Executive Director University
Information Technologies (UNIT)
Villanova University (VU) is a comprehensive, coeducational institution located in the western suburbs of Philadelphia. One major strategic goal defined by the University’s Information Technology office (UNIT) is to promote sharing and delivery of information to anyone, any place, any time through the use of state-of-the-art technology tools. To that end, VU rebuilt its Information Technology infrastructure which included the implementation of a new phone system, campus wide network, a comprehensive set of integrated administrative systems including a Library Information system, high technology classrooms, the deployment of networked PCs for every full-time faculty and staff, and the expansion of the network to all residence halls. The following is not a case study with a definite starting and ending point, but rather a snapshot in the middle of a probably never ending thrust. The snapshot is taken at a time when the University has completed the implementation of a comprehensive set of administrative application packages and is faced to respond to ever increasing user demands for information. It coincides with the release of the University’s WWW internet and intranet which contain vast amounts of information of all types, as well as the implementation of departmental imaging projects that capture application materials and photo images of all University constituents. The deployment of these various systems created vast amounts of electronic information of various types controlled by various constituents. However, the synergy that turns information into knowledge did not materialize as a result of these systems. It is derived only when isolated information is linked and put in context. This case study reviews how Villanova University implemented state-of-the-art information systems and how it plans to leverage its investments to create an institutional knowledge base.
B. Problem Statement
B.1. The Institution
Villanova University is a medium size, comprehensive University with close to 10,000 students offering primarily undergraduate degrees. Additionally the University offers more than thirty graduate degrees and one doctoral degree in Philosophy. The University has four Colleges: Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Commerce and Finance, and Nursing and a Law School and is located ten miles west of Philadelphia on the Main Line. Sixty percent of all undergraduates are living on campus. During the past few years, extensive expansions of the University’s facilities were carried out. Along with facility improvements, VU made a major commitment to rebuild its IT infrastructure to position the University for the transition to a technology enabled campus.
B.2. The Situation
During the past five years, Villanova has overhauled its entire IT infrastructure. In 1993 the Telecommunication’s department completed the implementation of a new phone switch that provided all faculty, staff and students with direct inward dial (DID) lines and voice mail boxes. The system features sophisticated call menus that allow departments to better serve internal and external customers. As a result of close cooperation and foresight between the networking and telecommunication’s department, the campus was wired for data as well as voice communication at the time laying the groundwork for a future high capacity network to every desktop, classroom and pillow.
Realizing that its fragmented, mainframe based application systems needed replacement, the University has been evaluating comprehensive application software packages. After several years of evaluation which culminated in a study by Anderson Consulting and the recruitment of a new CIO, the University decided on an application package that features a single integrated data base using ORACLE as the Data Base Management System. The package includes Student Record, Financial Aid, Alumni Development, Human Resources, Financial modules. All systems are based on an integrated institutional data base providing the institution with a rich operational information base with non-redundant, consistent data.
Implementation of all modules took four years. Each module implementation was organized around a project team headed by someone from the user’s department. While IS staff was represented on each team it was the user community who defined the new rules for the system and directed its implementation. IT’s main role during the implementation was to ensure the infrastructure was in place for installing the software and the professional expertise to support the user community. This approach has been very successful for the most part and encountered only difficulties in areas where users still view systems as a black box that is manipulated by the experts.
Administrative systems organize data for operational efficiency and effectiveness. Screens are optimized for data entry and update functions rather than for information retrieval, therefore these systems failed to deliver the expected ease of access to operational information. To provide better end user data access, the Information System department created a Data Warehouse and implemented a character based ?user friendly ? information access and retrieval tool.
The Data Warehouse is used extensively by a few ?super’ users, however, the current data query tools do not facilitate the ease of access and navigation necessary to allow the occasional user to retrieve information without assistance. Also, the current Data Warehouse has no drill down capabilities nor does it interface readily with analysis tools.
In 1996 with the arrival of a new director of the library, Villanova proceeded with its long standing plan to implement a new library information system. While the new system should be capable of handling all the library’s back office functions , a major objective for the new system was to provide information to the academic community via a WWW interface. Additionally the system should interface seamlessly with the University’s administrative systems to avoid redundant and invalid patron information. The library and IT worked closely together during the system evaluation phase and its implementation. The latter included not only new software but a new server and extensive upgrades to the library’s data communication infrastructure. The system went live in the fall of 1997 and has been very well received on campus.
Despite access to electronic information, paper documents remain an important carrier of information. To streamline its workflow, the Admission’s office implemented an imaging system that is tightly coupled with the University’s administrative systems and allows them to scan paper documents submitted by applicants into the applicant’s folder for reference and review by anyone on campus. Long term plans call for transferring folders of accepted students to the appropriate college where the college will add information to the folder until the student graduates from Villanova. To improve workflow and information retrieval and archiving, the Development, Alumni, and Financial offices look to capturing non textual data as images using the same technology. The University’s Card Office implemented a new Universal Card system that stores student, faculty or staff pictures as images linked to their demographic data.
