The Necessity for Adopting a Strategic Vision for Technology

Param Bedi, VP for Library and Information Technology, Bucknell University
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Param Bedi, VP for Library and Information Technology, Bucknell University

There are increasing pressures on higher education institutions to contain cost. In the past decade, we endured the 2008 financial crisis, then again in 2015 our endowments saw low or negative returns, and now with Brexit, we are all waiting to see the long-term impact on the markets. The conversations among CIOs have often turned to the perception that IT departments often have insufficient resources to keep up with technology on their campuses. Higher education is not known for canceling or sun setting services, be it on the administrative or academic side. The economic downturns (and the ensuing financial issues they created) gave IT the perfect opportunity to re-evaluate workflows, processes, and services.

Does IT really need to continue offering everything they always have? Just because they did it in 2006 doesn't mean that they need to do it in 2016. Faculty and administration share a similar mindset and are much more open to having these discussions in the context of the larger strategic vision for technology on campus.

These external forces have forced CIOs to think strategically and transition some areas of the IT organization from support to partnership. IT departments have increased their attention to the academic side of the house, giving them the opportunity to become more strategically involved with institutional goals. They can do this by examining staffing, revamping processes, moving products/services to the cloud, and strategically reallocating positions to capitalize on this new academic focus.

Bucknell's Approach

In 1997, Bucknell University merged the library and information departments into Library and Information Technology to create a unified organization that has evolved into one that has shed many of the traditional distinctions that separate library and IT departments, and in the process has become much more academically focused. Over the past several years, we have attempted to design projects that will distinguish our university in the eyes of not only the campus community, but also external constituents. We devised four significant initiatives that we thought would set Bucknell apart: digital scholarship, summer course redesign grants, open educational resources, and business intelligence/predictive analytics.

  The application of advanced analytics is happening all around us.  We are surrounded by ‘machine learning’ and often don’t even know it 

To make sure we meet our goals for these and other operational projects, we created a department of Project Management and Assessment. We have funded these significant strategic initiatives without any new budgetary resources by reallocating budgets and staff positions from elsewhere in the organization.

An essential part of the reallocation process is change management. We recognized this from the start and made sure we used the change management process for all our reallocations. Our strategy was to reallocate budgets and positions from transactional functions to transformational initiatives. This meant taking stock of the skill set we had in the organization and doing a gap analysis on where we need to be to realize our long-term strategy. This proved challenging, as we investigated moving positions and budget dollars. Having a strong leadership team was key, because they participated in the process of designing the long-term strategies. So, for example, if we moved an open technology support position to support digital scholarship, the leadership team understood why this strategic decision was made.

In IT, with every initiative considered, comes the question: How is this project or initiative going to distinguish my institution? Once IT has answered this question, IT leaders need to determine whether they have the staffing and budget resources to execute the plan. Not every project will pass this test, but it will help ascertain where projects fit with each institution's strategic goals.

Cloud Computing

Moving to Google Mail

Many campuses have moved to Google Mail, Office 365, or other cloud-based solutions for campus e-mail and calendaring. Moving to Google Mail produced significant savings for us in terms of staffing, equipment, and cost. We no longer need to spend staff time and resources on setting up and maintaining servers, filtering spam, licensing desktop mail/calendar clients, and so on.

Moving to a Cloud-Based Library System

The decision to decommission our long-standing on-site library system was not easy. It required us to become an early adopter of a somewhat revolutionary idea: completely moving our library system (circulation, acquisitions, cataloging, and discovery tools) to the cloud. Adopting OCLC WorldShare, a hosted solution, as our library system, resulted in savings of over a quarter million dollars. Because the system is cloud-based, we don't need any servers for it on campus, we no longer need a systems librarian, and we don't need third-party discovery tools, since OCLC offers its robust WorldCat front end.

Data Center

At Bucknell, we have successfully transitioned much “software as a service” to the cloud, but now are actively planning to move some of our infrastructure to the cloud. The reasons are simple: provide disaster recovery, provide scalability during peak times, provide a place for experimentation with new technologies, and reduce the cost of capital investments in hardware.

The cloud offers many opportunities for colleges and universities to re-think what services they provide to their constituents.  At Bucknell, we are even moving our Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems to the cloud, and by the end of 2017 will have transitioned our Admissions, Finance, Human Resources, Payroll and Developments systems to cloud providers. 

Big Data and Predictive Analytics

The application of advanced analytics is happening all around us. We are surrounded by “machine learning” and often don’t even know it. Think about the last time you posted a picture online. How did the website know to tag your friends? The answer is computing power, supervised and unsupervised statistical techniques, and the use of big data (i.e., structured and unstructured data, internal data, external data, data created from other data fields, etc).

 For colleges and universities (CU), there are a number of questions that can be addressed with the use of analytics at any given point in the post-secondary student enrollment lifecycle, including student marketing and recruitment, admissions decisions, financial aid support, the formative campus experience, student graduation, and ultimately interaction as alumni. Some questions include: Where and how do colleges and universities market to get the best students? How will the increasing student diversity in CUs impact retention? How do CUs proactively identify struggling students to help them succeed? How do CUs create a more engaged student? What “nudges” can CUs leverage to improve student engagement and success? What can CUs do to increase alumni interaction and donations?

At Bucknell University, our analytic efforts are focused on analyzing and improving student engagement and success through the use of big data and advanced analytics. Our approach is that, almost every student can be successful when the university provides him or her with appropriate and individualized resources.  That is where the power of predictive analytics comes in. We can apply the analysis to each student, and know which students we need to reach out to, and provide appropriate resources.

I think higher education CIOs have the best job on campus; it is one of the few roles where you get to engage with every constituent: students, faculty, staff, trustees, alumni and with the community in general.

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