How to Streamline Your University's Information Technology Procurement

When it comes to procurement and technology, users often clash over hardware and software requirements. Here's how to navigate the friction points.

Here's how to streamline your institution's information technology procurement process and deal effectively with the friction points.

Three years ago, Colorado Christian University (CCU) set out to bring some sanity to its IT purchasing processes. After years of random desktop and notebook PC purchases, the costs of maintenance and upkeep were adding up.

“At its peak we had well over 25 machine configurations,” explains Jeremy Porier, senior director of information systems and technology at CCU in Lakewood, Colo. When the time came to order new computers, they just called around, because sometimes one vendor offered the best deal, other times it was a different vendor, he adds.

And sure enough, there was always a new driver and software conflict. “Every purchase was a new experience,” he says. Maintenance costs reached about $25,000 annually.

So CCU went on a strict procurement diet. Going forward, it would purchase only Hewlett-Packard desktop and notebook PCs with processors from Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). Operating systems would be standardized, with few exceptions.

“There are very few situations where you can make a legitimate argument that you need more than the basic PC that we purchased,” Porier says. “The AMD processors really lowered our cost on a per-unit basis.”

With a streamlined procurement operation, maintenance costs shrank dramatically to between $2,000 and $5,000 a year. But the transition wasn't all smooth sailing.

With so many parties involved, it's not surprising when some departments have their own ideas about hardware and software purchases – a problem that's not uncommon in universities today.

“As colleges are under increasingly more pressure to control costs, they're starting to turn over every rock, and that includes attempting to centralize things,” says Rob Trembath, director of cost savings initiatives for the Midwestern Higher Education Compact, a Minneapolis-based organization of 11 states dedicated to improving higher education in the region. That leads to friction among procurement officers, IT staff and end users. “There's certainly an independence factor in higher education,” especially when it comes to technology, Trembath adds. What's more, procurement processes that may work for small colleges often don't work at large universities.

Trembath and other experts say there are ways to identify friction points in the procurement process, as well as ways to smooth over apprehensions about new technology.

Typical Procurement Friction Points:

No communication between departments. Individual colleges within a university prefer to do their own thing without interference. In a Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications study of 10 universities, “one university had three institutionwide licenses for the same product because they couldn't overcome the politics of the different units on campus,” says Russ Poulin, associate director for WCET, a college and university organization based in Boulder, Colo. “If you were on the inside, it made sense; if you were on the outside, it was utterly ridiculous.”

University is too small to gain economies of scale. At universities that maintain about 500 PCs, it's hard to negotiate a good deal on hardware, software and maintenance.

University is too big to get everyone to agree. Some larger universities are actually decentralizing some purchases, as one solution doesn't fit every group's needs.

Financial leaders want the cheapest price. “Your vice presidents and executives see an ad on TV that says we can get a PC for $299, so that's what they expect,” CCU's Porier says. The problem is that they are probably not aware of the lack of capabilities and maintenance that you get for that low price.

Despite these friction points, educational IT leaders shouldn't despair. A smart approach to tech purchasing can keep IT departments, procurement officers and end users happy.

Eight Steps to Procurement Harmony:

1. Money talks. Explain that everybody doesn't get exactly what they want, but together they can save their departments money. Let the departments split the revenue that is saved through the group purchase. They may not be controlling the software decision, but a third of the savings may go into their pockets.

2. Explain the long-term benefits. All parties must understand the long-lasting benefits of standardization beyond the initial purchase. When a PC crashes, repairs can be made sooner when the maintenance staff is familiar with the hardware, for instance. CCU became so proficient in servicing its HP desktops and notebooks that it became an official HP service shop.

“We call in warranty repairs and they ship us the parts” for the repair, Porier explains. “The best benefit is not waiting for a technician to show up.”

Standardization also allows CCU to call HP's business-based help desk line for assistance instead of the more congested consumer support line. “It saves you time,” he adds.

3. Find a consortium of departments with similar needs. Trembath recommends joining consortiums, such as Midwestern Higher Education Compact, that bring together similar departments from other universities with the same hardware and software needs. These consortiums do the legwork to find the best deals on hardware and software.

Other consortiums include the Mount Pleasant, Mich.-based American TelEdCommunications Alliance, where colleges can enter joint purchasing agreements with other schools and state agencies for a $75 annual fee; and the National Joint Powers Alliance in Staples, Minn., which is free.

4. Become an expert. At Wayne State College in Wayne, Neb., CIO Dennis Linster has been driving procurement initiatives with a velvet hammer for more than a decade. But when he began chairing the technology steering committee of the Midwestern Higher Education Compact eight years ago, he found that his credibility on campus rose significantly.

“Instead of quoting yourself, you can quote what other schools are doing” in the procurement area, Linster says.

5. Large universities can decentralize. With larger institutions, it makes more sense to push purchases out toward colleges or departments, according to WCET's Poulin. He gives an example of a university that is large enough that vendors will give it a price break even in decentralized situations, because there are still enough people buying. Yet, the procurement department doesn't dictate whether or not they have to buy.

6. Make visible the hardware and software replacement plan. At CCU, end users became more agreeable to the school's procurement plan when they learned that their desktop and notebook PCs would be replaced every three years. What's more, since technology prices are generally decreasing, the new computer will be even better equipped.

7. Give those TV ads a reality check. Explain to money holders that there's more to purchasing a PC than the price, and spell out the maintenance costs and the model's lifecycle. At CCU, “we had many of the cheaper, consumer-based PC models in our rotation, and we could show what it cost to maintain and repair them – compared to Compaq business-grade notebook PCs,” Porier says.

8. Trust the experts. Procurement officers, if they're smart, work with the content experts – whether those experts are found in IT or in band equipment. “Those people have spent their lives knowing their subject area,” WCET's Poulin points out. “You need to trust their expertise” when making hardware and software decisions.

Stacy Collett is a business and technology writer based in Chicago.

Oct 31 2006

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