How finance should be driving universities' technology investments

Lynn Russo Whylly's picture

John Curry, managing director of higher ed consultancy Huron Education, is an expert on improving performance, reducing costs, and leveraging technology. At UBTech 2013 in June, he spoke about the many ways that public universities could use their technological investments to combat lower enrollments and reduced state funding.

The opportunities are everywhere, Curry says. Those who have been successful in this area might achieve the holy grail of today’s university goals, which is to be a “top 20 in 2020.” But the majority, he says, have a long way to go, as most are still paper intensive, despite the fact that they have invested millions in software like PeopleSoft, Oracle, and Banner.

The problems fall into four key categories:

  • There are too many spans and layers. A Bain study of Berkeley showed that just over three people report to each manager there, creating a pyramid-like hierarchy that would put Egyptians to shame.
  • There is huge duplication of administrative services, including IT, between departments and central administration, and economies of scale are missing. One university Curry visited had 87 separate email addresses for its faculty and students where one would do.
  • Many are making uncoordinated IT investment choices. Another institution he met with had 250 software solution proposals on the table across campus, with multiple duplications.
  • Data analysis is weak and business cases are underdeveloped. Programs are living long after their markets have died, he says, and a new pedagogy (i.e., MOOCs) is disrupting and challenging faculty in the university of the future.

The missed opportunities in productivity gains, he says, are staggering. “If IT managers could turn on all of the workflow capability on the PeopleSoft system that universities already have running, eliminate forms, have approvals done electronically and go completely paperless, there’s a fortune to be saved there,” Curry says. “You can easily take three or four layers out and still have a functional ‘control and authority’ system that most people could manage.”

IT infrastructure costs outside the IT shop are typically two to three times the cost inside the central IT shop. And in many cases, those IT capabilities duplicate central administration, Curry notes. Many universities, however, are virtualizing and are saving enormous amounts of money doing it, but it’s not easy. It requires a common data warehouse and a common business tool for processing, and many are currently using three or four.

Finally, he says, universities commonly resist the hard work of implementing workflow and disintermediation and adding software products along the way to really make things flow. Universities that are good at this should look at that investment, as it is typically dramatic.

IT department heads need to lead the way, Curry says, by calculating and publicizing the ROI. If ROI to either the university or a specific department is significant, faculty will be more willing to change their ways.

To view John Curry’s UBTech 2013 featured presentation, click here.

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