Feb 07 2011

4 Best Practices for Developing a Strategic University IT Plan

The University of Florida shares how IT strategic planning is setting it on course to add efficiencies and improve teaching and learning.

The University of Florida shares how IT strategic planning is setting it on course to add efficiencies and improve teaching and learning.

There is a sense of urgency on campuses today that all departments must find ways to save money and work more efficiently. Although the economic challenges are immense, it is also an excellent opportunity for an IT department to demonstrate its value to the university. Technology projects can add tremendous value to a university's balance sheet and greatly improve teaching and learning. But they have to be properly planned. Here are four best practices for developing an IT strategic plan at your institution.

Define your high-level goals and then the specific goals that support them. The strategic planning process identifies and prioritizes business goals and the related IT goals. Strategic planning should be a regular activity guided by IT governance and coordinated with similar activities across the organization. It should include the university's historic mission, the existing state of its IT investments, and its IT services, as well as potential technologies that may help the organization meet and exceed its business goals.

For higher education, the larger and more complicated the organization is, the more difficult it becomes to make strategic planning consistent across all parts of the organization. This means that departments, colleges, administrative units and the university as a whole would have overall general strategic plans, as well as plans specifically for IT. These plans would need to be regularly updated in a reasonable timeframe to keep them consistent with the current state of investment, demand, supply and changing technologies, as well as the competitive climate.

For example, for all colleges and universities, distance learning, remote communication, mobile platforms and video are becoming common technologies that IT will deploy for students, faculty and staff. A plan should extend at least 12 to 18 months into the future to ensure that the right resources will be in place – the hardware, software, people and skills that will allow the organization to effectively incorporate one or more of those ideas into daily activities. Equally important is for the organization to identify which of these many opportunities will be implemented and how they will affect business goals and balance sheets.

Set up your governance structure. Governance is the means by which the organization assesses and selects proposals to become active projects. The most effective governance processes are transparent, stable and provide clear assessment criteria for the acceptance, analysis and prioritization of proposals.

For example, in 2009, the University of Florida (UF) created a web policy subcommittee as part of the IT governance structure. One of the group's first actions was to determine the order in which it would tackle the university's web policies. The first result was a list of best practices, www.webadmin.ufl.edu/policies/best_practices, which represents the input from many different people and groups around campus. Throughout the process, we published draft documents for review, solicited input, posted our meeting times and generally asked for as much review and as many suggestions as the community could contribute.

A transparent governance structure such as this lets IT staff advise the organization, coordinate changes with sponsors and identify competing interests to be prioritized. Through governance, IT becomes part of the solution to business problems, assisting with change that the other units own and sponsor.

Demonstrate how IT adds value to teaching and learning. Strategic IT plans should focus on how technology can improve education rather than on technology-defined goals such as server capacity. Measure activities and attributes that are fundamental to the success of the organization.

In higher education, the mission includes teaching, learning, research and, often, service. The strategic plan for IT at a university should communicate in those terms so the ideas and proposals are clearly understood by the whole organization.

For example, UF's Net-Services organization publishes information about network utilization. Although they do release networking benchmarks, what's more important is that Net-Services communicates that the UF e-learning system runs over the network and that it handles as many as 6,000 concurrent students and faculty sessions.

Similarly, the UF High Performance Computing (HPC) group provides professors access to hardware and software for computationally intensive research. Each time a professor tries a new simulation or analysis of his or her data, he or she may run a job on the HPC system. Overall, HPC has many thousands of jobs per month. HPC lets researchers focus on research rather than on managing a local IT high-performance computing environment.

Take the time to communicate your goals. IT strategic planning is an ongoing learning process. Expect to spend 80 percent of your time communicating about the process, related information and planning. About 20 percent of your time will be used to actually create the plan. An IT department should use this communication opportunity to make its contributions to the business goals clearly visible. Consistent transparency, clear oversight of governance and published metrics let the IT staff build trust with other areas of the university.

Consistently collected performance metrics based on objective data lead to IT investment decisions related to the facts and their value to the organization's goals. Internal benchmarking of metrics year over year is a starting point. If possible, also consistently benchmark against peers with a reliable apples-to-apples comparison so that the information is valuable in that context.

The number of walk-in and notebook computer issues the University of Florida help desk handled in its 2009–2010 fiscal year

SOURCE: University of Florida

For example, at UF the general help desk handles questions and issues for the entire campus. The help desk conducted more than 3,000 hours of consulting to the UF community in 2009 while recording more than 123,000 client contacts. Other universities compile and publish similar statistics. Every one of these hours and contacts helped someone fix a problem, accomplish a task, execute their job or otherwise move toward improving the educational experience.

For the help desk example, measures such as average call duration, call resolution rate or help-desk availability define the help desk's activity. Each of these answers a specific question: How long is the average customer on the phone with the help desk? How many calls are resolved? Is help-desk service available when the customers need it? Further analysis lets the IT department better understand how often customer questions are ­answered on the first call or contact, how positive the customer experience is and how effective the help desk is in assisting customers to resolve issues. In other words, these metrics and analysis allow IT staff to explain clearly how they help individuals keep the business running and make teaching and learning possible.

Metrics can be presented in a variety of ways, each of which helps tell the story of how your IT department is helping students, faculty and staff teach, learn, discover, collaborate and educate, making everyone in the organization more effective and efficient.