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Business Officer Magazine
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Oops. How About an IT Do-Over?

Steer clear of these common administrative technology mistakes with the sage advice of these four business officers.

By Margo Vanover Porter

IT blunders abound. Which institution hasn't taken a wrong turn in the ever-changing technology maze?   

Randall D. Gentzler, vice president for finance and treasurer, Loyola University Maryland, Baltimore, remembers the purchase of add-on timekeeping software that never reached full implementation.

"We found it really wasn't a proper fit," he says. "When we pulled the plug, we faced sunk costs associated with the initiative." The lesson learned is "more upfront review and analysis of functionality and fit needs to occur before investing in new systems and software."  (To read more about how institutions can maximize the value of the administrative and related IT, read "Organic IT" in the May 2014 issue of Business Officer.)

Roger V. Bruszewski endorses that recommendation with one additional caveat: Talk to users at length before making a purchase—not after they are screaming they don't like it. "The average user who sits in the financial aid office or bursar's office could care less about the name of the software or whether it's a relational database," says Bruszewski, who is vice president for finance and administration, Millersville University, Millersville, Pennsylvania.

"All they want to know is 'What's on the screen? Is it easy for me to do?' They want to go in and register easily. They want to pay their bills easily. A lot of IT people get caught up in, 'Oh, I don't want to buy this. It's not Microsoft or Oracle.' They get a little too parochial. But the user could care less."

Policy Stems From Mishap

Craig Woody, vice chancellor, business and financial affairs, University of Denver, Colorado, recalls a minor software mishap that led to the development of a major policy governing the institution's IT purchases.

"All IT applications, whether they are ERP or bolt-on, go through a process of approval by the controller, director of internal audit, and director of administrative services in the technology department," he says. "Everything has to have that three-party agreement. All three people offer separate perspectives and are accountable for their conclusions."

Woody and the provost instituted the policy about eight years ago after a line department overrode the advice of the chief information officer on a particular application. "We didn't have a process in place to ensure that people with an element of ownership agreed," he says. "We now have a protocol in place that ensures concurrence across these three tactical fronts."

A common dilemma within institutions, according to Woody, is whether to centralize IT operations. "I'm a business officer, not a chief technology officer, so I look at this somewhat from the outside," he explains. "The issue that needs to be rationalized for each institution is this: 'To what degree are information technology resources, servers, routers, processors, and people centralized versus decentralized?' Until that is examined, the institution might be spending money unnecessarily and not getting adequate results relative to the amount spent."

Although he insists there is no right or wrong answer, Woody tends to lean toward centralization because it allows institutions to achieve scale, consistency, accountability, and accuracy. On the other hand, he says, department heads argue they should have resources closer to them. "And they have a valid point," he admits.

System Look-alikes

The most pervasive mistake noticed by Susan Perkins is "evaluating systems the way we did 10 years ago." She believes too many people still base their IT decisions on factors such as the number of software patches required annually instead of the new services that the institution could provide to students. "Technology should be a tool, not a driving factor," says Perkins, who is vice president, finance and administration, Middlesex County College, Edison, New Jersey.

Another error, she says is to invest in new product and then make it look like your old system. "The inclination for a lot of folks who have been around a while is to make a new product as much like the old product as possible, which is one of the worst things you can do when you're trying to look at business processes and relevant technology. You need to review what you're doing and the technology that's available and ask how you can do it better."

Bruszewski agrees. "I think some IT people have been in the business for so long, they always want to see it the way they know to do it, and they're not willing to accept new ideas," he says. "It's hard for them to let go of control."

As a final note, Bruszewski urges business officers not to expect miracles from new IT systems. "If you don't have crisp, clear processes, a new system or new software will not make them better," he says. "Likewise, buying a piece of software will not solve your management problems. In fact, it is more likely to show how bad your management is."

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Virginia, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.