CAUSE/EFFECT

This article was published in CAUSE/EFFECT journal, Volume 22 Number 2 1999. The copyright is shared by EDUCAUSE and the author. See http://www.educause.edu/copyright for additional copyright information.

Critical Factors in Information Technology Planning for the Academy
by Paul J. Kobulnicky

Information technology planning at institutions of higher education should be derived from academic planning at the institution, school, and department levels and must respond to the associated issues of leadership, sustainable funding, productivity, and faculty motivation. The analysis in this article is derived from an academic information technology planning process undertaken at the University of Connecticut. Fundamental to this analysis is the concept that an increased adoption of information technology is a strategy towards a larger institutional vision and not an objective in and of itself.

The subject of information technology (IT) tops the agenda of almost every college and university today because of the expectations of a technologically advancing society and because aggressive IT utilization is seen as an indicator of a progressive institution. However, IT is also at the top because highly visible yet vexing IT issues continue to be unresolved. Within our institutions of higher education we speak of:

These are only some of the difficult questions that we address in isolation or in mix-and-match pairings with technology seen as the goal rather than as an enabling tool. While the discussions may be occurring on a national basis, within each institution we seldom discuss the future of our academic mission and just how technology can be utilized as a strategic tool to enhance the success of our mission-critical activities within the cost/revenue pictures of our schools and programs.

This paints a picture, albeit a generalized one, of an academy that has not yet come to grips with the decisions it should and must make about technology. We have all seen academic IT strategic plans: a vision statement followed by a series of largely IT-centric objectives which usually have some basis in the "build it and they will come" philosophy. We concentrate on creating "enabling environments" and on "letting a thousand flowers bloom." We follow the classic path of supporting early adopters and hoping that some common practice will flow from their individual and unique successes--an ironically poor methodology for institutions with rigorous research traditions. If we are to begin to make progress in transforming our institutions through the use of information technology, then we must create environments where investments in information technology are derived from a more comprehensive business plan for achieving academic excellence.

For information technology to be effective in significantly transforming higher education at the institutional level, it must be seen as merely one parameter, albeit an important parameter, within a more comprehensive academic planning process. This article is intended to address information technology planning at the institutional level. Across the nation and around the world many advances are taking place in the academic use of IT. However, in any given institution only a very small subset of those advances is being considered. In this context, academic planning refers not so much to broad national movements as to the specific business plans a given institution, school, or department makes about its programs, use of staff, costs, and associated revenue streams.

This article begins by describing a rather typical process of leading a technology planning effort at the University of Connecticut. This planning process was directed toward academic information technology, but it is easily extendible to the broader higher education information technology milieu. The University of Connecticut’s planning process led to fuller discussions of the qualities of leadership that are needed for IT investments to be effective; the characterizations of sustainable funding models; factors of productivity as related to both workloads and cost recovery; the critical issue of faculty motivation; and the importance of academic planning at the university, school, and department levels. These issues are addressed in the sections that follow the discussion of planning at the University of Connecticut.

Planning at the University of Connecticut

Before a strategic academic IT planning process began in the spring of 1997, several other significant planning efforts had taken place. In 1994 the university had promulgated a broad strategic plan, Beyond 2000: Change (online at http://vm.uconn.edu/~www2000 /strapl.html), which gave rise to several significant task forces. The task forces directed the university’s attention to the topics of resource allocation, program assessment, the undergraduate experience, research, the missions and characters of our regional campuses, outreach, and multiculturalism. It is important to note that the need for the university to develop a strategic position on the role of technology in the future of the institution was not mentioned in the original strategic report. Nor was IT mentioned with any clarity or importance in any of the subsequent task force reports. The university’s original strategic plan provided no sense of the level of technological investment expected, yet university leaders promoted the future of the university as a technological leader in our state. With these understandable and self-generated pressures and with technology itself exerting inexorable, external pressure on the university for continued investment and reinvestment, confusion and waste seemed all too likely. In this environment, and with a sense that the university was not making optimal use of technology, two planning efforts were undertaken.

