May 01 2008

Be Up Front

Making the case for IT value shouldn't be a last-minute thing.

Making the case for IT value shouldn’t be a last-minute thing.

When evaluating quality and effectiveness of IT systems and implementation, there always must be an accepted and defined standard.

Return on investment (ROI) is probably one of the most common terms used in both the private and public sectors to attempt to quantify what has been achieved in moving forward with just about any IT business initiative.

ROI can be determined by asking questions such as: Did we get our money’s worth? Was our application of resources appropriate with regard to time, personnel and funding? Are there areas in which we can improve our process in the future?

Metrics can quantitatively answer what our return is on what may be a significant investment. When referring to ROI in relation to the metrics we establish, however, it’s not necessarily that simple.

It’s Not the Money

Given the budgetary constraints in educational environments, it’s easy to consider only the monetary costs of new technology. But how can we put a price tag on improvements to the ways students learn and the ways academics teach?

The answer is we can’t. We can, however, arrive at a realistic ROI value. It just has to be thoroughly and properly reasoned out.

“Let’s say something we’ve implemented in the IT area provides research faculty a better opportunity to compete for grants,” says Dave Huth, director of technical services for the Office of Information Technology at the University of Utah. “You can’t put an ROI number or a dollar value there.”

Laying out why a technology is needed and explaining the supporting business case can be helpful, Huth says. “When we propose spending to improve our IT basis, we’ve got to make sure we have a business case,” he explains. “We say, ‘This is why we’re doing this: We’re running out of disk space.’”

Associating a project with a larger university goal also can help. “The university president may have given us a mission to increase interdisciplinary research collaboration,” Huth says. “And based on whatever we do in that regard with IT, have we contributed to that goal? Did we add benefit?”

Make the Case Beforehand

It’s the age-old dilemma of trying to quantify something that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to numerical expression. In order to have any realistic chance of ultimate success in pegging ROI, you have to start early in the process.

“Your return-on-investment viewpoint, especially, has to be done up front,” says Martin Klubeck, strategy and planning consultant in the Office of Information Technologies at the University of Notre Dame. “The mistake, I think, is that we wait until after we’ve implemented a solution, and then see if we can prove return on investment based on whatever metrics we’ve been collecting.”

Klubeck advocates sooner, rather than later, in making the case. “We need to do it up front,” he says. “We need to design in the measures for return on investment when we’re creating our metrics.”

That’s also when measurement begins — up front, when metrics are put in place to help quantify IT progress and achievement. Otherwise, there’s no way to express progress in any meaningful manner.

“I need a baseline instead of a benchmark. I need to know where we are today so I can show that we’ve improved compared to ourselves, regardless of how we compare to somebody else,” says Klubeck.

Klubeck says goals are key. “If I know my goal and I know what I want to achieve, I measure against that ROI up front — before I ever even worry about designing my solution.”

It’s the only way we’re ever really going to get anywhere in coherently expressing IT return on investment to education management.

“If we don’t know where we’re going, any place will do — and any map will get us there,” says Patricia Cuocco, senior director of Technology Policy, Planning and Advice for the California State University system’s Office of the Chancellor.

“The question we have to ask ourselves up front is: What are we trying to achieve? Then develop our metrics to make sure we are moving in the direction of meeting our goals and objectives, which we can express as ROI,” she says.

At that point, the return on investment becomes abundantly clear in terms the administration at an academic institution can study, further analyze and articulate.


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