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Enlightening IT

March 2016

By Gerald Hector

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When the CIO and CBO collaborate to translate the language of information technology into practical terms, the result can be a compelling story that illuminates the importance of strategic IT investment.

From operational budgets to infrastructure upgrades, the portfolio of the chief business officer has expanded in the past decade to a broad leadership position—one that now includes overseeing growth, risk management, auxiliary services, facilities, information technology, and often much more. Technology continues to be a major strategic initiative, and is today one of the most critical elements of my overall responsibility at Ithaca College, Ithaca, N.Y. 

When I first came onboard at Ithaca, in mid-2013, I wanted to better understand the role that technology would play in Ithaca’s growth and overall operations. Filling a temporary vacuum in IT by doing the job of interim CIO, in addition to that of full-time CBO, helped me see what needed to be done from both points of view. In addition, I invited four seasoned CIOs from other institutions to visit Ithaca College and meet with front-line staff. This knowledge exchange provided valuable insights and direction as to how we could improve efficiencies and performance through the thoughtful use of technology. 

When Ithaca eventually hired Keith McIntosh as chief information officer, these experiences with technology processes and professionals helped me to convey to Keith an understanding of where the higher education industry is headed, as well as some insight into the ways that technology advancements will continue to impact student life and learning. Our work together has been key in helping us plan out a sustainable road map for Ithaca, which includes integrating IT into the college’s recently completed 10-year facilities master plan. The CIO-CBO partnership helps ensure that the IT function has a seat at the table from the very start. 

As we’ve seen the CBO’s scope of responsibility expand beyond accounting and finance, institutions are also encountering growing challenges. Budgets are under greater scrutiny, because the cost of education is now perceived by many stakeholders as being too high. As budgets continue to tighten, higher education leaders question the effectiveness of current financial models. And, rapidly evolving advancements in technology have super-charged the expectations of students and faculty, when it comes to IT support. With some institutions experiencing stagnating or decreasing enrollments and related tuition shortfalls, keeping up with this confluence of exploding demands—in the face of financial constraints—poses significant difficulties. 

Against this backdrop, Ithaca’s CIO and I are focused on further developing the IT tools, collaborations, and partnerships that can address some of the challenges to Ithaca’s effectiveness and viability.

CBO Tools and Tactics

To address these many obstacles and achieve institutional goals, effective CBOs (ideally in concert with CIOs and other senior leaders) cultivate a variety of skills that enhance existing expertise. For example, in addition to being able to see raw data points, we need to analyze and use those numbers in ways that allow us to make solid decisions. The CIO and I were able to do just that in planning for one of the first projects we needed to address together: the wireless infrastructure on campus. 

Wi-Fi delivery had been a bifurcated process in which wireless for our residential life needs was outsourced to a vendor (Apogee), while the academic and administrative wireless program was handled by internal technology staff. 

After conducting listening sessions to gain the perspectives of faculty, students, and others, we formed a wireless remediation committee to consider ways in which we could upgrade the wireless infrastructure. The committee was made up of representatives from the IT department, faculty, administrative staff, and Apogee. We gathered data, perspectives, and current challenges, and then synthesized the information such that we could make some analytical decisions about how to upgrade the wireless infrastructure.

The end result of that collaborative effort was that 29 buildings across campus—arranged in order of academic, student-centered, and administrative spaces—were included in a wireless remediation and expansion project. The initiative is yielding more than triple the amount of access points, which greatly improves wireless coverage. We also installed additional upgrade switches, cabling, and infrastructure necessary to create a modern and robust Wi-Fi experience for our campus community. 

This project completely redefined the type of Wi-Fi services we supply, from an outdated model to a state-of-the-art wireless environment based on increased individual capacity and coverage require-ments of each of our spaces. Our new model also supports users carrying multiple devices needed throughout their day in these various campus spaces. 

In addition to using data analytics, which we did in the Wi-Fi project, customer satisfaction surveys and other methods of information gathering can bolster decision making. The effective CBO will work with aggregated data in the following ways:

Meld different concepts and departments to paint a larger picture. At the onslaught of the Great Recession, the clamor for financial clarity and fiscal details pushed the CBO to become the face of institutional health. It was imperative that stakeholders be able to confirm that the college or university was in a financially viable position and that institution leaders could describe a clear path forward for all aspects of the organization, including IT. 