With the implementation of all these systems, the University has made tremendous progress in streamlining and improving its operational efficiency. All these systems accumulate and manage huge amounts of information. However access to information across systems in a convenient inducive way, independent from conventions imposed by the various applications remains a future goal. Data maintained by operational systems constitute only a small fraction of the entire information repository that form the basis for the institution’s knowledge base. Information available on the University’s WWW site, reference materials stored on electronic media, imaged documents, policies and procedures, summary statistics, and images need to be managed and linked as part of an integrated information environment.
B.3. Strategic Significance
Villanova University’s strategic plan emphasizes the use of information technology to:
- Expand opportunities for retrieving, exchanging and processing information . . .
- Expand operational efficiency through the effective use of state-of-the-art technology tools that allow for timely access to information . . .
- Enhance its library resources through the use of available technologies to improve information availability, access, retrieval and use . . .
- Develop a comprehensive technology infrastructure which provides students faculty and staff open and direct access to information . . .
To achieve these goals, a cross-functional team of information providers and managers was formed. The team will define information that is routinely used by various University constituents. The IT department will subsequently design an information access environment that will make the defined information accessible through a single, intuitive interface. In addition to operational data, the system will access internal and external documents, reference material, and images. It will feature information paths or hyperlinks that link logically associated information regardless of the application that manages the data. For example: by clicking on a photo of a building, a floor plan with rooms could be displayed and by selecting a room, events scheduled in that room or the room inventory could be shown.
C. Objectives: Desired Outcomes
The team plans for an all encompassing information environment integrating access to detail and summary data, documents and images through a single user interface.
To aid the novice user, default information profiles for various constituents will be set up; e.g., a profile for a student may include his schedule, course syllabi, library reserve list, discussion site, and electronic mail addresses for classmates and the professor. The user, depending on individual preference, may modify existing profiles or create new ones. Additionally, users may add their own information and optionally make it available to others, thus adding value to the existing information repository and creating institutional knowledge. Interaction with information creators will be facilitated through e-mail address links imbedded in the document or data retrieved. Optionally, users can be alerted electronically when information matching their profile is published or updated.
Last Spring, the Office for University Information Technology, the Office of Planning and Institutional Research, the Library and the Registrar began to plan for a comprehensive information environment that will house any type of information. This project is the continuation of VU’s past efforts of implementing distinct operational and informational systems.
The first phase in achieving a universal information environment was the development of a Data Warehouse. The administrative systems that were implemented during the past four years provided the foundation for the Data Warehouse that maintains commonly used administrative tables in a simplified structure with table and data element descriptions. A character-based data query/ report writing tool was selected for data access, however, it proved to be cumbersome and therefore it is used only by a few expert users. IS staff are now evaluating state-of-the-art, intuitive information access tools utilizing a WWW browser as the user interface where traditional data is accessed in the same way as WWW pages. The ideal software package will be able to create and maintain user profiles and map information or information paths to individuals, groups or subjects. Other features should accommodate the addition of information by any user and dynamic linkage to e-mail addresses of information originators. At this time no single software package featuring all these capabilities exists, however the concept of information profiles is already promoted on many WWW sites. While the team will consider future vendor product directions, the first phase will feature an information access and report generation tool with a WWW interface.
The Executive Director for Institutional Research and the Registrar will identify detail and summary information requested by various internal and external constituents. This information will support decision makers within the university and meet external and internal reporting requirements. The second phase will extend to include aggregate data, statistics, survey results and reports with the ability to drill down from summary to detail data. To aid navigation, extensive meta data will complement all tables and data elements. Next, external data sources will be explored as to their utility to complement campus data. These sources may include IPEDS reports from comparative institution, Census Data, or data files available through national Data Archives. Next, the information repository will be expanded to include non-traditional data types, like images and documents.
The Library which manages academic Information will document academic information requirements. User surveys and existing WWW access statistics will establish a list of reference material and institutional documents used by the majority.
As frequently referenced information is added, a comprehensive information repository will evolve. However, publishing information, accomplishes only so much and still leaves many users clueless as to how to find what they need. A new concept of information profiles will provide intelligent access paths for individuals, groups of individuals or categories. Information profiles capture which information a particular user is most likely to retrieve. For individual users the profile will include the user’s ID to automatically select relevant information. For example: based on their ID, students could retrieve their own schedule and grades. A faculty or staff member could directly point to schedules, class lists, tasks, relevant memos or individual benefits. A single user may have several information profiles if she serves in multiple roles. Another type of information profile could be by subject, e.g., academic department. By entering an academic department a user can automatically view courses offered by the department, its faculty and their homepages or the building where the department is located. Initially a number of default profiles will be established. As the system evolves, users can create their own profiles and share them thereby enriching the information environment.
Access to the information environment will be governed by the University’s existing policies and procedures for information access and security. However, given the complexity and dynamic content of the information new policies will need to be formulated.
A common, WWW based, interface will provide access to the anticipated Information environment. Guided by profiles, constituents can access information without search relevant to their interests or tasks for example:
- Decision makers can take the pulse of the institution and track the progress of institutional goals and project future directions.
- Faculty can retrieve advising data, class lists with student photo images or research material maintained on or off campus.
- Professional staff will have access to data they need to perform their tasks, like budget data or reference material.