In the late fall of 1996 an MIS planning team was set up to investigate ways to improve the university’s MIS environment. From this effort, plans were initiated to begin a conversion of legacy administrative systems to contemporary client/server systems and a parallel effort was begun to pilot a data-warehouse environment. In the spring of 1997 a strategic planning committee was formed to consider the coordination and improvement of academic information technology (AIT). As the director of libraries, I was asked to chair this AIT planning committee, which was a large, representative group, populated mostly by teaching faculty. It was from the work of this committee and through an analysis of the committee’s vision statement that critical issues in IT planning began to emerge. The committee was aware of the many other IT planning processes across higher education and how the plans that resulted made changes that did little to transform their institutions. We wanted to avoid the same fate.

The University of Connecticut’s vision statement (see sidebar; see also AIT Final Report at http://www.uc2000.uconn.edu/aitrpt12.htm) is rather straightforward and not dissimilar to many others that exist in higher education. What led us to new insights was our collective analysis of the university’s current state with respect to the vision and the factors that supported and inhibited us from attaining that vision.

We knew that the leadership of academic information technology planning and implementation processes was in the hands of technologists while the leadership of the planning and implementation of academic programs was in the hands of deans and department chairpersons. While faculty were often involved in both planning processes and technology may have had a role in both arenas, these planning efforts were separate and were most likely working toward different outcomes. The faculty who served on the AIT planning committee all reported that the discussions of the fundamental roles of technology in which the AIT committee was engaged were not occurring at school and departmental levels. Furthermore, the committee members felt that coordination between academic and technological planning processes was essential to the success of both processes. From these general committee observations, it is possible to derive some of the most important, and all too often missing, roles of institutional leadership with respect to technology.

Leadership

Presidents and provosts must either set their own vision for the future of their institution or they must advocate for a more collectively developed vision. In either case, they must enable their institution to establish a clear understanding of the degree to which the institution should invest in information technology. The purpose of such an understanding is to address transformation and spending. The academic leader must articulate the degree of transformation expected in the university’s basic mission and the role that modern telecommunications and information technologies should play in that transformation. Said in a different way, the effective integration of information technology requires process analysis and process reengineering to enable technology to replace human labor. It is not typical within the culture of the academy to consider what we do in teaching, research, and service as a process, let alone to analyze it or reengineer it. If we are to analyze and reengineer our academic processes, as we must, the pressure to do so must come from the university’s most senior leadership.

The issue of leadership can also (or alternatively) be pointed to the more simple matter of spending. Without specifically articulating radical transformations in the institution driven by technology, senior administration can nevertheless support a new technological basis for the academy by supporting strong funding for technology investments. Said in a different way, transformation and spending on technology must proceed in parallel. William Massy and Robert Zemsky, in Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity, repeatedly point out the need to consider and make strategic decisions with respect to the capital costs of IT versus the labor costs of faculty and staff.1 Such fundamental decisions on spending can be made only with strong administrative backing. Moreover, each institution must arrive at its unique answer to this balance in spending.

The expectations and responsibilities of technology leadership are also changing. The movement in higher education to a chief information officer model recognizes that the institution, if it is to be successful, must begin to think about the strategic issues of technology as a transformative tool and the potential for technology to enable transformation. New IT leadership must also be able to recognize that new technologies are designed to integrate functions and the result of such integration is the need for a much higher degree of cooperation and collaboration throughout the institution than ever before. Most importantly, the new IT leader must be able to communicate and coordinate the transformative and integrative potential of IT to deans, directors, and department chairs to enable informed academic planning. This contrasts with the older, more managerial models of IT leadership where the focus of leadership has been on the selection and implementation of particular technologies to provide an innovative yet robust technological environment. While selection and implementation of technologies are still important, they now must be accomplished in a manner that is driven by academic planning and priorities and the potential for technology-based transformation and productivity gains rather than by advances in technology for its own sake.

The historical development of IT in the academy has largely been one of individual adoption and development. Whether through research uses of technology or through experimentation in instruction, most advances have been led by scholars and faculty working as individuals. The reader should use his or her own experience to consider how few national and regional meetings on the use of technology in the academy are attended by academic deans and department chairs in their disciplinary capacity. If these individuals attend at all, it is typically either because they have a personal interest in technology as a teacher or scholar or because they have an associated IT administrative responsibility within their institution. Information technology leadership at the dean or department-head level for the purposes of transforming schools or programs is underdeveloped in higher education and is one of the chief reasons that most colleges and universities are still in an "experimental" mode with respect to IT-enabled transformations. If we are indeed to be effective in a strategic use of information technology, the transformation of the institution must be led by academic leaders at all levels and must be strategically informed and supported by IT leadership. Most importantly, the involvement of senior academic leaders is critical given their role in budget and resource allocation decisions.

