Mar 03 2009

Funding Constraints in Higher Ed Gives IT the Chance to Shine

IT departments look for new ways to save money and increase productivity.

By Chris Rother

While funding constraints are certainly causing budget-tightening as of late, the tough economic climate also presents an opportunity for your team to demonstrate the value of fiscally-minded IT stewardship to college and university administrators.

In difficult times, institutions of higher education — like most other organizations — have to seek new ways and processes to create more efficient operations. And unlike the more robust budgets of recent years, it’s also high time to make sure that all project requests come equipped with measurement goals that demonstrate the project’s value in terms of cost avoidance or reductions, and strategic vision.

Our administrators are looking to IT for answers, says Bryan Adams, director of systems and networking at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

“Sure, the IT staff has to do more work with fewer employees, but it’s also a chance for IT to shine,” says Adams. “We have a real challenge ahead of us, and IT can be helpful in clearing the way.”

Get Focused

So what can your institution do? Look for opportunities to make an impact. Numerous college and university IT chiefs told EdTech that for a project to move forward in today’s economic environment, it must either reduce costs or risks or tackle a strategic problem for the university while showing fiscal restraint. Those projects that do get the green light typically manage to accomplish all three of these goals.

On the cost side of the equation, institutions of higher education are making their organizations more efficient by deploying technologies such as virtualization to consolidate servers and reduce power consumption, document management to cut back on paper usage and centralize document storage and e-procurement to shorten invoice approvals and processing.

Take a closer look at e-procurement: When done correctly, e-procurement can transform a time-consuming, paper-based purchasing process into a streamlined operation that reduces the time it takes to obtain new goods, ensures that proper stakeholders are involved and cuts down on the number of work hours required for purchasing. At Penn State, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Washington, IT helped lead the effort to offer a wide number of purchasing options through new procurement systems, while also ensuring that no costs were incurred without the necessary approvals (see “Cost Cutters” on Page 19).

“Before implementing e-procurement, our purchasing services department was a bureaucratic necessity, but we added little value to the school,” says Ralph Maier, University of Pennsylvania director of purchasing services.

“Now that we’re freed from many of our paperwork responsibilities, we can spend more time doing things that add strategic value, like evaluating contracts and vendors,” he explains.

Penn State recently eliminated most of the labor-intensive aspects of its purchasing process through a revision of its internal process when they rolled out their new e-procurement engine.

“By automating procurement, people find it easier to buy things, they usually get their products more quickly, there are fewer mistakes and less paperwork, and the school saves money because people buy more products on contract,” says Mike Conroy, Penn State’s e-procurement manager.

So, yes, while these are challenging times, they also provide IT leaders a great opportunity to solve problems and get noticed.