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Moving toward a smarter use of IT resources at Bucknell

Commentary: What Bucknell University learned through austerity in making technology more valuable to the institution’s mission.

Param Bedi
Bio
Param Bedi Vice President for Library and Information Technology

Param Bedi is the Vice President for Library and Information Technology at Bucknell University, where he advises on all policy and investment de...

Commons at Bucknell University. (Wikimedia)

At Bucknell University, like at many universities, our IT division has had to become very strategic in how we invest our limited time and money to advance our institutional goals.

Over the past few years, we have been able to make broad changes that better serve our university’s mission, without adding more staff. We also were able to save hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual IT spending, in part by outsourcing traditional IT functions that others can provide for less money, such as our email and library systems.

But the most important outcome was how reorienting our approach to IT allowed us to focus on transforming teaching and research at Bucknell University. Perhaps just as impressive is that we have accomplished these changes during a period of economic austerity, without increasing our division’s head count.

We have been able to do this by being very deliberate in where we have focused our library and IT resources, which were driven by a vision to make Bucknell a leader in digital scholarship and commit to using data to drive our decisions making.

A key mistake that many institutions make is continuing to operate the way they traditionally have, simply because that’s how they have always done things in the past. In contrast, we have not been afraid to change direction or reallocate existing resources to serve our institutional goals more effectively.

It’s an easy concept to articulate, but much harder to put into practice. In adopting this mindset, we have created a culture within our division in which everything we do aligns with our organizational priorities. If it doesn’t, we won’t do it.

Our approach has involved four essential elements: a vision or framework to guide our efforts, the personnel to execute this framework, technology to support it, and a strong focus on the change management processes needed to pull it off.

Here’s a closer look at each of these four elements, and the critical role it has played in our success.

A vision

Fundamental to our approach has been a framework that we use to guide our staffing plans and our decisions about how and where to spend our budget. For us, this vision is simple: We want to move our library and IT division from being a transactional organization to a transformational one.

When I first arrived at Bucknell nine years ago, our organization was really good at providing customer service. We were known for fixing things well. When something was broken, a student or staff member would pick up the phone, and someone from IT was there in five minutes to resolve the problem.

Providing that level of service is terrific, but I wanted to shift our focus to become more strategic in our approach: What are we doing at the institutional level that will distinguish Bucknell from other universities? No prospective student or faculty member is going to say, “My computer will be fixed in only five minutes—and that’s why I should consider Bucknell.”

Our goal is to focus on the kinds of transformational activities that will have a lasting impact on students, faculty, and staff, such as how we can enhance our teaching and learning, involve students in research, and provide institutional decision makers with access to actionable data.

To achieve this goal, we have taken a hard look at where we should be investing our human and financial capital, moving away from providing traditional IT services that others can provide much cheaper than we can—and with better uptime than we can.

For instance, about six years ago we moved our email system from an internally managed system to Gmail, saving about $300,000 a year. We also moved our library system to OCLC, a nonprofit cooperative that provides shared technology and research services, which has saved us another $250,000 per year. It didn’t make sense to run a library or email system ourselves, when others could handle these transactional systems better—and cheaper—than we could.

Instead of concerning ourselves with these kinds of functions, we have focused our resources on other areas, such as supporting digital scholarship. With a $700,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we have been working with faculty across the curriculum to help them redesign their courses and their pedagogy to take advantage of sophisticated technology tools. At the same time, we are involving students in our research more than we ever have before.

As an example of the kind of work we have done, our geographic information system (GIS) specialists have collaborated with faculty on utilizing GIS technology to visually represent data in powerful and new ways. Economics Professor Jan Knoedler now has her students use GIS technology to map and analyze income inequality in various regions of the country, and the technology has aided her research—which she completed with the help of an undergraduate student—into the pre- and post-Civil War regionalization of the U.S. economy.

In creating a framework to guide our use of IT resources, it’s important to note that we have worked closely with our president, our provost, our deans, faculty, and our senior administrative leaders. Our focus reflects the priorities of our institution as a whole, and not just what we ourselves believe is the best approach.

The right personnel

You can have a vision to guide your use of staff and other resources, but if you don’t have the right people in those roles, you’re not going to succeed. We have been very intentional in how we fill new positions with people who have the necessary skills to support our vision. This requires understanding the skill sets of our current staff, and what skills are needed to execute our plan—so that we can fill in those gaps as needed.