Sustainable Funding Models

Higher education has struggled, and continues to struggle, to provide stable and predictable funding streams for technology. Institutions have instituted student fees, sought external gifts and soft money, and increased their deferred maintenance levels to keep up with the increasing demands for IT funding. Central IT has seen demand for services skyrocket out of control with little proportional increase in budget support. Deans and division heads have been unable to increase their consumptive share of central IT services and have struggled to keep up with replacement costs, let alone with the funds needed for new services in their units. Most university budgeting schemes create enough ambiguity about budget responsibilities for infrastructure and overhead (consider, for example, the difficulty we all have in understanding most university telephone cost-recovery schemes) that few understand which budgetary entity is ultimately responsible for the various IT costs. There is too much budgetary ambiguity in an area so critical to the strategic future of the institution. If we are to be successful in moving our organizations forward with technology, then we must have a firm understanding of what costs are needed for what services, from which budgets those costs will be covered, and that the costs for mission critical programs will be covered completely.

As IT services become an integral part of each institution’s operation, so must they become a part of each institution’s budget plan. One of the very first issues that must be resolved is the set of goods and services that will be provided centrally and the rules or standards for consumption of those central resources. The institution must have a control mechanism for "free" goods, and the control mechanism should be designed to further the strategic interests of the institution as a whole. The funding of central services must accurately reflect necessary service standards to properly enable the academic and academic support services to perform their mission and must reflect proper growth into the future. Once defined, central services should then be funded "off the top" with other units left to fund the remaining services independently. In constructing this central service model, it is clear that the rules of the game must be known and that central service growth must be carefully planned and communicated so as to permit effective planning at the operational unit level.

With IT becoming more ubiquitous in all university functions, spending on IT at the local level is bound to grow. Increasingly, schools and departments will fund their own hardware, software, systems support, and primary user support entirely. Academic units will also fund instructional support personnel directly. In fact, as we move into the future and as IT is more fully integrated into a business-like plan for each academic unit, costs that are direct to that unit and contribute to the cost-revenue picture of that unit will be funded by that unit. It is well known that faculty salaries heavily dominate the budgets of most academic units. However, academic units must increasingly consider the dynamic relationship between revenues and all expenses, including salaries and investments in technology.

Productivity

In the for-profit sector, the metric for measuring success in the implementation of IT is simple. Success is based on increasing corporate profit or decreasing corporate loss either by increasing revenues or decreasing costs. In the not-for-profit sector, IT must be viewed in a similar manner. Technology investments must be seen as a way to maintain or enhance the value of the enterprise in its community, within budget. For higher education this means the external community must believe it is getting good value from the institution in instruction, research, and/or service relative to the institution’s budget. Recent commentary indicates that this is an issue causing some current concern. Nevertheless, not-for-profit budgets still look much like corporate budgets with variable income streams and the generation of a certain amount of return on investment. Nothing precludes higher education from seeking decreased costs or increased revenues through IT-based transformation. However, colleges and universities are also service industries where service ethics are so strong that anything that improves services or improves the community’s estimation of the quality of service seems justified, no matter what the cost. Because of this, higher education tends to argue for increased budgets to implement technology rather than look for ways in which productivity gains can either lower costs or increase income.

In higher education, there are several models for addressing productivity gains through information technology. The implementation of IT can lower costs, especially on the business support side. IT can theoretically lower costs on the academic side, but great care has to be taken not to lower quality. There has been too little investigation of how academic use of technology can lower costs and retain or increase quality. The creation of an IT-rich environment can increase the perceived or real value of the educational experience by providing technology skills training along with academic learning. In the private institution setting this can lead to a decision to raise tuition to cover the costs of the technology-rich experience that might be highly sought after by students (for example, the recent actions of Wake Forest University). In the public institution setting this might lead to increased governmental support by agencies that recognize the value added to graduates of such a program. However, seldom have causal relationships between revenues and technology expenditures been addressed in such a straightforward manner.

Productivity gains through the use of information technology require that the processes that are affected be analyzed so that productivity gains or service improvements are, more often than not, expected results rather than unforeseen windfalls. Productivity gains through IT investment often demand standardized processes within which technology can be applied in a predictable manner. Standardization in the delivery of teaching and learning is not a common occurrence in higher education. To find ways to transform teaching, learning, research, and service successfully through technology, the academy must engage faculty in significant discussions about the core competencies of faculty and what work they now do that might be better done by others and/or by technology. Motivating faculty to view their work in the academy differently is a significant issue.

