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Key principles for campus technology investments
By Jeff Murray, CIO, University of Tasmania
A recent poll of Australian higher education CIOs, literature on the EDUCAUSE website and the United Kingdom’s Higher Education Funding Council for England, helped establish a set of principles for capital allocation. These were needed to help the wider university leaders understand and grapple with competing priorities for a limited pool of funds. Our work showed that tensions exist at institutional, state and national levels.
The work resulted in the following guidelines for funding institutional progress:
Consistency: Capital fund investments should be consistent with the University’s strategy.
Broad Involvement: The justification of investments is an institutional challenge not just one for the business units. The capital investment committee should be reflective of the whole university in terms of composition and it should feature key strategic thinkers.
Focus on Priorities and Agility: As discretionary funding, capital fund investments must be focused on achieving key priorities, rather than the competitive positioning of individual departments or units. The availability of fund’s and priorities will change over time depending on the uncertain environment of the higher education sector, national reforms and local and national economies.
Simple and Flexible: The capital funding process should be simple, efficient and adaptable to the changing environmental variables.
Performance Based: Effective funding is dependent on effective management practices. Allocations of capital funds can be a reward for good performance in all areas especially those that align closely with the strategic plan.
Exceptional: The capital fund will secure benefits that cannot be adequately or reasonably achieved through other means such as external grants.
There must be comprehensive capital plans at the institutional level and these must be approved by the senior executive
Based on Planning: There must be comprehensive capital plans at the institutional level and these must be approved by the senior executive. Long-term capital plans must be incorporated into the Institution’s overall planning and budgeting process.
Delivery of Benefits: The benefits arising from capital funding to students and staff, to the public and to the University and colleges should outweigh the costs to the institution. Projects that recover all costs quickly should be immediately funded while those that return over a longer period should be ranked and prioritized.
Getting the capital budgeting process right for all interested parties is very difficult. However, the need is critical. It will help avoid those years where limited funding is applied to important enablers because of a large project–perhaps a building is under way. Establishing iconic buildings while under-funding regular server and equipment replacement is a very short-term and high-risk strategy. It could leave a workforce nicely accommodated in an efficient physical facility with poor productivity due to consistent failure of key systems.
Experience has shown it is best to deal with the issue not by exhaustively arguing the position of the technology department. Moreover, we have tried to ensure a wide involvement of key representatives in establishing priorities through agreed and adopted plans. Once the University strategy is in place, estates, research, learning and teaching and information services can build high level plans and roadmaps that support the overall direction.
These can lead to the detail of a longer-term roadmap and capital plan. And when this is adopted widely and understood by colleagues who also have a need for capital investment, much of the tension and internal competitiveness drops away as a shared understanding is achieved.
A final and important step is to keep a register of benefits that are derived from the funded initiatives. This can be reported annually. Those departments most effective in this regard will be more successful at obtaining wide-spread support for new funding requirements that follow. Our experience has shown that getting this process right can help information services greatly when presenting key future requirements that stand alongside attractive initiatives such as new teaching and research facilities. The benefits realization process essentially gains a wide understanding of the important enabling role technology has in making the entire organization successful.
Benefits reporting can be as simple as lifting the promises made in an initial business case. Or it can be a demanding and rigorous study of past achievements verified by accountants and reported in the operating statements of the organization. The latter approach is used sparingly although is very important for multimillion-dollar investments like new student systems and other organization-wide systems.
We have achieved great success by recording a benefits time-line. This depicts annual achievements from all capital investments in the past five years. A highly visual infographic style has been helpful in communicating the annual impact of appropriate technology investments. It formed the key content for a four-year update to the governing Council (or Board) on the achievement of the information strategy and has been helpful in continuing to secure future investment in our plans.
Overall, key components of a successful University capital programme require a functioning and representative capital committee. Another success factor is wide involvement and adoption of strategies that link closely with the overall direction of the University. These strategies should articulate into detailed roadmaps, capital plans and cash flows. Finally, some rigor around achieving common understanding and agreement on what has been delivered will help reduce the sometimes stressful and unhelpful competitive tensions between all deserving recipients of capital investments.