Symposium Entry

Funding America’s next top higher-ed IT model

August 17th, 2015

Supporting new IT initiatives needed for today’s institutions means implementing funding models as nimble as the technology they support.

Current buzzwords for technology are indicative of how we want it to behave in any environment – agile, responsive, integrative, nimble, and streamlined. The good news is that these attributes are now commonly available in many of today’s solutions. Yet implementing these flexible technologies oftentimes proves difficult, not because of the technology itself, but because our funding models are anything but agile and responsive.

Indeed, the technology funding models we use in higher education have handcuffed IT leaders to archaic solutions that hinder our ability to truly support our institutions’ ability to deliver a first-rate teaching and learning environment in fiscally sound ways.

The Way It Was

Historically, IT teams have built the campus technology environment from the ground-up, implementing hardware builds that require large initial costs followed by routine large replacement costs. Costs so large, in fact, that refresh cycles became the norm – PC refresh, server refresh, backup refresh and the like. These cyclical spending sprees were paid for as capital expenses, which, as we all know, are planned for well in advance. Very few operational dollars—which are annually and more elastically budgeted for—were needed to maintain these clunky, localized solutions. Outside of staff compensation, operational dollars were traditionally only used for software licensing, training/development, and supplies.

But technology, as its wont, changed, and in the process, so did our funding requirements. Higher education technology departments are moving away from homegrown, large builds, and in-house systems. The cloud has offered up better solutions that are easier to manage for less money. Why buy a cow when I can buy better milk down the block for less money and I don’t need to actually feed and house a cow? Why manage numerous computer labs when students would prefer to use their own devices in their own spaces and I, in turn, could save precious real estate and provide virtually everything the students need for less cost and less maintenance? Why endlessly build and harvest a server farm when I can have someone else host my needs for less, in a more secure environment, with near zero man-hours?

A New Move, a New Problem

We are moving toward a more hosted technology environment, which enables our IT workforce to focus more on refining processes and procedures, empowering us to work smarter and harder on things that have an impact on an institution’s core mission and bottom line.

With this trend comes a very real problem. Current expenditures formerly known as capital are now operational. Cloud, out-sourced, remote solutions all typically involve a subscription or routine monthly/annual fee. Not unlike technology as a whole, individual technology solutions today are pervasive, day-to-day, integrated products and services.

In other words, technology is primarily operational.

In a world where suddenly it’s not unheard of for a university’s technology offering to directly impact recruiting, attracting and/or retaining students, technology matters more than ever. If a higher education institution is not willing to morph its technology funding model to be as nimble as we want our technology to be, IT leaders will be forced to continue with legacy systems, regardless of whether or not they further innovation or support the school’s core mission.

How to Improve Funding for IT Today

Therefore, the question becomes, “How can funding models be improved so that they support, rather than thwart, innovation?”

There exists no single pill that will remedy our legacy funding models. It is, however, as easy as 1-2-3 to begin an internal dialogue to reform the process within each institution:

1. Understand the issue and the need. This is massive change in process, procedure, and mindset, and it is imperative that the issues be thoroughly understood. Technology leadership should lead this change process because we have been selling change for decades. Same task, different audience. For years the discussion in higher ed has been selling change to a fearful audience made up of primarily faculty and rank-and-file administration – technology use in the classroom, new solution to better process invoices, and easier ways for advisors to access advisee information. Guess what? We’ve been successful for the most part.

Technological change has moved for many from scary to routine. So now funding for technology must undergo the same change process. This step involves selling change to the business stakeholders who have investments (both professional and institutional) in legacy business processes where standard response for modification in any way is, “Well, we’re just following federal guidelines.” But we all know that these guidelines are pliable and interpreted by different institutions in different ways, and that creativity and openness can take down a host of roadblocks.

As a technology leader, you need to be able to identify the innovative versus the archaic, explain the funding dam that is occurring, and identify peer institutions (as well as institutions that your administration seeks to emulate) that fund innovation the way you want your institution to fund innovation.

2. Right people, right time. The initial discussions need to involve more movement over less time. You need a roadmap to innovation, a clear budget model mapped out, and all the main players at the table – internal and external. External includes everyone from leaders from institutions doing it the right way to consultants and even auditors. At the end of these discussions, everyone sitting around the table needs to feel a significant sense of urgency. This is a new team-building opportunity, one that will help break down any legacy silos and proffer continuous dialogue.

3. Embrace collaboration. In technology collaborations we should no longer expect to work in absolutes. Directives and mandates of technology development and implementation are no longer attractive or tolerated, and the same should be true for creating new technology funding models. Expect to collaborate with a healthy dose of give and take throughout all processes.

As an example, just because you sell a new cloud computing initiative that results in an unheard-of operational increase, doesn’t mean you won’t need to spread it out over three fiscal years instead of jumping all in within one. This is finance and budgeting not Veruca Salt and her golden goose.

Technology exists to provide value, service, and opportunity for improvement for all university departments and stakeholders. Technology can only serve its purpose if it is agile and responsive to the mission it serves. Therefore, it only makes sense that an institution needs to develop a funding model as nimble as the technology it supports.