I spent a significant part of yesterday providing input to the Universities UK review of modernisation and efficiency. The main purpose was to provide evidence of the contribution IT departments make to improving the efficiency and overall modernisation of their institutions. I’m certainly aware of a lot of activity led by IT departments that is making a major contribution to their institutions but one thing that IT departments aren’t good at is promoting their successes. It was a lengthy but productive meeting as Chris Sexton and I highlighted the range of activity within IT departments.
IT directors have been used to running tight ships and so are perhaps ahead of the game in looking at alternative ways of delivering their services. One reason for this has been the lack of recurrent funding to support capital investments; all too often spend on new applications or services has not been backed up with recurrent money for the posts to support those applications or replace related hardware on an on-going basis. So IT directors have had to juggle their resources to continue to support new services whilst continuing to maintain existing ones. This has been one driver behind the migration of email and storage services to Google or Live@Edu, the intention being to lose the effort of supporting commodity services and reinvest the staff time released in other activities that support the core business of the institution. The challenge has been exacerbated by the need to meet the demands of the student body and those demands will increase as fees rise. The incoming students have a high expectation that IT within their institutions will be pervasive and available 24/7. IT directors have sought to introduce new services and infrastructure to try and meet those expectations. This demands greater investment in new services, always something of a challenge when many institutions spend over 80% of their IT spend on keeping existing services running.
Another area where IT has led has been the adoption of standards. Institutions now use structured project management methods across the piece, whether Prince2 or a lighter alternative, and the principles of good service management have spread from adoption of the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) to other areas of the institution. IT departments have led on business process review and improvements – the introduction of Lean as a process improvement methodology has often started from within business improvement sections within IT.
There have been a number of successful shared and managed services introduced in the IT area. A growing number of institutions make use of managed services. These range from VLE hosting to email filtering and virus detection to data centre provision. IT has led the way with recent shared services with the NORMAN out of hours IT support desk and the ESISS Shared Information Security Service both evolving from the HEFCE Shared Services feasibility studies. Others shared services have grown out of collaboration where one institution is providing services for another or where consortia have been formed to procure and support services from a third party. One thing is clear though. Many of these shared and managed services have been enabled by the existence of JANET, itself a successful and valued shared service.
There remain challenges though.
- Perception – the mantra from the Government regarding shared services has largely been about cost. It isn’t just about cost and in any case the savings aren’t always there to be made. More often the drivers are to deliver a better service or to free up resource for activity that delivers better value in the core business areas of teaching and research. Once it is recognised by staff that managed or shared services offer ways of changing and enhancing their role, then there will be greater acceptance and less fear of alternative methods of provision.
- Leadership – institutions’ executive boards need to grasp the nettle and drive through standardisation in their own institutions. This will only succeed with strong leadership – without it academic departments in individual institutions will continue to operate in different ways with the resulting loss of efficiency. There is no chance of sharing services (as opposed to systems) between institutions if there are not standard processes within institutions. Sharing services is where real efficiencies lie.
- Understanding – all too often an assessment is made that a particular system cannot be outsourced or shared because it is critical for competitive advantage. There are a number of points here. Firstly, it is unlikely to be the system that gives competitive advantage but the way it is used, the processes around it. Secondly, the vast majority of processes are not radically different from one institution to another. Once it is understood which processes deliver real competitive advantage then greater consideration can be made of sharing those processes that do not.
There is no doubt that IT can and does play a significant role in delivering efficiencies in higher education institutions. What IT Directors need to do is be more proactive in celebrating their departments’ successes and highlighting the contribution IT makes to their institutions.