One effective way to achieve this goal is through storytelling, or translating the language of finance into a strategic narrative that clearly expresses institutional issues and goals in ways that our campus colleagues can follow, adopt, and embrace. Continuing with the example of the wireless system upgrade, it is one thing to understand that the wireless infrastructure needed major work, but it was another issue to convince stakeholders that significant funds would have to be invested. Everyone knew something had to be done, but what would be sacrificed in order to undertake such an expensive project?

This is the point at which the CBO, working with the information from the CIO and other constituents, must tell a story that compels stakeholders to support what is needed. While the Wi-Fi project might be seen as a large investment for which there is no tangible, immediate return, we had to articulate reasoning that would reframe the issue. Yes, the project fell into the category of the “cost of doing business,” but the bigger picture had to do with what would happen if we did not do something about it. Seen in this light, stakeholders can begin to think about due diligence for the project; settling on how much the institution should be willing to spend; the amount of human resources required; and, finally, how that spend would benefit the college as a whole.

We talked about the challenges to students and faculty in trying to learn and teach in classrooms with insufficient wireless coverage—and the negative impact that was creating on student learning. How would we continue to attract students and faculty if the operational effectiveness of the wireless system did not live up to the operational excellence that Ithaca College is known for?

Highlighting the benefits of any upgrade or investment, and tying them to our core and central mission as an institution, is a recurring theme in our storytelling.

For the broader institution’s goals and financially related concepts, we’ve instituted monthly “Dollars and $ense” meetings, during which staff from any department can participate to gain a better understanding of the financial and operational facets of the college. At these meetings, in addition to a briefing from the CBO, Ithaca’s chief information officer communicates goals and new developments on the IT front. This new line of communication has been a smash hit so far, with attendance swelling from a mere seven attendees at the first meeting to more than 100 interested parties who now attend monthly 

Last November, the information technology department was allotted the entire meeting to share the tenets and subsequent adoption of a five-year information technology strategic plan. The plan outlined the redesign of many functions that the campus community had been calling for, and it also highlighted a paradigm shift in how the campus would view and utilize information technology. 

At the campuswide meeting, we unveiled the Four Cornerstones of IT Transformation (for details, see Participants were invited to ask questions, to gain deeper insights, and—in some instances—to share their excitement about the shift. The plan included a new IT and Project Portfolio governance process, and a complete restructuring of the information technology department to place a greater emphasis on the academy and its needs. 

Establish parameters. As CBOs, we will always find incongruence between supply and demand for capital. One of the common mistakes we make is trying to placate everyone by saying “yes” to a little of everything, but winding up with lackluster initiatives that fail to help the institution as a whole. This often results in a “rocking chair” effect, where there seems to be a lot of movement, but not enough traction to get anywhere with any one initiative or project. 

For capital-intensive IT infrastructure projects, it’s important early on to establish the difference between “needs” and “wants” by focusing on the data-guided question, “Why?” “Why does this capital infusion move the institution forward?” and “Why do we need more IT efficiency?” When we focus instead on “How?” or “What?” we end up with simply a wish list based on conjecture, anecdote, or intuition—with no data to support the project or predict potential outcomes.

With so many competing priorities that vie for attention and funding, the CBO and CIO must collaborate on assessing how the proposed project is going to meet the strategic objectives of the institution. If we are focused on how we will improve the academic programming of the college, we still must place a given initiative into the overall context of programmatic analysis and quantify proposals in terms of cost, ROI, and tangible and intangible benefits. 

Recently, for example, we discussed purchasing student-retention software. And, while we all know that student retention is key for institution viability, we also realize that enrollment trends and student persistence are complex and changing variables. In some instances, requested investments in information technology might not fit with our existing campus needs, and might never be pursued. However, this is an instance in which a project is tabled until the proper due diligence and discussions take place on campus to make sure that the investment will meet expectations.

