As is true at university campuses across the country, it is no hyperbole to state that I have witnessed repeated acts of heroism during this time of the pandemic. Yes, the days in isolation are running together for me, but those repeated acts of individuals and teams who overcame adversity through sheer will and sense of mission remain clear and distinct in my memory. I have no doubt that the pride I feel in my fellow IT staff and their shared commitment to serving our university community will remain long after this pandemic has ended.
It would be easy to assume that COVID-related budget pressures or acute need for transformative IT service delivery mean we are in a new world with new rules. I do not believe this to be true. It may be a changed and uncharted academic environment, and remote learning and administration at scale may be upon us, but the core challenges facing higher education IT are the same as they ever were: too many projects, too many requests, too few staff, and too few dollars. The one thing of which I am sure is that, at some point in this crisis, you will be directed to “just figure it out with what you’ve got.”
I may not be ready to speak to lessons learned from this crisis, but I absolutely can speak to the benefits of addressing your immediate challenges in the pandemic by recasting your existing and requested IT services into cost-to-run, cost-to-grow and cost-to-transform portfolios. The simple fact is that “delivering more with less” requires IT professionals to engage with stakeholders across the university community in meaningful, fact-based conversations about inherent trade-offs in cost, performance, and consumption. I have found that explaining service delivery in terms of the cost-to-run, cost-to-grow, and cost-to-transform portfolios provides an accessible and inclusive discussion framework for non-IT audiences. This framework has proven to be effective in prompting meaningful discussion whether decisions are about IT transformation, consolidation, optimization, outsourcing, or strategy. If you want to include your stakeholders in your discussions about trade-offs (or hope to participate in their planning discussions), such a framework can greatly improve the quality and outcomes of such conversations.
Figure 1 - Organize IT Delivery into Portfolios
Most university organizations are well versed in the cost-to-run portfolio, more colloquially referred to as “keep the lights on” or KTLO:
- What is needed to keep existing systems running
- The mandatory maintenance that is needed to keep existing systems viable
- The previously deferred maintenance (technical debt) that has become due
- Mandatory spending on safety, compliance, and security
- Projects that are in flight
The cost-to-grow portfolio tends to be less well articulated, often resulting in a lack of funding that too often is made up by deferring maintenance and thus increasing technical debt. In my experience, it is the most easily forgotten category by budget committees because of a temptation to defer immediate maintenance to plug the inevitable budget deficit:
- Keep all the existing systems in grow portfolio running with increased consumption
- Planned upgrades
- Construction and expansion related projects
Transformation is where stakeholders tend to get the most excited, but which paradoxically is the most difficult for overburdened university IT departments to deliver:
- Innovation projects
- Improvement projects
- Client projects
Because any allocated cost-to-grow dollars are needed to meet the immediate needs of accumulated technical debt, any allocated cost-to transform dollars are then needed to meet the resulting shortfall in run-to-grow spending. The result? IT looks to be monolithic and unresponsive, so shadow IT projects spring up like weeds, resulting in future technical debt for when that separately managed shadow IT needs to be rationalized and standardized.
I recommend that a solution to these risks and problems is to make these portfolios transparent and to talk about them at every opportunity with every stakeholder. For stakeholders, the view is changed from an undifferentiated blob of IT spending into meaningful portfolios of services, maintenance, and projects. For academic IT departments, the focus is returned to service delivery from the stakeholder’s view, which too often can get lost in day-to-day tasks.
The beginning of this process can feel daunting - it certainly was for us - but I can tell you with confidence that those early uncomfortable steps will yield real rewards in time. My advice is to start small and keep it simple. Here are three resources to help you on your journey (some require registration, but all are free of charge):
1) TBM Council (tbmcouncil.org) – The TBM Council is a nonprofit professional organization supporting the open-source Technology Business Management (TBM) framework. They are associated with Apptio, Inc. (full disclosure: we use Apptio’s solution to accomplish the above), but the TBM framework is supported by many software vendors. Membership is free, and there is a Higher Education user group:
- .EDU TBM Taxonomy Extension for Higher Education – A higher-ed version of the otherwise generic TBM framework (disclosure, I served on the working group for this publication).
2) IT Financial Management Association (itfma.com) – ITFMA runs multiple conferences each year on IT financial issues. This is where we started, and in our experience, about one in three attendees were higher ed.
3) Educause (educause.edu) – Should need no introduction, the organization “that helps elevate the impact of IT.” In addition to their content in general, there are two resources I recommend:
- The Higher Education IT Service Catalog: A Working Model for Comparison and Collaboration, Second Edition – An excellent starting point for organizing IT services in higher ed terms.
- Technology Business Management and the IT Service Catalog: A Higher Education Crosswalk – A guide to connecting those IT services to the TBM Framework (disclosure, I served on the working group for this publication).