Faculty Motivation

Higher education faculty are straining to find the time and energy to do all that is asked of them. Most Research 1 universities insist that research revenues increase or remain high despite an increasingly competitive funding environment. Faculty, especially those in grant-driven research disciplines, report spending up to 40 percent of their time just writing grant proposals. The requirement to renew the social relevance of the academy to the community has likewise increased the demand on the faculty for outreach activities. New, student-centered learning programs require not only more innovative preparation than before but also more individualized attention to each student. Increased institutional income is frequently related to increased enrollments, yet increased enrollments require increased sections of courses offered. New initiatives for distance learning require vastly different kinds of preparation and delivery. Most importantly, early adopters of IT in teaching and learning report enormous overhead in course preparation. With time so precious, how are faculty members to cope, let alone be motivated to increase their use of IT?

Ernest L. Boyer points out in his 1990 work, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professorate, that while many forms of scholarship are open to the faculty in higher education, the scholarship of discovery (research) thoroughly dominates the culture.2 In such a research-intensive environment, faculty motivation is frequently related to the acquisition of scholarly prestige. Even where scholarly prestige is overshadowed by the search for excellence in teaching, the demand on faculty to keep current with developments in their discipline requires a serious investment of time. Whether through research as the primary grantor of prestige or through teaching or service, faculty motivation will be strengthened if it is clear that the action that they are being asked to take will directly add to their prestige within their peer community or to their sense of personal success.

Faculty can be motivated in two fundamental ways. The first, more consistent with current practice, is that they can be given more resources to support their independent scholarship. The primary resource that they can be given is their own time, either directly through reduced teaching and service commitments or indirectly through assistance. They can also be given, among other things, space, advanced equipment, travel support, or access to highly skilled and specialized assistants. It must be noted that all of these fall under the rubric of budgeting and the total resource pool of the greater institution. Faculty can also be motivated when they are an active part of a larger, groundbreaking effort in teaching, research, and/or outreach. Increasingly, and related to rewards, outreach often has the effect of granting the faculty members both the prestige of the general community and market rewards for their expertise applied in consulting opportunities.

Information technology and faculty motivations come together in some very obvious ways. Since technology has the public’s eye, innovative uses of technology in either teaching, research, or service provide an easy pathway to recognition and prestige. This has been the path that higher education has taken for the past 40 years. It has been effective, but it has been effective in what has generally been a period of increasing resources, where the added costs of technological innovation could be found within the margins of budgetary increases. In a period of steady or decreasing resources, the costs of technological support for individuals to gain prestige must be measured against other opportunity costs. Technology can be made to pay for itself if it is used to generate additional research income through the advanced use of technology, generate greater tuition revenues per student through the marketing of an IT-rich environment, or enable the teaching of greater numbers of tuition-paying students with the same expenditure of faculty resources.

As long as resources are limited, the motivation of faculty will remain a question of the allocation of resources and what redirected resources will go to any specific faculty member. Such decisions must be derived from a process that considers the outcomes of those financial decisions. To come full circle, when an institution considers an advanced integration of information technology and considers the factors of leadership, allocation of resources, productivity, and faculty motivation, one actually is looking at the nature and quality of academic planning in higher education.

Academic Planning

One of the interesting issues of technology planning on college and university campuses is that such planning has primarily focused on the technology itself. Traditional technology planning processes have made assumptions about the future of teaching, research, service, and the business of higher education and then have moved on to create technologically rich environments that can support as many options derived from the academic assumptions as possible. We have planned from the position of not knowing where changes in teaching, research, and service will take us and planned to be as well prepared to support change when and where it occurs--just in case, rather than just in time. Although some factors of change are external to higher education and not under its control, much is controllable with proper planning. Planning in higher education has seldom been carried out to identify--either in instruction, research, or service--desirable markets or strategies to compete in those markets most effectively. We do not evaluate total costs to get an academic product to market and compare those costs to potential revenue streams under various scenarios. Most importantly, we have not yet begun to think about the costs and benefits of information technology in our academic business plans.

