing to relinquish more local commodity IT services in order to focus on their faculty's research and teaching support — for example, creating a central desktop engineering program for distributed IT units to buy software-configured, security-compliant computers and mobile devices.
  • U-M's NextGen Michigan's excellent infographic visually shares the initiative's accomplishments stemming from the IT rationalization, including MiWorkspace, a desktop support service on which Hofer, Jones, and Paxton all worked. The campus-wide service provides greater depth, value, and speed in solving IT problems than individual IT areas could provide in the past. For example, before MiWorkspace, a 260-person departmental user group had five local IT staff members to support them. MiWorkspace offers depth of bench, and, by comparison, 90 staff have provided support to this group representing a more diverse set of skills, knowledge, and perspective.

    NextGen Michigan yielded operational and security benefits, but Hofer, Jones, and Paxton all extoll the benefit of scale. "Something that you get at the end that I think you don't envision at the beginning is the ability to innovate and think at a scale that wasn't previously fathomable," stated Jones. "So when you improve something, even if it feels incremental, it can have a really large impact because of the scale that you're operating at." Erik Hofer, the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor School of Information CIO agreed: "My individual shop's scale of resources to really transform the end-user experience pales in comparison to what we can do now with the university together as a whole. We got a better perspective of what the problems are, more leverage with vendors, and more engineering resources to really transform what we are doing."

Hofer summarized what is perhaps IT rationalization's ultimate benefit. "The rationality for me is evident when you look at computing at Michigan now versus before," said Hofer. "It's the power of having a consistent computing environment across a very large university that just makes sense to its users."


EDUCAUSE wishes to thank Cole W. Camplese, Associate Vice President and CIO, The University of Chicago; Joel Hartman, Vice President for Information Technologies and Resources, University of Central Florida; Erik Hofer, Clinical Assistant Professor and CIO, School of Information, University of Michigan–Ann Arbor; Robert Jones, Executive Director of Support Services, University of Michigan–Ann Arbor; and Reid Paxton, Interim Assistant Director of End User Services, University of Michigan–Ann Arbor for their assistance with the blog post.


  1. See "IT rationalization" at the Cambridge Business English Dictionary.
  2. Phil Wilkerson, "IT Rationalization – Essential Building Blocks for Modernization Strategies and Operational Efficiency" [https://thompsontechnologies.com/articles/it-rationalization-essential-building-blocks-for-modernization-strategies-and-operational-efficiency/].
  3. Alan Levy, "Campus IT Rationalization Project Starts With Unit Assessments."
  4. See "NextGen Michigan Strategy and Accomplishments."
  5. Levy, "Campus IT Rationalization Project."

Judith A. Pirani is Principal of Sheep Pond Associates.

© 2018 Judith A. Pirani. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.