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Maximizing the IT spend

Universities across Canada invest in a multitude of information systems to manage their resources; support teaching, learning and research; and enable decision-making.

The question is: how do you ensure these investments are as efficient as possible?

For some PSE institutions, the answer is in how the investments are managed.

Bala Kathiresan is Executive Director of Information Technology Services at the University of Windsor. At CAUBO’s 2014 conference, he took part in a panel titled, “Maximizing the Value of Institutional Information Systems,” which brought together leadership from two Canadian universities – Windsor and Laurentian – to discuss how strong collaboration between CIOs and Senior Business Officers can lead to streamlined IT investments.

“Every institution is at a different state in IT evolution, so solutions will vary from school to school. But across the board, one of the key factors is governance structure,” Bala said.

At the University of Windsor, Bala and his colleagues have created an IT steering committee, with representation from a variety of senior leaders, including the Vice-President of Planning and Administration, the Vice-President of Research, three Deans, the Vice-Provost of Teaching and Learning and a faculty representative from the Computer Science program.

“It’s made a huge difference in the way we focus on IT spending,” Bala said. “There’s been a shift toward a campus-wide focus on IT, rather than the traditional departmental approach.”

Bala and his team have already seen improvements, such as their decision to move away from homegrown core IT systems to the implementation of an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system.

“If we continued to develop our own core applications, the costs would be too high and they wouldn’t be able to keep pace with commercial products and services,” Bala said. “The steering committee facilitated a consultation process that helped us find this new strategic direction, which aligns with our organizational objectives.”

The first step, Bala says, was to come to a common understanding of the university’s current IT cost structure.

“Are there areas in which we are duplicating our efforts? When we benchmark against our peers, are our costs higher than theirs? And if so, why?”

This new way of thinking can lead to a more collaborative approach to IT spending not only within the institution, but also externally.

“There is so much conversation around cost pressures now – much more than in the past – and it’s making us think differently,” Bala said. “Universities are collaborating and sharing information more, so they can build on each other’s expertise rather than relearn. In Ontario, the government is even putting money on the table to encourage this type of collaboration.”

Recently, the University of Windsor decided to switch from Open Source to Blackboard, which was initiated largely because St. Clair College used Blackboard and there would be cost savings associated with the partnership. But while this new model is an improvement, Bala says there are challenges associated with change.

“Change management is always a big challenge,” he said. “It can be difficult to fully engage stakeholders and make decisions simultaneously. Faculty involvement can become a significant issue, especially considering that IT decision-making is often distributed.”

“But there is no doubt that IT will be expected to play a bigger role as cost pressures and student expectations increase,” he said. “The more we can focus on maximizing our investments in IT through collaboration and by involving all campus leadership, the better off we’ll be.”