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Business Officer Magazine
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Out With IT

To accelerate the overhaul of an aging information technology system, Muskegon Community College turned to an outsourcing provider.

By Diana R. Osborn

In other words, we did not practice what we preached.

Part of the Upgrade Plan

The irony of the situation was not lost on Muskegon’s administration. In 2000, the college embarked on creating a comprehensive master plan for the campus. The initiative resulted in “Student-Centered Learning for the New Millennium,” a published strategy that devoted an entire chapter to technology—specifically, to upgrading and integrating systems campuswide. In fact, nothing in the plan raised as much emotion or controversy as the status of the technology application systems then in use.

The plan’s priorities included construction of a new library that was less about physical books and more about information technology. The new facility would feature a large computer laboratory that would replace a number of small, outdated labs scattered around the campus, which often lacked up-to-date software and had proved difficult to staff.

At the time, Muskegon found it nearly impossible to retain IT staff. We often hired our students as employees and, once they finished with their classes, business or industry would hire them away for twice the salary. The constant turnover placed us in a reactive mode and left little time for planning or standardization of practices.

Another problem was the aging legacy system. The IT staff had literally built it in the 1970s and, understandably, took pride in their work. Although staff did their best to work around problems, the primarily mainframe system was not up to today’s data-driven tasks and was incapable of integrating student services, operations, and other areas.

As an example, Muskegon’s students would think they were signing up online for a class, but the registration process wasn’t live. Behind the scenes, someone had to process the registrations manually and send confirmations. Students would register for a class and think they had gotten in, only to be told later that the class was full.

Given its position within the community, Muskegon could not afford to be seen as out of date or out of touch. To best serve our varied customer base—which includes traditional high school graduates, older students, and business clients—we realized we had to move to a more PC-based network, reduce our reliance on paper-based processes and “shadow” systems, and integrate data across departments and offices.

From Here to There

Answers At All Hours

By Bill Lovejoy

It’s 9 o’clock at night, and a Mohave Community College student taking an online course encounters a technology problem. She calls the college’s helpdesk, only to hear a recorded message: Technical support is only available between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. She’s out of luck until the helpdesk reopens in the morning. The student’s frustration mounts, and her satisfaction with the college drops.

Two years ago, too many students at Mohave, located in northwest Arizona, experienced that situation. Even if they called the helpdesk during established business hours, they often had to leave a message and wait for someone to return the call. That “someone” was either Mohave’s manager of user services or a part-time worker; the two handled all requests for computer support for the college’s four campuses, which serve students dispersed across 13,000 square miles—an area slightly larger than the state of Maryland. Not surprisingly, the number of calls often overwhelmed them, especially during peak periods such as registration.

More Callers to Miss

Mohave’s skyrocketing enrollment contributed to the need for quality helpdesk services. In four years, unduplicated headcount enrollment had increased by 37.4 percent. In 2005 alone, full-time enrollees increased by 22.5 percent, stretching faculty and staff resources. The number of online and blended learning courses expanded significantly, growing from 2 percent of total FTEs in 2003 to 18 percent three years later.

The double-digit enrollment growth, together with the higher percentage of distance education students, strained Mohave’s ability to provide access to computer support. Online students who needed support in the evenings, when they were taking classes, simply had no one to call. By 2005, the demand for services had grown to the point where the college needed to either hire more people or find an outside firm to help.

After studying the problem and calculating the costs of possible options, the college issued a request for proposal that garnered a half-dozen responses from outside firms. Because Mohave already outsourced its bookstore and has even outsourced positions such as vice chancellor for instruction and dean of student services, seeking an IT service provider to handle helpdesk services seemed a natural step. 

No Visible—Or Audible—Difference

In 2005, the college signed a contract with an outside firm to provide 24/7 helpdesk services. To our students, the service is seamless. They still call the same number for assistance, and the technicians answer the calls as if they are on site at Mohave rather than several states away. An advanced call-routing system enables one designated group of technicians to serve as Mohave’s primary support. This approach provides continuity for end users and technicians alike.

During the two peak seasons—the beginning of fall and spring semesters, when call volume increases significantly—the firm provides three dozen additional staff. The college’s outsourcing provider also offers helpdesk support for course management systems.

After its first year of outsourcing campus tech support, Mohave saw demand for the IT service reach nearly 10,000 requests, a 54 percent increase over the previous year. The technicians resolve three out of every four calls to the central helpdesk; the remaining 25 percent of calls are routed back to Mohave staff and generally resolved within 12 hours. Thanks to instant messaging capability, Mohave’s manager of user services can easily communicate with the helpdesk staff to handle the more difficult problems. She talks weekly with the outsourcing firm to review the weekly calls and keep the service working smoothly. 

On average, customer satisfaction with Mohave’s helpdesk rates 8.5 on a 9–point scale. On the financial side, our outsourcing contract costs about $130,000 less annually than if the college attempted to provide the service in-house, not to mention the costs of training, support equipment, and turnover. As for our students, the late-night frustration of an unresolved technology problem has become a thing of the past.

BILL LOVEJOY is vice chancellor for administration, Mohave Community College, Kingman, Arizona.

But how would we accomplish that? Should we keep our legacy system, move to an ERP (enterprise resource planning) administrative system, or take a hybrid approach? To gain an outside perspective on our circumstances, Muskegon engaged a consulting firm to review our administrative software environment and make recommendations for future directions.

