Putting IT in Order
Bombarded with requests for technology projects, the IT team at the Community College of Rhode Island devised an evaluation framework to align department priorities with en-terprisewide strategic goals.
By Stephen A. Vieira
"Distant" and "not in tune with what the college was trying to accomplish." That's how faculty and staff described information technology (IT) when I arrived at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) in October 2008. They cited examples of unnecessary manual processes, lack of technology solutions, products purchased but never implemented, and incomplete reviews of existing business processes. They also described a pervasive feeling of neglect and disinterest.
During my meetings with them, front-line supervisors, chairs, deans, and department managers asked why legacy systems, which should have been replaced by newly implemented business systems, still operated. They cited two examples: a no-longer-supported imaging system and an artifact human resources database. In both cases, the migration of the data to newer technology was long overdue. The functional users were eager to endorse the new systems—as long as they could maintain the existing records without losing any data.
The legacy systems continued to live because migrating the data was not a priority. Consequently, IT maintained both old and new systems, frustrating functional users who had to switch between the new and legacy systems to find information to do their daily work.
Some CCRI stakeholders could see the opportunity for increased efficiency but didn't feel their own projects were IT priorities. Obviously, the situation needed to change, and it was up to the IT department to put things in order. The question was "How?"
CCRI, the largest community college in New England, serves approximately 18,000 students with 1,200 faculty members and staff spread across its four campuses. Amidst shrinking state funding, growing compliance obligations, and ever-changing technology enhancements, our staff of 40 IT professionals handles network infrastructure, instructional technology, media services, classroom support, a help desk, computing labs, and classrooms, along with all telephony.
Before I came onboard, the technology department dealt with projects and requests for service on a first-come-first-served basis with limitations set by budget restrictions and the predetermined importance of the incoming petition. This system favored those asks that appeared to be most important in the minds of the decision team or that represented large, vocal constituents. Appeals not aligned with IT's goals—or the strategic direction of the college as interpreted by the technology department—received scant attention. The technology division had become a stumbling block to progress and was disconnected to the needs of constituencies.
To bring information technology back into alignment with the institution's strategic plans and goals, we needed to transform our processes by creating transparency in our decision making and involving the campus community. To accomplish this, we chose "IT governance," an informed and collaborative process in which advisory groups, with constituents from the disparate agencies, have an opportunity to review every submitted technology-based proposal. Collectively, the groups can then gauge each submission's importance and its priority based on a standard rating hierarchy.
IT governance, which first emerged as a discipline in 1993, offers the structure, oversight, and management processes that ensure the delivery of the expected benefits of IT in a controlled way to help enhance our institution's long-term viability. It also provides a set of controls that focus on organizational success while managing associated risks. This governance process plays a substantive role in hearing the users' proposals, putting their cases before the advisory groups, and guaranteeing that fair consideration and open dialogue take place for each proposal.
Our chief business officer, Robert Shea, who is vice president of business affairs, actively supported the IT governance model, because he realized that the demand for IT services would continue to grow on the campus. He hoped that involving faculty and staff in the business of allocating technology resources and setting priorities would erase—or at least improve—the technology department's negative reputation among users. As a result of our collaborative series of weekly meetings that began in November 2008, IT governance evolved, creating a structure that relied on input from technology constituents.
Advisory Groups Rate Projects
To prioritize the assignment of IT resources, we asked members of the following three primary advisory groups to rate potential projects:
- The institutional technology advisory committee reviews proposals, establishes technology goals, and acts as the primary conduit to the president's council on emerging technologies and big-picture recommendations. (The president's council provides strategic direction for the college and oversees global decisions concerning policies, procedures, and processes affecting students, faculty, and staff. Its 22 members include the president, dean of enrollment services, vice president of student affairs, vice president of business affairs, chief information officer, and others.)
- The academic technology advisory committee examines issues related to technology support in the classroom and as part of the learning experience. Instructional technology is a primary focus of this group.
- The information systems advisory committee concentrates on issues dealing with student information, human resources, financial services, and other administrative systems. This team delves into everything having to do with Banner and other third-party applications.
We have found that a partnership often develops between the stakeholders submitting a particular proposal and the IT division responsible for its implementation and related IT resource allocations.
In 2009—the first year the three advisory groups were involved—we distributed to members a simple description of each IT request, asking that they rate each query on a scale ranging from most to least important. (See sidebar, "Sample Project Description," for an example of a project overview describing acquisition of additional storage disk space.) We also distributed instructions that I developed in conjunction with the chief business officers and members of each group. After completing this relatively easy task, committee members wanted more; they asked for rating criteria and a sense of how each of the appeals should be assessed.
After reviewing the guidelines and scales of institutions across the country that had implemented similar evaluation methodologies, we developed our own rating system, which we constantly update for weights and rationale. Gathering all these rating criteria into a single spreadsheet took several meetings of the various committees. (See sidebar, "Sample of CCRI Technology Project Rating System" and the accompanying figure to view a sample of part of the spreadsheet, rating the project's rationale.)
Teams Ensure Equitable Review
To integrate other decision makers and stakeholders into the IT governance model, we created two additional teams:
- The Blackboard advisory group consists of faculty Blackboard mentors and instructional technology staff. It helped facilitate the migration from WebCT, the learning management system that was the precursor to Blackboard at CCRI.