Controversy over the pedagogical benefits of information technology still fills the news. While research on assessment is improving, it is still difficult to find conclusive evidence that the use of technology is strongly correlated with success in learning. Such weak correlation permits some in the academy to question the wisdom of the significant expenditures we make in IT. It certainly makes it difficult to understand whether there can or should be any return generated on that investment, return in the form of increased tuition revenues or increased governmental support. We are in this position because higher education is still in the early stages of learning how to plan to use technology in a deterministic way to consciously improve learning. If our investments in information technology are going to pay reliable dividends, we must craft our academic planning process to address more closely the issues of the costs of technology investments and associated resource allocations to academic units.

We must start by having the faculty in their departmental or school planning efforts consider where in their academic processes information technology investments can either reduce our costs, increase our market share, or increase the value of our product so as to generate an increase in revenues. Technology has too often been viewed by faculty as they view office and laboratory space--as an entitlement or as a by-product of status and/or research funding. They seldom see technology as an investment in them or in their departments and, if it is, it is not with the expectation that such an investment should generate an expected return. That must change and it must change through active discussions led by academic, not technological, leaders.

We must also consider what has been happening over the past 20 years to the percentage of the university budgets devoted to information technology. University-wide investments in IT infrastructure and system-wide staffing must be costs that come off the top of the institution’s budget. If those costs increase from year to year more quickly than the institution’s budget, then we have the net result of decreases to school and departmental budgets. Proper academic planning must be both top down with respect to strategic directions and broad resource distribution and--very importantly--bottom up with respect to the manner in which individual actions can and will work to yield the greatest return on the investments of the academy’s greatest strength, its human resources. Academic planning processes in which faculty recognize how their programs can be strengthened with investments in IT and how those investments can leverage their own time and effort are plans that are most likely to succeed.

Summary

Institutions of higher education are in an era in which their strength in human resources and associated intellectual capital must be leveraged as much as possible. Leadership in higher education must set focused strategic directions for their institutions and set expectations for the level of IT investment institution-wide. IT leadership must provide a new level of assistance to academic leaders on evaluating the potential for IT to improve the competitiveness of the institution as well as the competitiveness of its schools, departments, and the individual students, faculty, and staff. All IT costs should be identified and budgeted on a regular basis and, to the degree possible, IT costs should be borne by the units that receive the income from IT investments. Investments in IT should be designed to decrease costs, increase income, or redirect human resource utilization to free faculty to derive greater rewards for themselves and their institution. Finally, academic planning on our campuses must become more resource driven, with ITseen as an investment opportunity with expected returns.

Sidebar

University of Connecticut Vision Statement

The University of Connecticut will be a leader in the use and development of IT. The university will be a community for teaching, learning, research, and service in which information technology: is integrated into daily life, enhances productivity, promotes and creates new opportunities for learning, is actively explored, and is continually renewed.

Integrating IT into the university community requires anywhere/anytime connectivity. Access must be easy and compatible with a variety of platforms and user styles. Databases must be designed for flexible use where information can be transported seamlessly across applications and platforms.

Productivity will be enhanced by university-wide uses of IT with corresponding minimization of paper flow, by adopting effective tools for efficient information retrieval, by promoting collaboration and coordination using the power of networking to bridge physical and temporal separation, and by improving the quality of work by all members of the community.

Promoting Learning means the creation of a technology-rich environment that provokes continuous growth in educational and research activities, ensures access for all learners, supports various communities of learners beyond classroom walls and university campuses, and encourages members of the university to wisely use electronic media in the classroom and research settings.

Exploration requires a university-wide environment in which individuals and units engage in continuous cycles of discovery and development--trying out and sharing new tools, ideas, and capabilities. Risk-taking is accepted as a natural part of the growth and discovery process and some university units will be recognized as "test beds" for prototyping new techniques and technology. Discovery across all levels of IT expertise will be encouraged.

Continual Renewal means the university will take a proactive and planned approach to technology, anticipating renewal needs, and ensuring that a supportive environment is created and maintained. Renewal must include the complete technology infrastructure--network (internal and broad external connectivity), hardware, software, and related support services. All learners must have access to high quality training and support.

The university will provide incentives, recognition, and rewards to promote innovative and productive uses of IT.

Endnotes

1 William Massy and Robert Zemsky, Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity (Washington, D.C.: Educom, 1995).

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2 Ernest L. Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professorate (Princeton, N.J.: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1990).

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Paul J. Kobulnicky (paul.kobulnicky@uconn.edu) is vice chancellor for information services at the University of Connecticut.

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