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2020 Educause Top 10 Issues: #8 is Higher Education Affordability

The Top 10 Issues of 2020 for higher education technology were announced at October’s 2019 Educause conference. Each year I share my thoughts on the issues, from #10 to #1. Feel free to review all of the issues on the Educause website: 

#8 Issue: Higher Education Affordability
Aligning IT organizations‚ priorities, and resources with institutional priorities and resources to achieve a sustainable future.

I feel as if my entire career – undergrad work through professional – waiting tables at the Hard Rock Cafe to corporate to higher education – has prepared me for this moment. And I am here for it.

Higher education is a value. It is a life- and game-changer for so many.

As a leader in higher education, overseeing an office that traditionally doesn’t generate marked revenue, at an institution that has been challenged by our tippy-top leadership in such a way that a pursuit of savings will be nothing less than ruthless, here are my top three recommendations of what to immediately review if you are on the same path. These examples are based on real-life events, not concepts and theories.

  1. The People. People sprawl is the biggest waste on any campus. There I said it. Rather than drudging up a centralized versus decentralized discussion, keep it service-oriented. A decentralized environment happens due to an initial lack of service. Whether that lack is real or perceived doesn’t matter. Stop being defensive, stop hand-wringing and pull the people, jobs and services together. Build the relationships to develop the trust and just DO IT. Right-place people based on their talents, interests and institutional service needs. The end. Do not be a living, breathing example of what happens when you continuously cut people-investments first rather than deal with the sprawl. What appears to be an easy cost cut is almost certainly not the smartest long-term decision. Too many people? Have the conversations, develop the plan. Stop shuffling people around you don’t want to deal with. Be the leader and deal with it. Any other path? You’re adding to an unsustainable, fiscally-irresponsible future for your whole institution. Not up to it? That’s ok and that’s self-awareness. Good job. Now graciously get out of the way and let others handle it.
  2. The Processes. Bottom line on this: gnarly, drawn-out, labor-intense processes need to be eliminated and retooled. This COVID-19 situation brought out the less-than-graceful in me for a few seconds. I needed to purchase rapidly. My daily limit was fine but my per transaction limit was shockingly low. Trying to get that to change required forms. The forms didn’t apply to my needs. Embarrassingly, THAT was my only tipping point through our move to online classes. A finance then a procurement person jumped in and solved my issue quickly, but it took long enough to register that we need to look at all processes. The time spent and wasted needs to be bounced against risk and gain. For all processes. The time spent making a budget transaction often costs more to a campus than the budget transaction itself. The cost of the chargeback for a phone line often costs more than the phone line itself. You look at this institutionally, the cost for unnecessary complexity is staggering. We might be covering our you-know-what’s, but we are concurrently bleeding our institutions dry. Keep in mind, folks are spending millions to migrate to ERP solutions like Workday. Sure they look beautiful, but let’s be real. The problem is almost never the technology. It’s the underlying processes and procedures in place. Why are the implementation/integration fees larger than the technology itself in a move to Workday? Because the integration partners are completely rearchitecting institutional processes/procedures and focusing on the change management aspect to re-deliver new processes/procedures. The SPEND and the long-term SAVINGS are in re-imagining process, not in the delivered technology.
  3. The Spending. If for one second you believe always selecting the cheapest solution is the smartest decision, think again. Example. Keeping a server cobbled together rather than spending the money on upgrade might make sense today. Long-term, you’ve likely just made cents today, and lost thousands tomorrow. Selling investment might be more difficult today, but explaining next year why an enterprise public safety system went kaput over something as silly as a server and software upgrade, needlessly risking all the lives and all the limbs, forces a reactionary future for someone else. There are a variety of real-time savings that can be found. But don’t cut corners on systems that protect; focus rather on negotiating terms for quality, long-term solutions.

In all instances, decisions on people and structure, not addressing process issues at the very root, choosing to not upgrade technology and software today to look like a money-saver today (read: short-term) is an institution’s weakest link IF you plan for your institution to be around longer than today. Kicking the can down the road is weak. Pick up the can.

Yes, long-term decision-making is HARDER. But a sustainable future warrants it. And, as an Information Technology unit rarely generates significant revenue, we can find the savings. Example, a twenty-minute unbelievably awkward negotiation session for recent network upgrades resulted in us spending $400k less than we’d originally planned to spend after a less-awkward, more-lengthy negotiating session. Spend the time after you’ve picked your battles.

Higher education is a value. It is a life- and game-changer for so many. From a technology standpoint, our contribution to its value is in the efficiencies and savings we deliver alongside the resources to facilitate teaching and learning. We can ADD value to its value. We can also cripple higher ed. Let’s rally together and focus on the former.

Until next entry…

This year Educause introduced something new into their Top 10 write-up. They have added forecasting and tangible steps to improve in the issue areas. It’s more than a list now – it’s a learning tool! See for yourself:

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