Mount Holyoke College
Senior Technology Planner LITS
In January 1996, several important changes happened at Mount Holyoke College, the chief being that a new President, Joanne V. Creighton, came aboard. One of her first agenda items was to have the college develop a five-year plan aimed at strengthening both the financial and academic soundness of the institution. A second major change was that the library, computing (including academic computing, administrative computing, and networking), the language laboratory, and electronic services functions were all merged into a single organization to be known as Library, Information, and Technology Services (LITS). A third change was that the college, primarily through computing and the financial services office was choosing a new financial system to be installed by July of 1998.
The Library, Information, and Technology Services department at Mount Holyoke began to establish a culture of planning, assessment, goal setting, and deliverables where none had existed in the past. Over the past year we developed a long-range technology plan that has gathered together the many threads of technological and information change occurring at the college. The LITS plan is an institution wide information plan, a good portion of which describes the maintenance of our information infrastructure (network, library resources, on-line resources, servers, etc.), as well as the growth of administrative and academic technology and information needs. It contains much in the way of general direction but one particularly important focus is in the area that has become a key strategic direction for most organizations, the effective use of on-line information via the web.
In this IWIS project we will examine how we developed the plan to use web based forms for administrative work and to build a culture which uses web based forms as a vehicle for accessing, finding and delivering information both campus wide and off campus. That work includes training faculty, staff and students and enhancing our on-line information system structure so that it is easy to add forms and other kinds of information to it. We are going to concentrate on training students who can then support the work of staff and faculty to see if that works better than having faculty and staff members do all of their own work. At the end of phase one of the process, we hope to have a good suite of secure and easy to use administrative applications for the purchase and payment of goods and services, which are widely used by faculty, staff and students.
This part of our strategic plan was developed prior to our overall strategic plan in what seemed to be an ad hoc but effective manner. In fact, it may be one of the strongest examples of planning we have done. The IWIS study will allow us to examine how we might make this process a standard model and move away from using customer requests for programs and reports as the basis for administrative computing planning. In other words, how do we wrap day-to-day administrative computing work in a strategic vision and keep that vision informing the work of all of the staff.
B. Problem Statement
The World Wide Web and the Internet are having an enormous impact on every institution. Colleges and universities feel the brunt in changing business practices but are also seeing the information resources that underlie their teaching and research change dramatically. In looking at financial systems, we saw examples of web technologies used to make enormous amounts of data more readily available and to make processes flow more smoothly. At Mount Holyoke, on the academic side, many individual faculty have been developing useful web sites and there had been a successful grant-funded project to have several International Relations Program faculty create web sites for regional studies. The Library, of course, has been inundated with the effects of moving to electronic journals and of trying to help students and faculty make sense of the chaotic world of information in the Internet. This abundance of information was reflected in the densely packed pages of the Library portion of our college web site.
The LITS problem, then, was to find a way to bring all of these ideas and energy together to eliminate the haphazard approach to web development. We wanted to make the web truly strategic.
B.1. The Institution
Mount Holyoke College:
The College has just drafted The Plan for Mount Holyoke 2003. Throughout the plan are explicit and implicit requirements for support from LITS, the most important implicit need being in the College’s need to “contain administrative costs.” This means our own internal administrative costs as well, i.e., there aren’t going to be new people to throw at all of the explicit support needs, but it also means LITS helping others to manage their administrative costs.
B.2. The Situation
Our current administrative computing environment is based on an AS/400 running a Mount Holyoke-developed student records system (admissions through alumnae/development) and a commercial payroll system. The new commercial financial system (replacing an older purchased system) is now being installed on a Unix host. The financial system will allow more direct client access to data, but the older systems are very much the “put in a request to administrative computing and it will be put in the queue” model, with little in the way of overall development planning.
There are also numerous specialized departmental database systems such as financial aid, dining services, and room-scheduling. Support for these programs range from completely vendor supplied (typically at a minimal maintenance level) to extensive involvement of LITS support staff in upgrades, trouble-shooting, and so. LITS does not generally provide report writing or database modification for these systems.
