Oct 31 2006

Crafting the Perfect Game Plan

With careful preparation and consideration, it's possible to create a technology plan that's aligned with your university's priorities.

Need to design an IT strategy that’s aligned with your institution’s long-range goals? Here's how.

As chief technology administrator, your role is to determine how to leverage technology to support your institution’s mission and goals. This means clearly articulating the connection between your technology plans and the institution’s priorities. In many instances, failure to make a strong case for this connection can result in a lack of funding for IT initiatives that are connected to many of the institution’s long-range priorities.

Of course, the most effective way is to convey both your vision and its connection to the institution’s mission and goals through a strategic technology plan. In the past, IT initiatives were essentially a subset of the institution’s strategic plan. The growing impact of technology in academia, however, has created the need for a separate, more detailed document. Unfortunately, many institutions still have not embraced fully the importance of the relationship between the two.

Alabama A&M University, one of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in Normal, Ala., is beginning to develop a technology plan. Chris Odionu, Alabama A&M’s CIO, believes that the lack of a clear plan in the past has hampered the university’s efforts to remain on the cutting edge of technology.

“My focus has been on creating strategic goals and charting strategic principles, with objectives that shape our tactical plans and approaches as we explore, evaluate, select, implement and leverage technology use throughout the campus,” says Odionu. “The university’s vision for the future — how it sees itself — is dependent upon many factors, but prominent among them is how we plan to deploy and make use of the emerging information technology resources. A blueprint in the name of a strategic plan becomes a valuable document that guides our actions, initiatives and implementation strategies.”

Similarly, other HBCUs are facing challenges surrounding enrollment, aging infrastructure, obsolete administrative systems, and demands from students, faculty and staff for ubiquitous computing resources.

Odionu has assembled an advisory committee with representation from across the university. The committee’s charge, as given by the university’s president, Robert Jennings, is to develop a plan that “maximizes the use of information technology to enhance the administrative and academic instructional programs at the university.”

On the other hand, Hampton University, located in Hampton, Va., is updating its technology plan, first developed in 2000. As a small liberal arts institution serving approximately 6,000 students, Hampton has remained in the forefront of new and emerging technologies due to its success in linking technology to its strategic goals. Named one of Yahoo’s “Most Wired Colleges and Universities” in 2000 and 2001, Hampton was also ranked sixth on Forbes.com’s “America’s Most Connected Campuses” list in 2003.

“Adherence to the university’s 10-year strategic plan has kept us on course as we continue to carefully and methodically map the future of our institution’s technology infrastructure, advancing in ways that will only enhance our teaching, learning and administrative processes,” says Teresa Walker, Hampton’s interim assistant provost for technology.

Where Plans Go Wrong

Technology plans are designed to follow the strategic priorities outlined in the institution’s master strategic plan. However, the two are different in both their approach and the way in which they address institutional priorities. This is one of several major oversights usually found in technology plans that can ultimately hinder their effectiveness. Other pitfalls include:

Lack of buy-in: An I T strategic plan is an inclusive process. Not involving all key stakeholders in the process is a guaranteed prescription for failure.

Focusing on technology instead of need: Resist tendencies to incorporate technology for purely technology’s sake. Technology becomes obsolete at a rapid pace. Accordingly, the strategic plan should focus on needs, which will drive the proper selection of technology at the proper time.

Too techie: Many technology plans read like tech manuals. The audiences for most technology plans are senior administrators, trustees, faculty and staff. This needs to be taken into account with the language used to describe the plan’s initiatives. The objective is to inform and to focus on clearly defining links to the institution’s goals and objectives.

Not flexible: Expect priorities to change, particularly in academic environments. Many technology plans are not designed to accommodate adjustments to the institution’s priority changes.

Failure to take into account various constraints: Environmental variables, such as emerging technology trends, the state of technology within an institution, and assumptions about financial and personnel resources, shouldn’t be overlooked.

Action plans are too detailed: Strategic plans are meant to be general. Many plans get bogged down in the details describing the steps to reach strategic goals.

No review process: Without a periodic assessment of your strategies, tactics and action plans, it’s impossible to evaluate the effects of specific actions on long-term results and on the institution’s vision and mission.

The Basis of an Effective Plan

In addition to linking it with institutional goals, an effective technology plan has to take into account a variety of complex assumptions, constraints and unknown factors to ensure a sense of reality and meaningfulness. It also requires a tremendous amount of buy-in since its scope crosses all campus constituents.

Understand your institution’s mission: It’s impossible to align a technology plan with the strategic direction of the institution if you don’t understand the strategy itself.

Identify current conditions and assumptions: It’s important to assess the environment in which the institution exists, particularly technological, economic and demographic trends, as well as political, social and financial factors.

Develop realistic goals and action items: Goals should incorporate both short- and long-term objectives with clear strategies to achieve these goals within measurable time frames. Simplify the process by focusing on five major categories: infrastructure, teaching and learning, library automation, administrative applications and IT organizational structure.

Create clear communication channels: Keep all stakeholders in the loop throughout the process.

Build in flexibility to make changes as needed: Plans must be flexible enough to accommodate changes in strategy when the situation dictates. Should the institution change its direction unexpectedly, the IT plan must be able to adapt accordingly.

As challenging as the effort may seem, there are significant advantages to be gained by developing a technology plan that supplements and supports your institution’s strategic plan. Avoid common errors and focus instead on the desired result: technology capable of addressing the academic and administrative demands that will continue to challenge the institution in the years to come.

Walter T. Geer is a senior consultant for The Cambridge Academic Group in Boston.

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