Oct 31 2006

Understanding Compact Planning for Higher Education Technology

With compact planning, colleges use a decision-making process that requires input from stakeholders at every level of the organization.

Managing information technology for a major university poses more than a few challenges. There are business processes to address and performance standards to meet. There are constituencies to satisfy and security issues to consider. So, when it comes time to make a technology investment, Barbara White, CIO and associate provost at the University of Georgia, Athens, wants to know with absolute certainty that the school is moving in the right direction.

In the past, piecing together an accurate picture was not a simple task. Decisions could fall somewhere between evidence and intuition; need and desire. But in 2004, when White took the reins of IT at the 33,000-student campus, the institution turned to a project management strategy called “compact planning.” Instead of using a top-down approach to mandate policy, actions and spending, compact planning creates a transparent process that requires input from stakeholders at every level of the organization.

Compact planning – so named because various departments or groups within a school create an agreement or “compact” with the school's administration to meet mutually agreed-upon standards – links organizational goals with actual policies and practices. “It transforms a tactical approach into strategic decision-making,” White explains. “An institution can understand and prioritize its needs in a way that isn't possible with conventional planning methods.”

Compact planning helps the University of Georgia clarify which IT initiatives the school should pursue; how IT policy will affect students, faculty and administrators; and how various initiatives tie into funding and budgetary issues. With more than 100 groups and individuals providing input on everything from developing a next-generation network to disaster recovery, “compact planning is changing the fundamental way we approach planning,” White says.

Making Plans

The origins of compact planning date back to the 1990s. That's when a handful of institutions – including the University of Texas, the University of Minnesota and North Carolina State – turned to a new approach for managing the planning process. Instead of the university president, provosts and deans eyeballing a budget and deciding how to allocate money and resources, these schools opened up the process and asked for input from faculty, staff and students.

Today, compact planning is moving into the mainstream. Although the approach can vary from one university to another, most schools plug high-level goals into a three-to-five-year plan. Different departments or constituencies provide input and present a business case for adopting a particular initiative. If the school's administration or investment committee accepts a proposal, the two groups sign an agreement that holds the department to specific budgetary and performance standards. This compact outlines specific objectives and metrics rather than general goals.

At the University of Georgia, the process has helped clarify IT strategies and spending. Beginning in February 2005, White spent eight months soliciting input from various departments, groups and factions through four rounds of discussions, forums and meetings. That brought three major initiatives into the spotlight: disaster recovery, central backup and developing a next-generation network. In the end, “we were able to go to central administration with documentation of need and show how the investment would allow the university to move forward as a competitive higher education institution,” White says.

Although the university won't finalize the compact plan for another year, it has already helped White and other administrators understand which tools and technologies – including high-performance computing, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), bandwidth, security, disaster recovery and enterprise applications – are essential.

On the Mark

Compact planning can drive change far beyond the scope of IT. At the University at Albany, a unit of the State University of New York, with 17,000-plus students and 900 faculty members on three campuses, compact planning is ushering in a new era of thinking and decision-making, according to President Kermit Hall. “It gives us a way to deal with strategic issues revolving around planning and budgeting in a substantive rather than rhetorical way,” he says.

The university is developing a five-year plan based on compact planning that will optimize decision-making across a broad swath of departments. The first step, Hall says, involved developing a draft of strategic goals and using compact planning to introduce initiatives responsive to those goals. Various departments and units developed contracts, presented draft versions to deans and vice presidents, asked for written critiques and responses, and then resubmitted the contracts for a second round of discussions. At the end of the second round, the deans and vice presidents ranked the proposals and sent them to a campuswide investment committee, which then graded the proposals and provided recommendations for funding projects.

Every September, the university starts the compact planning process anew. After discussions and negotiations, the investment committee offers its recommendations by February. Provosts and vice presidents review the materials and present them to the university president, who makes the final decision in April. Not all the compacts require funding from the university, though all reflect its goals.

“In some instances, different units collaborate on an interdisciplinary basis, and the administration will simply ratify the funding,” Hall explains.

Compact planning also represents a winning approach at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “What makes compact planning so appealing is that it creates responsibility and accountability,” observes Tim Barnett, executive dean for student enrollment services. The institution has developed a master plan and introduced a strategic planning committee – which includes academic deans, research directors and others – so it can work with constituencies to develop compacts.

Not surprisingly, compact planning isn't without challenges. Without buy-in, it can't succeed. “It's important to educate everyone on the value of the compact planning process and what it offers them,” Barnett says.

“People must understand that it's a competitive process – with infinite needs making claims against finite dollars,” says Bruce Mallette, a former vice provost at North Carolina State University who has led workshops and sessions on compact planning. “There's an enormous cultural change that revolves around a transparent compact process that is inclusive, uses a bottom-up approach, sets clear expectations about accountability and offers a contract for all to see.”

Compact planning is redefining the face of higher education planning. It fuels open discussion, improves efficiency, provides funding based on a campuswide vetting process and slashes costs. “As accountability grows into a driving force for business and higher education, compact planning promises to serve as a powerful tool,” Mallette concludes.

Samuel Greengard is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore.

Understanding the Compact

An effective compact includes:

• A negotiated, bilateral written agreement focused on long-term planning

• A venue for establishing initiative-based priorities

• A method that creates an alignment of unit and organizational goals and strategies

• A system that provides for accountability through specific performance and outcome measures tied to initiatives

• A process that positions actions, outcomes and performance expectations with respect to shared responsibilities via partnerships and codicils, while identifying funding sources in the context of the university's long-range goals and performance expectations.


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