- The change advisory board is a collection of deans, chairs, and supervisors from across four campuses who manage the day-to-day activities of the college in the academic, administrative, and facilities areas. This group carefully reviews and controls changes in IT systems that could cause interruptions in service.
Because these two teams feature representation from an extended set of campus organizations involving facilities, students, security, advisers, and others, our process ensures that every project and request is given equal review and rating according to the established criteria.
In developing this model of IT governance, we emphasized alignment with the institution's business objectives. By increasing the inclusive nature of the prioritization process, a comprehensive population of constituents collaborates in the selection methodology for commissioning IT resources while becoming knowledgeable about the interrelationships among various requests.
Effectively increasing the visibility of the potential workload on IT resources adds value to the entire prioritization process when annual review of existing projects is presented to the groups and progress is measured. In setting priorities, the rating criteria distinctly focuses on the risks inherent in each new initiative, whatever the priority of the project.
Supporting Buy-In by CBO's Example
Embracing our new governance model was a gradual, yet easily understood, process of user advocacy, IT understanding, knowledge sharing, and an opportunity to have open dialogue.
Our CBO assisted by adopting the IT governance model and explaining its use to others. His support signaled to all that IT was changing and that we would share the process of priority setting and resource allocation. His emphasis on regulating project implementation and assigning IT resources to those initiatives that reflect the interests of the business units and stakeholders of the college ensured that everyone knew this process had executive support.
We have found that a partnership often develops between the stakeholders submitting a particular proposal and the IT division responsible for its implementation and related IT resource allocations. The true benefit is that every proposal is given its "day in court," and through the advisory group prioritization system, information technology support becomes a tool that is shared and distributed fairly.
Working the Process
Starting every September, deans, chairs, faculty groups, students, departments, and divisions across the four campuses formulate ideas for improving existing systems, using additional technology, or considering a new way of doing business. A cross-functional group consisting of business unit managers, IT team members, and the CIO discuss the proposal, build a project charter, and develop a business case.
In weekly meetings with the CBO, I review potential requests, new projects, and existing business cases, and together we debate the risk, return on investment, and feasibility of each. In effect, we strategically analyze what is currently being done in accordance with where stakeholders want to go. This combination of budgetary and technology input provides the vital information we need to understand what the college might achieve in the coming year.
During this process, we rely on three documents:
- The project charter describes the proposed action and its ultimate deliverable, as well as major risks, constraints, assumptions, requirements, and elements that could influence progress. The project charter also specifies the human resources necessary for success, both IT and functional. A template is delivered to the advisory groups for permanent recordkeeping and future review.
- The project descriptive, a brief document explaining each proposal and the likely benefits of the potential project, is distributed to members of the advisory groups to help them understand why a proposal is being considered and the risks of setting it as a priority (see sidebar, "Sample Project Description"). To enhance clarity, this report is stripped of technical jargon and IT-related terms wherever possible. Each project is described in the overview, and a bold paragraph at the end of the document encapsulates the request.
- The prioritization rating spreadsheet encompasses the best ideas of other institutions combined with our modifications (see sidebar, "Sample of CCRI Technology Project Rating System"). We consider four main areas: rationale, feasibility, costs, and benefits. Each review has its own set of questions, with appropriate scores attributed to individual selections.
We assign a different weight to each of the items within the rationale category and a different number of points for each answer to the questions.
All Proposals Are Heard
IT governance has been an evolving system, dynamic in its players and in its design. The partnerships developed across the departments have been instrumental in the technology division's achievements in the past two years. Previously unengaged stakeholders now have a place to express their concerns, issues, and ideas for improving the way IT supports the institution and its constituents. The process has been a facilitator for the many who, in the past, felt too intimidated to offer suggestions.
When exceptions, such as a proposal based on a new initiative that has just been approved, occur—and they do—the business unit with a strong case pursues that priority exception via the part of the IT governance process that allows for priority requests to move quickly to senior management for consideration. With the CIO position an essential contributor to the president's council, the particular proposal gets its rightful representation. Approved exceptions are adopted into the prioritized plan, completing the organizational process.
With IT governance in place, all project proposals are heard and everyone is aware of what others need and want. Although some leaders are not as happy as others, they understand that the process is fair. We establish a master plan for all the prioritized projects, and the teams know what has been determined as absolutely essential and which elements can wait. Each project has its place in line, and the pace at which it can be finished means that another project on the list moves to the top. This encourages those who have a role to play to stay involved and ready to complete their assignment with the hopes of pushing a pet project along the line faster.
Target delivery dates, though affected by a seemingly infinite number of potential delays, give everyone some sense of when a new product will be available. That helps in the overall strategic planning process. Finally, the IT team members know what they must do and on which project they must devote their resources.
To keep moving, each new prioritized project must get attention on a daily or weekly basis from key resource teams. For those projects that remain on the bottom of the list we award longevity points for each year they sit there, so that they eventually move up on the list. No proposal is refused for review and prioritization, unless the business unit leader decides not to offer it again.
IT governance continues to develop at CCRI. It is an evolving process that through open communication helps ensure that IT will never again become a bottleneck to business growth.
STEPHEN R. VIEIRA is chief information officer and executive director, Community College of Rhode ISland, Warwick.