Dan Wood, Associate Director for User Services in the Applied Technologies for Learning in the Arts & Sciences program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, is implementing a proactive device procurement strategy to help cut down on IT support requests.

Nov 22 2023

How Universities Handle Device Procurement Amid Supply Chain Woes

With greater insight into resource availability, higher ed institutions make better hardware and software investments.

With varying budgets, some of the 37 academic departments within the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences used to try to make faculty and staff computers last for up to a decade, says Dan Wood, associate director for user services in the college’s Applied Technologies for Learning in the Arts & Sciences program.

But keeping the older equipment in use, Wood says, often equated to increased support time and costs. Then, seven years ago, the university launched the ATLAS Care program, which refreshes departmental devices using a bulk pricing model the university established with vendors such as Lenovo and Dell. Since then, help requests concerning items near the end of their lifecycles have drastically declined.

The university has also been able to secure five-year warranties for devices, an upgrade from the three-year agreements previously attached to them.

“That program has been a huge success because the departments don’t have to budget for their hardware anymore,” Wood says. “And they know they have computers that remain in warranty, being under five years old.”

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When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, however, device replacement efforts were impacted at U of I and a number of other schools, including the University of Colorado Boulder.

Departments within CU Boulder generally manage their own device purchasing, in accordance with guidelines set by the University of Colorado’s systemwide Procurement Service Center, says Berkley Jones, program manager for IT asset management at the school’s Office of Information Technology.

Standard computer models from authorized vendors can be ordered for a negotiated price through a portal-based system, which has been in place since 2011.

During the pandemic, challenges such as labor shortages delayed computer purchasing requests, according to Jeff Greene, director of user services within the Office of Information Technology. As a result, Greene says, the university championed bulk orders of available devices.

“Lead times for monitors, desktop computers and some accessories, like docks and adapters, were particularly affected,” he says. “We encouraged people to order laptops well in advance. Many faculty and staff opted to delay receiving new computers.”

READ MORE: Strengthen supply chain resilience with third-party risk management strategies.

Tech Shortages Increase Interest in Enhanced Transparency

Universities’ pandemic-era ordering experiences have led certain schools to adopt a different, sometimes anticipatory approach to procurement, according to Roy Mathew, national practice leader for higher education at Deloitte.

For some, that can include stockpiling items before they are requisitioned.

“We work with one that said, ‘We have a warehouse; we're going to store 75 to a 100 PCs at any given point in time,” Mathew says. “So, when somebody calls up saying, ‘I need a new device,’ we actually have that in stock, as opposed to placing the order and then waiting to get it. That's the type of proactive planning that happened at quite a few places.”

Early in the pandemic, when the demand for faculty and staff laptops at U of I exploded, the liberal arts and sciences department found itself in a fortuitous position. Months before the outbreak, the LAS acquired roughly 100 devices for future use in the ATLAS Share program, which lends computers to undergraduate students in need.

“That was just luck,” Wood says. “Because shortly after the pandemic hit, there was no availability of laptops. We had a big pool of them that we had purchased for our loaner program available to distribute to faculty and staff to take home.”

Other devices, though, proved difficult to source, such as Lenovo mini docks that can be used to connect laptops to external monitors. To obtain compatible devices, the department began working with vendor partners such as CDW, which was able to draw on its relationships with manufacturers to locate possible alternatives.

“Our vendor partners, CDW included, were affected, as everyone was, by supply chain problems,” Wood says. “But they were good at helping us identify other brands that would work.”

Wood and another member of the purchasing committee that negotiated campuswide equipment prices began meeting regularly with the school’s CDW representative prior to the pandemic. When it ramped up, those meetings allowed CDW to give them a breakdown every other week of what items were accessible — and what fulfillment timeframe they were looking at for products that weren’t — so the college could adjust its plans.

“Of course, this was especially helpful during COVID, when we knew the USB-C mini dock, for example, was 220 days out before it would be available,” Wood says. “Meanwhile, we could see that they had 60 of the Kensington units in stock.”

While Wood says the pandemic-related shortages have since notably improved, he still confers regularly with a CDW representative to discuss product availability, then passes the information on to his team.

“They can let the faculty and staff know how long the delays might be or what products they could go with that are in stock,” he says. “That continues to be a valuable service.”

Device Purchasing Remains an Ongoing Endeavor

Although some pandemic-related supply chain constraints are now less of a concern, schools should be aware that tech items can still sell out for other reasons.

In an EDUCAUSE survey conducted in late 2022, 96 percent of IT leaders said recent product or equipment purchases were delayed at their institution, and 65 percent were experiencing hardware lifecycle replacement issues.

Cleveland State University purchases more than 100 laptops a year for its three-week Summer Bridge Enrichment Academy program, created to ease the transition to college for incoming freshmen. After participating in workshop and other activities, the students can keep the laptops if they decide to attend the university.

LEARN MORE: How to design a forward-thinking device management program.

During the pandemic, CSU’s IT department let participants who filled out a remote work environment-related needs survey know that, due to shortages, it would supplement new device ordering options as needed, keeping within university standards, according to Claire L. Grantier, director of the school’s Center for Educational Technology.

When Grantier couldn’t get her first-choice laptop for Summer Bridge Enrichment Academy students during the pandemic, she worked with the university’s vendor, CDW, to determine a viable alternative. CDW offered to send a test machine if she wasn’t familiar with any of the options.

Today, after placing a device order, she typically reaches out to touch base.

“That’s when they usually give me a timeline or tell me if there's a situation going on, and if I should try to maybe get one device as opposed to another,” Grantier says. “I try to be pretty proactive with my colleagues and all the vendors we work with, just to be sure the timelines we’ve laid out are followed. If not, then I try to communicate with my users where we are. That way, they feel satisfied with their experience.”

Tech Vendor Partnerships Can Supply Worthwhile Information

In recent years, many institutions have implemented techniques to facilitate device procurement. In some instances, either formally or informally, they combine capabilities as part of a consortium, Mathew says.

“For example, if you are one university that’s part of a larger state system, or a group of private universities in a specific part of the country, you come together saying, ‘We’re all buying devices from the same vendors. Why don’t we pool our buying power?’” he says. “There’s a financial advantage, where the rates are definitely lower. The support structure and attention you get is higher because you’ve just pooled enterprises together as opposed to buying items 22 separate times.”

Being part of a larger entity can potentially offer protection if unforeseen circumstances cause a demand for devices greater than anticipated.

RELATED: How to minimize common device-related risks in higher education.

“You can rely on that consortium to say, ‘I need 50 of these; do you have 50 of them lying around you don't need?’” Mathew says. “A lot more of that is possible when you have scale. We’re starting to see more of those arrangements come together for financial and budgetary reasons, and also where a certain university just can’t attract the workforce needed to support something — a type of shared service model.”

Group-based buying efforts may not be an option for every university. However, establishing a pre-emptive procurement program that maximizes vendor relationships can help relieve equipment-related challenges, including the need to strengthen device visibility within the university’s network in addition to overall cybersecurity.

IT teams may also benefit from a centralized procurement structure’s ability to streamline critical tasks, such as ongoing device management, and allow the university to quickly add tech resources as needed.

Today, for instance, vendor representatives are continuing to help LAS manage and budget for its ongoing device needs, Wood says, by providing information about manufacturers’ release cycles and upcoming product development plans on a consistent basis.

“They come to campus and demonstrate hardware that’s current and then give us a forecast of product lines coming down the pike,” he says. “They tell us the availability of current stock and how far out it might be for stuff that’s not out yet or is out of stock. Those are helpful meetings to have.”

Photography By Chris Bucher
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