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The Case for Change 

 

What difference would it make if each of us could perform all our business transactions with the University and find information we need to do our jobs quickly, from our desk-tops, as easily as we can manage our personal finances with tools such as Quicken?  

At Cornell University the Executive Vice President has estimated that approximately $20 million per year in "savings" would result from implementation of new generation integrated, client-server core administrative applications.  Most of these savings will appear in the form time saved by faculty and staff in the line academic units and thus can be readily harvested by Deans and Department Chairs for reinvestment in more important and directly relevant academic functions.  

Although we have not done a similar analysis at the University of Virginia, other institutions have identified similar order of magnitude impacts.  These savings are possible because, over the years, due to the lack of functionality of the old generation of core business systems, school and department offices, and individual faculty members have been forced to develop their own "shadow" systems, usually with significant support costs and duplicate data entry.  Indiana University in the late '80's, found that one of the most significant contributors to the growth in the cost of education was added administrative costs at the school and department level attributable to these factors .  

But the opportunity to reinvest significantly in our core mission may not even be the most important benefit of this change.  More important may be the opportunity to provide new, high-quality services to students, in particular, and faculty and staff as well.  The kinds of new services enabled would be prohibitively expensive to develop if we are limited to the use of current administrative systems.  

The Core Systems Replacement Project is a first step in building an infrastructure that enables us to provide these new services.  A way of envisioning the types of services that might be possible, once the infrastructure is in place, is to think about all the points of business contact between a member of the University community and the institution.  Think of the impact if, instead of physically having to go to one or more physical offices to do business or instead of filling out a paper form and waiting a week or more for it to be delivered and acted on, the person could make it happen with a few keystrokes from his/her computer and receive confirmation within five minutes by return email notification.  A student in Oregon might "discover" the University of Virginia, "converse" with some of our best faculty, secure financial aid, apply for admission and be accepted, enroll tentatively in four full years of courses and confirm that degree requirements would be complete.  She/he could "meet" a new roommate remotely, order first semester textbooks and a new computer to be installed in the dorm room before opening weekend.  Then as the first year unfolded, the student could explore the impact of possible alterations in academic plans and make adjustments, with their advisor's input, when the idea was important to them.  This kind of service eliminates the need for students to go to separate offices and stand in line to execute their business with the University.  It matches the efficient, effective "one stop, when and where I want it" service they have come to expect from their interactions with modern business.  It also enables types of support (such as tentative enrollment in all classes for four years in advance) that we simply cannot provide manually, but which can give students much greater personal control over their education.  

The University is in a period of significant change at least at the operational level, which is expected to continue for some time.  Functions are being delegated to us from the Commonwealth, and previously centralized administrative functions within the institution are being delegated out to departments and schools.  Old generation systems are generally not flexible enough to support these changes.  The price of not replacing the systems with modern, more flexible and consistent applications will be retardation in the rate at which we can make the long-sought institutional changes.  

While not the primary driver, this change should improve the quality of administrative support from central offices by removing from these offices the burden of being "information intermediaries", inputting data, and extracting data for line departments, thus allowing greater attention to their roles as functional experts.  The overall level of work in these offices should become less rote and mechanical and more analytical and meaningful - as already evidenced by other initiatives such as electronic forms, the Information Warehouse, and distributed access to direct transaction input.  Also not the primary driver, but a desirable outcome, the IT staff will have to be expert in far fewer, and more modern technologies, and because of the more powerful tools they will have, they will be able to deliver new products and changes much more quickly and responsively.  

But improvements such as these are not the only reasons to support a generational replacement of all of the University's central administrative systems.  In fact, to keep the old systems alive in a world of regularly climbing expectations, growing demand, and rapidly changing technology contexts will be a huge investment in itself.  We see the hints of the scale of that investment in the monies we are having to spend to make these systems work through the year 2000.  And, like the year 2000 investments, we are not paying for any gains in functionality--there may even be reductions in capability from what our systems will do now because no one will be able to justify the costs of keeping them fully functional as the world changes around them.  

The case for change boils down to this: To the degree that continued enhancement of our academic standing could be facilitated by significant reallocation of resources to core academic functions from less productive activities within those units, and to the degree that we want to continue to become decentralized, responsive, less bureaucratic, more service-oriented and efficient, and competitive in our administrative functions, we should support the replacement of our outdated core systems with modern, current-generation integrated client-server applications.  It will be slower, more expensive, and maybe impossible to be the kind of institution we envision if we do not make these changes.  "You can't get there from here....".  
  
 

 


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