On the academic side, the Curriculum Support and Instructional Technology department has been actively assisting faculty in both courseware development and supporting department specifics software and labs, as well as providing support for generic tools of use in teaching — word processors, electronic mail, and now web development.
The Library has been very active, with the other colleges of the Five-College Consortium, in providing a whole range of electronic resources (a Five-College shared catalog, electronic journals, and databases) with more recent projects involving putting primary sources from our archives on line. The library was also one of the first areas of the college to use web forms for service requests.
B.3. Strategic Significance
The strategic significance of the project comes at two levels. At a concrete level we feel that more information has to be made available directly to students, faculty, and staff, for easier access, for faster report writing, for direct user maintenance of their own information, and for elimination of paper processes. The common thread is to eliminate intermediate steps that do not add value to processes. Containing administrative costs provides the only leeway the College will have to pursue new educational initiatives.
At a more abstract level, the LITS organization was becoming aware that it did indeed have vision behind the work we were doing, a vision that was clarified this past summer as we began to formulate our overall strategic plan. The vision consists of scenarios about each of major campus groups:
Students, as a matter of course, will graduate with the information finding and assessment skills to allow them to learn for life and the technical skills to be successful in their first job or in graduate school.
Faculty will be able to find the information, technical support, tools and infrastructure they need to support their teaching, course administration and to perhaps a lesser extent their research.
Administrative staff will be able to perform administrative functions effectively and efficiently. They will have ready access from their computer desktops to a seamless suite of administrative tools to support their work.
Senior staff and institutional researchers will have easy access to data for decision making.
LITS staff will have the resources they need to provide good curricular and administrative support for the College, including tools, training, timely information about curricular, staff and administrative changes.
Quite clearly, use of the web was going to help realize all of these scenarios, a fact that was clear even before the scenarios were spelt out.
C. Objectives: Desired Outcomes
On the academic side, our goal was to rapidly raise faculty expertise, and interest, in developing web applications for instructional use. It was also important to provide a web environment and tools that would allow students and faculty to be relatively self-sufficient in using and developing on-line information.
Our administrative goals started with a very specific one of developing real web products to support work redesign, especially in the buy/pay process that was our first analysis project. Beyond that, however, we wanted the community to accept, and perhaps even be excited about, the web (or other on-line technologies) as the standard for administrative work flow. Community acceptance would depend on having a sustainable development model for implementing work restructuring using the web or other technologies. It is hoped that, as for academic users, we can provide an environment that encourages more user self-sufficiency in developing reports and on-line information.
And finally, we wanted both the development of our web strategy and the workflow redesign examples to serve as models for setting directions for administrative computing. We have made strides this year in involving other administrative groups in priority setting for administrative database needs. Our goal is to have priority setting be based on strategic directions and less on simply sorting out large lists of requests.
D.1. Financial Resources
The most important step in our developing a web strategy was acquiring financial resources. Going to foundations for support in work restructuring and use of on-line systems has the obvious benefit of providing funds to overcome budget constraints. The less obvious benefit was that writing proposals provided the opportunity to sort out ideas within time constraints and with anticipation of reward.
We acquired two key grants. First, in a collaboration effort with financial services, LITS received a grant from the Davis Foundation to learn to do work flow analysis and process re-engineering. This grant was designed to let us prepare to use our new financial system to its maximum benefit, including its web-based work flow features, by analyzing some key financial processes. This grant did not have any direct effects for the academic side of LITS. Those issues were addressed in successful proposal to the Mellon Foundation. The grant provided a staff member, for three years, who would focus on web needs and training faculty, students and staff in web construction.
D.2. Human Resources
The Davis grant supplied a key human resource in the form of consultants to help us analyze work processes. These were consultants with a difference, however. They were explicitly hired with the idea that our own staff would be trained in the process of analyzing work processes and redesigning them. That training tapped into the capabilities of several of staff members, from LITS and financial services, who have demonstrated a real flair for analysis. Accordingly, their job descriptions have changed. These are middle level managers who have both the breadth of vision and sufficient clout to carry the projects.