At Ithaca, this overarching philosophy of asking “Why?” has cascaded down to all the levels of our decision making. As mentioned earlier, in our case, wireless connectivity was a clear strategic “need,” because it has the potential to positively impact learning outcomes, student retention, and enrollment. A minor upgrade for the existing wireless network was only a temporary fix for a larger initiative that also represented a definite “need.” So we opted for a comprehensive strategy leveraging our outsourcing partner’s expertise. 

In our newly adopted five-year strategic IT plan, we are putting a more focused lens on the needs of the academy. That conscious shift has resulted in the creation of a staff position that will serve as a liaison between the faculty and the IT department. We have also embarked on a multiyear project to launch a data analytics program as a basis for more-predictive modeling of student needs, collaborative learning, and a platform that will give campus constituents access to pertinent data for their areas to make further data-driven decisions. (To read about the University of Oregon’s recent work in data management, see “DIY Data.”)

Operationalize, but Don’t Break the Bank

The leadership team must ensure that the foundation of IT is solid and then leverage its strength to help achieve the institutional mission. From residential networks to cloud applications and e-mail systems, schools now need to match the sophisticated technology that many students and faculty already use at home. This is why, more than ever, there is a great need to evaluate IT investments. 

Indeed, there are few options in which a school can invest and reap the same returns as in technology. Conversely, an implementation that is ill-advised or poorly executed can represent a significant financial loss. With that in mind, resource allocation and a good amount of due diligence are needed to avoid making bad investment decisions. Here are some elements to consider.

Make the most of staff resources. Before undertaking new work, evaluate the available manpower: Do staff have the time, mindset, and skills to handle the proposed project and see it through? For example, with our wireless upgrade project, we had a small network staff of six FTEs and limited resources to maintain, upgrade, and support a wireless residential network. This led to choosing to procure this service, rather than initiate and maintain it in-house, and free up staff to focus on other priorities, such as renovating our core network infrastructure. 

Ithaca’s recently approved strategic plan also calls for the IT team to implement self-service capabilities for critical services, including requests of the IT department to provide input on projects within departments; to log issues and close communication loops; and to assist with project management. This work is underway in the development of our Services Catalog, which will provide staff the ability to identify services by roles (i.e. faculty, staff, and students) or functions and, consequently, the capability to request or provision the service for themselves. This will eliminate existing manual processes.

Additionally, we are planning to expand our business process improvement capability, which will allow us to analyze key processes throughout the institution, reengineer them to weed out inefficiencies, and then use automation to further improve the speed and effectiveness of the process.

Collectively, these efforts impact the bottom line by ensuring that we are using our valuable human resources as effectively as possible.

Conduct due diligence on potential IT investments. Before deciding to approve the wireless remediation initiative, we conducted due diligence in a number of ways.

Bringing on the Right Partner 

For the wireless project, we chose Apogee because of our long-standing relationship, although the company was not the automatic vendor of choice. Company representatives had to bring forward a clear, cogent, and effective proposal to get the work done, with the least amount of disruption to the campus, and with the greatest upside potential for faculty, staff, and students to be pleased with the outcome. 

In seeking a partner to work on Ithaca’s wireless network, we established criteria for future partnerships: a firm with innovative ideas that would take the time to think through how to do things better, and help the school meet and anticipate student needs. I’ve found this to be especially important for big-ticket items and projects. 

The result for this project was the prompt rollout of wall-to-wall Wi-Fi and reliable connectivity throughout the campus. The “Campus Academic and Administrative Wireless Project 2014–15” started in mid-August 2014 and was completed in 380 days, saving at least a year of staff time. The project included the overall campus survey, installation, and testing of thousands of new access points in 35 buildings as well as upgrading 361 existing systems. Our decision to outsource enabled us to channel our internal team’s energy on other important IT projects, guard against equipment becoming obsolete, and thus enhance the school’s overall IT environment. 

Building Bridges 

In the wake of the economic downturn of 2008 and 2009, one thing that has been consistent is the need to build and retain trust among all stakeholders. This means that CBOs need to be able to partner internally with fellow vice presidents, deans, and faculty to get things done. While we often are called upon to work with others in the cabinet, IT directors at some institutions have not yet, or only recently, reached the officer level. Consequently, the CBO-CIO relationship may be one that is just beginning to develop at your institution. 