The review, which included staff interviews and focus groups, centered on this question: Does the college have the systems foundation it needs to move forward and to be supported in its goals and objectives? In response, the firm’s report did not mince words. After detailing the college’s shortcomings in the IT area, the consultant noted, “The college’s current technology is too obsolete to be an appropriate foundation for the future.” Projecting an image of the Milky Way galaxy on screen, the consultant concluded, “You are light years away from where you should be now.”

As we had suspected, our legacy system had long since passed its prime. Getting from “here to there” with our campuswide technology needs would require the acquisition and implementation of a single, integrated commercial package. And that was something we didn’t have the capability to do in-house. 

With the support of Muskegon’s new president, we issued a request for proposal. Ultimately, the college signed a seven-year contract with SunGard Higher Education to manage our entire IT solution.

Measurable Improvements 

To be sure, outsourcing the IT function is an expensive proposition: Our annual budget for IT more than doubled in the first year of the contract and has increased approximately 9 percent annually. In Muskegon’s situation, however, we’ve found outsourcing to be an effective means of getting more value for our IT dollar. Here’s what we’ve gained:

Expert guidance. We rely on our IT service provider to share proven methodologies and best practices from the other institutions it serves, as well as to help us strategically align technology resources with our academic mission. Assistance has included offering staff development and training programs related to technology and providing information on grant opportunities.

When Muskegon signed the outsourcing contract in August 2005, we were in the midst of making our $7.5 million Library Technology Center operational. Our outsourcing provider immediately stepped in to help us consolidate the individual services provided by the library and open labs into a single suite of services for the campus and the community. It also alerted us to some potential problems—such as placement of wiring—that we could correct before the building was completed.

Purchasing power. One advantage of contracting with an outside vendor can be the firm’s ability to negotiate favorable pricing. Over the seven-year term of our service contract, for example, we estimate savings of more than $996,000 on software acquisition and support.

Peace of mind. Muskegon no longer has to worry about IT staff turnover. If people quit, the problem belongs to the IT service provider. Even if someone in a critical position were to leave, the firm has the ability to pull another employee from within its organization to help out until a permanent replacement can be hired. Likewise, if a server goes down on campus, the company has the responsibility of providing remote backup.

Increased and streamlined services. Most important, Muskegon now meets students’ expectations for technology. From their computers, students can register for classes, access their schedules, see their grades, order a transcript, or receive e-mail at their college-provided addresses. About 75 percent of the existing buildings now offer wireless capabilities, and a helpdesk staffed 24/7—a first for Muskegon—provides professional IT support service for students, faculty, and staff.

The hodgepodge of systems that existed in the past has given way to an integrated, streamlined suite of IT services. Staff can easily access and share information ranging from registration and scheduling to student accounts and financial aid; our faculty no longer feel the need to maintain their own databases on their home-based servers. The outside firm also hired an instructional designer, who helps faculty make full use of technology in their curricula.

Both faculty and students have expressed their satisfaction with these bigger, better IT services. According to our periodic surveys, satisfaction with IT at Muskegon has skyrocketed in the last two years, going from 5.99 to 8.41 (on a 9-point scale). That represents a 40 percent increase in employee satisfaction. 

Some Bumps

With the recent introduction of its student services module, Muskegon completed the transition to its new administrative system within two years. This aggressive schedule put a lot of pressure on staff, who had to master one new program after another while keeping up with their work responsibilities.

In retrospect, we should have introduced fewer modules during the summer. In our eagerness to get the new system up and running, we did not account for the “surprise” factor; many employees returned after having the summer off only to discover they had to learn a completely new way of doing things. The resulting anxiety produced a few bumps in the road to implementation.

We were prepared for the outcry by staff—many of whom are unionized—when we announced that Muskegon would outsource the entire IT function. Although the college’s IT staff did not have any union members, we took care to review their benefits and preserve all of their sick leave and vacation time before the management transition occurred. In one instance, the college even backed up a starting date so the employee could finish purchasing time within Muskegon’s retirement system. 

In preparation for the transition, we did not fill IT positions that became open through attrition. This allayed fears that some staff would suddenly find themselves out of a job.

Despite concerns that outsourcing would mean a loss of jobs, the size of the IT staff has actually increased. Our outsourcing provider offered all of the college’s IT staff a year-to-year contract to continue working at Muskegon under the new arrangement. Two years later, all but one of the nine original employees still work in IT, and they have formed a cohesive team with the new employees hired.

Working with the same IT staff, but in a different way, took some getting used to for Muskegon’s employees. Interestingly, faculty members struggled most with the new administrative system and staffing arrangement. Some faculty who were technologically sophisticated perceived a loss of control because IT employees no longer felt obliged to do whatever a faculty member requested, especially on short notice. As employees of the IT firm rather than the college, IT staff could more easily say “no” to the special favors or expedited requests that had been commonplace in the past. In the end, however, faculty who weren’t as technology proficient embraced the new system the quickest because they received so much personal assistance from the larger IT staff.

The Solution for Us

Faced with the limited functionality of our legacy system, particularly in the area of student services, Muskegon eventually found its IT solution in an outsourcing relationship. While such an arrangement is certainly not the only or best decision for every institution, it works for us. Given our significantly outdated IT infrastructure, our service provider accomplished in short order what we could not do on our own—moving us light years ahead in only two calendar years.

With our new system implementation behind us, Muskegon’s faculty and staff can now focus on better serving our students and can rightfully resume a technology leadership role within our community.

DIANA R. OSBORN is executive vice president of administration, Muskegon Community College, Muskegon, Michigan.