The Mellon grant allowed us to bring in an experienced web trainer who could focus entirely on web training and development. In addition, an experienced Unix/C/Perl programmer who had played a larger role in developing portions of the Mount Holyoke web site was brought into LITS to provide the deep technical base we needed. This last position demonstrated one of the benefits of the LITS merger — the flexibility provided by having a large information organization allowed us to pull bits and pieces of positions together to fill an important need.
The Mellon grant also helped us tap into student resources. The model for our faculty training in web development is to pair faculty with paid student help.
D.3. Politics and Practices
Computing and information resources at Mount Holyoke College are highly centralized with the major database programming done by the administrative computer programmers. Our network has grown mostly from one initial small academic network out to encompass administrative offices and all academic departments and now the residence halls. It, therefore, has a uniformity to it that seems to be rare at comparable institutions. LITS is responsible for all of it, even a couple of small Novell networks which squeezed in, but are now almost gone. Desktop computing equipment is purchased by LITS from a central reserve fund, allowing much uniformity though Macintoshes and PCs both are supported. As part of the plan for 2003, the College has committed itself to providing these hardware resources in a timely and stable manner, helping us maintain a stable information and technology infrastructure.
As a result of this centralization, any information strategy developed in LITS is de facto a campus-wide information strategy. Because the organization can speak with a single voice about the whole range of technology and information, our Director can present a single, clear vision to the senior administrative staff and to the faculty. Turf wars are no longer an issue.
D.4. Technology Resources
Key technology resources for extensive use of the web in academic and administrative work are a strong network (just recently completed in the residence halls) and an institutional desktop computer replacement policy, so that virtually all computers on campus are capable of using the web effectively. The computing staff are familiar and skilled in NT and Unix systems, so are able to manage the ample server and disk resources available for web development.
D.5. Mix and Balance Resources
The most important element of our “mix” of resources is that they are truly mixed in one organization. That allows flexibility in staffing and elimination of turf wars. The weakest part of the resource mix is staffing in that we are now competing in an extreme seller’s market for database computing staff, especially in just the area that links databases to the web. This may be a severe problem..
There have been two important successes so far. First, we have developed and used the workflow expertise as planned. There have been several completed analyses and a realization among senior staff that this is a valuable way to look at how we function. The buy/pay process redesign implementation has moved forward in terms of some staff reorganization but full benefits will not come until at least the second year of running our new financial system.
The first Mellon workshop for faculty on how to design web spaces was an absolute success so we are confident that the academic component of our web strategy will work. Interest and expertise is growing rapidly among faculty. The grant also allowed us to install a training room devoted solely to training. That has provided benefits in terms of having a readily available facility with a stable computing environment for teaching all aspects of web tools.
We have not had failures per se. What we are experiencing is a staff crunch in developing the administrative uses of web technology. The expected load from the financial system installation has been exacerbated by year 2000 upgrades and by fierce competition with industry for database programmers. We are having difficulty digging in and moving forward with the work of making administrative data available from our AS400.
E.3. Unintended Consequences
As usual, expectations may be rising faster than support.
F. Lessons Learned
F.1. Advice to Others
We suggest that making an aggressive effort to find grant support for any project is worthwhile beyond the simple joys of additional funds. The exercise forces one to explain the benefits clearly to individuals who will react critically to your ideas without bringing institutional political baggage into the process. Joint grant writing efforts with other departments help ensure buy-in before a project starts and can develop useful and lasting collaborations.
If your institution is willing to move at all on departmental mergers, there are enormous benefits to combining various branches of computing and the library. It can be a harrowing experience but the ultimate benefits in flexibility and ability to focus resources make it all worthwhile.
F.2. Advice to Self . . . Plans for Change
We are still in the middle of our project so lessons for ourselves are not obvious yet. We do know that LITS is still not very good at learning what to let go of when we decide to add new duties, so the additional web emphasis, while unavoidable, is stretching our resources.