Regardless of the current status, the relationship is a critical one, since technology is moving so quickly, and the entire cabinet must work together to achieve transformative change that addresses campus and student needs now and in the future. 

From my own experience, the following practices have been helpful to establishing trust:

Start building relationships early. It makes excellent business sense to establish symbiotic relationships, in which IT and business office leaders and staff face challenges together, each bringing different expertise to the table. When financial considerations accompany technology requests and ideas, there’s a better chance that returns on investment (whether via financial, human resources, or other revenue gains or savings) can be deployed back to the budget. Similarly, the details that the technology side can provide will allow the business office to understand the costs and benefits that might be achieved by implementing a particular project. 

The arrival of new colleagues can offer a great opportunity to start building these kinds of relationship bridges. If the situation calls for initiating ties with existing CBO-CIO peers, it may mean that one or the other might say, “Let’s figure out what our roles are and build a relationship so that we can have a highly functional and efficient team.”

Reach for balance. One of the tenets of a symbiotic relationship is a mutually beneficial coexistence, not a zero-sum game of win or lose. My philosophy is, “If I’m a stingy CBO, the CIO won’t be successful. If the CIO wants every shiny toy, the CBO won’t be successful.” To see how things might be viewed from the other side of the table, I sometimes flip the conversation and ask myself what questions the CIO might have to answer and what he or she will need to articulate. That said, although the CBO cannot say “yes” to all requests, it’s important to use a lighter touch in conveying the negative decision so that people will not be afraid to speak clearly and lucidly about current and future issues. They can disagree with you, but at the same time respect you and what you are trying to do. 

Listen attentively. Information technology professionals have a tendency to want to try the latest and the greatest, despite the expense. Funding every idea places other institutional priorities at risk, or pushes them to the side while investments are made in areas that are not necessarily in need of an upgraded or cutting-edge solution. As CBOs, we have to listen very carefully to all viewpoints, and, where necessary, provide a larger context and narrative that will in turn provide counsel and guidance on budget parameters that the CIO can operate within. Such interactions will respectfully push back on some of the items when necessary and highlight other institutional priorities that cannot be sacrificed. Within that context, the right decision can usually be made where all parties can reach a mutual agreement. 

Be humble and teachable. As a CBO, I need the humility to know that I don’t have all the answers, or know how all the ingredients for a successful technology project come together. By leveraging as sounding boards my CIO, other members of our respective teams, and outside experts in the IT field, my decisions can be as thoughtful and informed as possible. In the meantime, CBOs can reach outside their comfort zone to get a clearer picture of what’s coming around the bend, through resources such as education consortiums, seminars, and conferences. Personally, I rely on my fellow CBO colleagues who are already operating at levels we are trying to attain. 

I also try to read as much material as I can from EDUCAUSE, University Business, and Business Officer. Personal relationships with CIO professionals are always a plus. I’m fortunate in that my spouse is a computer systems engineer heavily focused on software development, implementation, and Web applications. Whoever, or whatever organization has the information, it is our responsibility as CBOs to seek it out and educate ourselves on the current trends in IT and their impact on our campuses. 

Technology can be a tool for good—or an albatross that will weigh down an institution and its overall strategic goals. On one hand, we now have the tools for greater efficiency, data-driven decision making, risk assessment, process automation, and minimizing human error. On the other hand, with more IT projects, there’s increased need for market knowledge, risk management, due diligence, and effective governance. 

While there is no magic formula for reaching technology perfection, the CBO plays a key role in establishing effective technology strategies. At Ithaca, the CIO-CBO collaboration has facilitated our work within different reporting structures with sometimes-differing goals, ensured a level of openness and transparency, and fostered trust among stakeholders—dynamics that  underpin a strategic and effective approach to our technology needs. 

GERALD HECTOR is vice president, finance and administration, Ithaca College, Ithaca, N.Y.

Related Topics

With so many competing priorities that vie for attention and funding, the CBO and CIO must collaborate on assessing how the proposed project is going to meet the strategic objectives of the institution.

It makes excellent business sense to establish symbiotic relationships, in which IT and business office leaders and staff face challenges together, each bringing different expertise to the table.