- Students can check course syllabi, schedules, assignments, reading assignments, reference materials, or campus events.
E.1. Benefit and Successes
After a short adaptation phase, the implementation of integrated administrative systems based on a single data base has improved administrative functions across campus enormously. Support is easier, as technical staffs deal with a single system only and do not have to interface and synchronize various application software packages. End user departments who worked in isolation and used incompatible systems, now work together on data standards and procedures for data maintenance and dissemination. Users benefit, as they have access to more accurate and timely information. The integrated administrative system simplified the creation of a Data Warehouse substantially as only a single instance of any data element exists in the data base, which eliminates data cleaning and reconciliation. The Data Warehouse, even in its first phase, enables many expert users to generate their own queries and reports and reduces the demand for and generation of reports from the technical staff to expert end users.
The Registrar’s Office and the IT department implemented Web based front ends to the administrative systems for student and faculty. The former allows students to look up their schedules or grades on line and register for classes while checking remaining open seats. This system proved to be an overwhelming success and was used by half the student population to check their grades online from home when it was first implemented last spring. It consistently ranks number one in the University’s WWW access statistics. This success shows that users will access information on their own as long as the process is simple and the information is relevant. The WWW faculty system allows faculty to review student’s progress, review schedules and enter grades on the WWW. Faculty who were previously reluctant using the cumbersome character based student record system, now have no problems with its WWW cousin for advising. The frequency of access of these systems delivered the proof of concept for the planned information environment.
The amount of resources it takes to rebuild the entire IT Infrastructure is never adequate, especially as the critical processes of the University need to continue to function. At VU, this was a multi ( 4 – 5 ) year project. While user departments are only involved for the implementation of their own module for a period of eight months to a year, the IT staff is working in implementation mode the entire time leading to frustration and burn out. Infrequent system users complained about the new way of doing things and training sessions were at times not close enough to the actual use of the systems. In general, the operational systems proved to be too complicated for the occasional user and did not fulfill the vendor’s promised access to information. While the first phase of the Data Warehouse improved the situation somewhat, it did not offer the ease of use that would allow an information literate but occasional user to formulate his/her own queries and/or reports.
E.3. Unintended Consequences
The appetite for printed reports remained high and end users insisted on reports that they always had even if the new system would provide the information online or in a different format. With the creation of the Data Warehouse, expert users were able to generate reports, lists or mailing labels which shifted the burden of response to user request for information from the IT staff to end users. The evolving WWW technology allowed the IT staff to move some of the information requests to the WWW creating quick wins which improved moral. The new WWW based query and reporting tool will further improve the situation.
F. Lessons Learned
Celebrate milestones: While the endurance required and amount of time such a project takes to implement cannot be reduced, it would have helped if the leadership had provided more opportunity to celebrate milestones achieved.
Learn to live with non-perfection and instability: Out of necessity, technical staff learned to accept software with bugs and know that fast evolving technology never allows to put a perfect system in place. Users are reluctant to accept these facts. Additionally, the IT staff has to educate the user community that systems are inherently unstable and will change continuously.
Do not settle for mediocre access tools: To deploy the Data Warehouse, IT staff had to compromise on a character-based access tool, this limited the acceptance of the Data Warehouse to expert users and failed to achieve the recognition it deserved by a broader audience. Users demand state-of-the-art graphical access tools and are not any longer willing to remember commands or work in terminal emulation mode.
F.1. Advice to Others
Implementing an integrated Information Access environment is not a matter of if but when and how. Many institutions build it on top of diversified non integrated administrative systems using middle-ware. This surround approach may be valid in the short run and lead to a quick win situation. In the long run however, since this approach creates an extra layer in the IT structure it will require additional human, hardware and software resources to maintain. Unless the surround approach is followed by a systematic replacement of underlying, incompatible systems, the University and IT department will waste expensive resources and – without additional budget allocations – this may limit IT’s ability to move forward with other enabling technologies.
Ensure that any major system goes through the formal University decision making process and is aligned with the goals of the University.
Map out all IT projects over time showing IT human resource requirements at any given time and communicate the plan to all IT committees and high level administrators. Full utilization of IT human resources will make it harder for other projects to sneak in.
Stick with your plan and communicate your progress often to the campus community. Dismiss the notion that IT un-proportionately supports the administrative side of the house: administrative systems and access to information benefit equally academic and administrative constituents.
F.2. Advice to Self
Don’t oversell the benefits of an operational system to non-operational users. Be patient and realize that it will take three to five years before benefits of the new systems are realized and recognized.
Support your staff and celebrate their accomplishments when no one else does.
Continue to provide first rate support for baseline systems.
This case study discusses VU’s journey from overhauling its entire IT infrastructure and its first steps toward a universal information environment. As of today, the University has deployed the first phase of a Data Warehouse and Intranet / Internet systems. VU plans to take information from distinct systems and link them into a single information access environment. In addition to its function as an information repository, the new system will feature user and subject information profiles and empower users to interact with the system by adding information or changing profiles. It will liberate users from different access mechanisms dictated by various systems and departments. Most importantly, it will free users from their dependency on IT experts.