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Shared IT services: Is it a realistic model for higher education?

June 27, 2017 | By Michael McGaughey

higher education classroom setting

Competing priorities, inefficient spending, aging infrastructure, expanding responsibility—all this, and a flat budget. Does any of it sound like your institution?

IT leaders in academic institutions often find themselves caught in the middle of competing departments, each of them with their own needs, priorities and ways of thinking. In many cases, this results in redundant infrastructure and duplicative work. In a perfect world, you’d consolidate costs and buying power to stretch your budget. But is that a realistic option?

Actually, yes. There’s an excellent framework for realizing shared services and infrastructure that not only frees up budget for new technology projects, but can lead to better service delivery and end user satisfaction.

While it’s true that your business school probably has different needs than your engineering school, they can still share IT resources in a way that pleases them both. The challenge is figuring out how.

A business solution uniquely suited to higher education

ITIL expresses a recognized and proven framework for IT Service Management (ITSM), and provides an industry standard, well-defined and useful set of best practices for sharing IT services across an organization. The framework is cost-effective, scalable and flexible.

But exactly how does ITIL’s approach to shared services manage competing priorities and needs? And—perhaps more importantly—how do you get buy-in from colleges and departments?

If shared services are so great, what’s holding IT leaders back?

Two big things make IT leaders nervous about implementing shared services.

First, shared services work better when supported by ITSM. But many IT leaders think ITSM is out of reach, like something a large corporation would undertake. If that’s your fear, I’d advise contacting an ITSM consultant who understands higher education for a preliminary discussion. Or reach out to peers in the academic community who have implemented ITSM and can talk about how it works in a higher ed setting.

Second, given the standard model of shared services being a consolidated organization supporting multiple customers, IT leaders think they’ll have a hard time getting all the key stakeholders to sign off.

But the ITSM framework of ITIL actually increases stakeholder power and changes the way services are managed —for the better. The question of how well end users are served becomes as important as what’s the most cost-effective structure for the organization.

Organizational resistance: Managing your special snowflakes

It’s true that you have to cross a lot of lines and bring a lot of people together to make decisions about moving forward in a shared way. People worry about losing autonomy of decision-making. Your engineering school chair may tell you that she can’t wait two hours—or at all—for IT help when a laptop goes down in the middle of running research data. She’s right. The security, data storage, computing power and service needs will be different for each college or department.

The ITSM framework is uniquely situated to handle different types of customers, and it defines the practices to ensure services are shared effectively in large measure through things like service-level management, capacity planning, and prioritization of work based on business impact.  

How to start building for the future

A shared services solution takes some investment, and a few core considerations are fundamental to your success:

  • Current-state assessment: What do you have currently you can leverage, where are gaps to be filled, what are the high-priority pain points and quick wins? Factor in not only your IT ops but organizational issues.
  • Stakeholder buy-in: Start pitching department heads with the value of upgraded equipment and capacity, and help them understand the framework for service-level management.
  • Shared infrastructure: This shift becomes even more manageable when you build on shared infrastructure, preferably one based in the cloud.
  • ITSM practices: Common capabilities and processes like Service Level Management, Incident Management, Service Asset and Configuration Management, and Change Management are probably the best places to start.

Transition: If you don’t tell people, they’ll make it up themselves

The initial exploration and transition to shared services can be a bit bumpy if not effectively managed. In the beginning, you’ll create extra costs, effort and probably some degree of panic as you create and roll out your strategy. Investing in organizational change management (OCM) will minimize the bumps in the road.

OCM is heavily oriented to communication, end-user awareness, buy-in, enablement and reducing speculation. If you don’t handle communication and change management well, people will begin to speculate, creating a rumor mill about poorer services, layoffs and outsourcing. A well-managed change will help people trust in your process. The OCM framework advises on how to structure and communicate a schedule and create value-based messaging.

I’d also suggest creating a service management office, possibly staffed by people whose roles become redundant through shared services efficiencies. The office should be sponsored at a senior level of the university, led by an ITSM Architect, and could include a customer coalition staffed  by all the different stakeholders—like your departments and academic colleges. This helps all their views be represented, and cuts down on their feeling of giving up control and immediacy.

Also—and this shouldn’t be a whole new role—you need someone who can manage the business relationships with the shared services customers. That person works with customers to agree on issue like levels of service, pricing and priorities.

If you start with a commitment to serving users in an efficient manner, shared IT services can be a great way to extend your budget while driving improvements in your customers’ services and your own operations.

Read Higher education’s IT staff problem—and what to do about it.

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