The first thing we do is look internally: We assess whether or not we have people on our staff who can move into those positions seamlessly by redefining their role.

To grow our instructional technology team, we looked for people who had a deep understanding of the teaching and learning process. We found some of those staff members from within our organization, but we also had to bring in some outside experts. For instance, the two GIS specialists we hired came from outside our university.

Knowing that the university budget cannot always support adding new positions, we have been very strategic in how we staff our division. When somebody leaves or retires, we don’t automatically replace that position; instead, we take a step back and think about what makes the most sense for our organization. Maybe it makes more sense for us to replace that employee with someone who can fulfill a different role instead. This gives us an opportunity to reshape our division to better reflect our institutional priorities.

Technology to support our decisions

When I first arrived, we didn’t have a formal project management process to help us understand where we were spending our time and money. So, about six years ago, we hired a project manager and tried to integrate project management best practices throughout our organization. We started researching the tools we needed to support this approach, and we acquired the IT Service Management (ITSM) and Project Portfolio Management platforms from TeamDynamix. Now, this software is embedded in nearly everything we do.

Our project management office and the TeamDynamix software help us with our planning and resource allocation, including staffing and budgets. They have helped us become more strategic in moving resources around to focus on priorities that will help us meet our goals. Before, we were just guessing: Is someone going to be available in four months to dedicate 25 percent of their time for a week or so?

Now, we have much more visibility into what is happening in the organization. I can log into the dashboard and look at projects and resources at a glance, and I can figure out how to move resources around to accommodate new priorities that arise. What’s more, we now have data to back up our decisions. If we need to reallocate someone’s time, we can justify our position by pointing to a clear need for the change.

By using some of the features of the software to document where our staff members are spending their time, we aren’t just supporting a more effective model of resource allocation. We are also revealing inefficiencies that could indicate a larger issue that is holding us back. For instance, how long are IT support staff taking to fix a certain problem? What are some of the problems that keep recurring? Maybe we need to take a deeper look at the nature of these problems, as there might be an underlying issue we’re not aware of.

Change Management Strategies

I think one of the reasons more institutions aren’t taking this approach to resource allocation is because it’s hard to manage the human side of change—and therefore many college and university IT departments keep doing what they have always done.

It can be difficult for someone who has invested so much time in a certain role or project to hear they are needed elsewhere now and to let go of those old responsibilities, because we tend to forge our identities around the roles we assume in an organization. How can IT leaders manage those conversations? How can we create a culture where everyone understands the larger vision and buys into that vision, even if it means their role might change? This is where proven change management strategies come into play—and they are vital to the success of our organizational approach.

Effective change management starts with how we communicate with our team. When we were trying to shift much of our IT infrastructure to Amazon Web Services, for instance, our staff members who had been here for years providing these services were wondering: “What are we going to do now?” Part of the job of our leadership team is to make sure our staff members understand their time is much better spent on strategic priorities.

Nobody is going to come to Bucknell because we have a new email system, or we have 300 servers. The impact we can make on the academic enterprise is what will help attract new faculty and students to Bucknell. That’s the conversation we are constantly trying to have with our staff. Furthermore, we try to explain that these changes present an opportunity for staff to be more creative, as opposed to just operational. They can be using their talents and experience to help us innovate, and not just to keep our servers running.

It also helps that our staff hear these messages from our administration and faculty as well. These are institutional projects we are a part of, and not just IT projects.

Finally, we involve staff members and our governance committees in our decision making. We don’t bulldoze over our staff on our way to making these changes; instead, we listen to their concerns and make sure that even the naysayers are included in the conversation. They might not agree with everything we are doing or saying, but at least they are a part of the conversation—and in the end, they help us come up with a much better plan than if the leadership team tried to do it by themselves.

And just as importantly, they are in a position to constantly reassess our strategy and allocate resources to support our vision appropriately.

Param Bedi is the Vice President for Library and Information Technology at Bucknell University, where he advises on all policy and investment decisions related to technology and library systems, working in close collaboration with the president, administration, faculty, students, and university departments. He also serves on the editorial board for the Bucknell University Press and on the board of the Keystone Initiative for Network-Based Education and Research, a coalition of Pennsylvania’s education, research, healthcare, economic development, and other nonprofit communities.


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