Campus IT Links In

Collaborative project management, courtesy of the information technology office

In today’s higher ed world, no department can work in a vacuum, least of all IT. From understanding the business plan to knowing how a web page or application will be used and by whom before it is designed and built, the days of CIOs and their teams working independently are gone.

IT administrators are spending more time than ever before collaborating with other departments to ensure there is a clear understanding of a project’s mission and to generate a more successful outcome.

At Purdue University in Indiana, Gerry McCartney is trying to bring representatives from every department together to collaborate on a universal content management system. “This would give the entire administrative campus access to photo and video resources they didn’t previously have,” says the CIO and vice president of technology. “And we just set up a group to look at whether we would benefit from a unified system.”

Steve Tally, a senior strategist who works in marketing but takes direction from McCartney, also sees the potential in unity. “We have a tremendous amount of published assets, including text and video, and we are looking at a way to store all our content in a single repository so it can be accessed quickly and easily,” he says. “A unified system would also allow IT to track and improve how digital assets are being used across the university.”

Collaboration is not easy, because it requires asking people to give up control. The CMS group has extremists on both sides: those who want to unify and those who want to stay independent, and IT “is somewhere in the messy middle,” McCartney says.

Collaboration isn’t about each side giving something up—it’s about everybody benefitting, he says. “It will work as long as both sides are benefitting from it. The advantages to both sides have to be communicated clearly so each person can explain the collaboration to others.” Here’s how some schools are making collaboration work.

Redefining project management

At American University in Washington, D.C., associate CIO Kamalika Sandell says collaboration gets projects started on the right path and reduces or eliminates redundancy and waste.

“This is a new way of doing things,” she adds. “Ten years ago, I would have gone to the business unit and said, ‘Give me your list of project requirements and we’ll either build or buy it. But if I did that today, I would get blank stares. That’s not a valid response anymore.”

How to successfully collaborate on a project

Choose an IT leader with strong communication skills. “Part of the challenge with IT folks is that they’re not good communicators,” says Gerry McCartney, CIO of Purdue University in Indiana. But if you can get them talking to other people about how they’re going to use a technology, giving them a say in the IT decisions that affect them, the outcome will be more successful.

Position projects in terms of their outcome. For example, Simeon Ananou, CIO of Salisbury University in Maryland, recently requested a meeting to discuss social media. “I didn’t tell people we were coming together to talk about technology,” he says, “I invited them to talk about the possibility of serving our audience better than we are currently doing with email.”

Plan up front. “Regularly reminding myself and my team that taking the extra time to plan up front is critical because that small investment of additional up-front planning will pay immeasurable dividends in the long run,” says McCartney.

Accept that you may have to do things differently. When Steve Fischer, director of web and mobile apps at The Ohio State University, got blank stares using “IT” speak at cross-departmental meetings, he quickly realized that the way he was used to doing things wasn’t going to work. Be open-minded about changing the process to suit everyone’s experience and needs.

Instead, she says, when she meets with people from other departments on a project they requested, they turn to her and say, “You tell me what’s possible.”

“And it becomes a whiteboard session where, together, we discuss what we are trying to accomplish,” she says.

Sandell, a speaker at UBTech 2014 in Las Vegas this month, is currently building a new website for graduate admissions. In addition to IT, 12 departments have a say in the end product and are represented at meetings: marketing, directors of graduate admissions for each of AU’s seven schools, general admissions, registration, alumni and the career center.

Even before they understood the project’s requirements, they “conceptualized,” Sandell says, noting that this was where everyone’s input was most valuable. “Prior to discussing things like objectives, target audience or what the site needed to deliver, we took two sessions just to talk about ‘Who requested this site?’, ‘Why do we need another new thing?’ and ‘How do you think this one is going to be different from what’s already available?’ Then we looked at something similar that another university did.”

Married over a mobile app

The Ohio State University’s IT department experienced its first cross-collaboration effort in 2010 when Steve Fischer, director of web and mobile apps, was approached by a student government officer to request development of a mobile app to provide students with maps, schedules, phone numbers, event announcements and other handy information. As the pair began to think about how the app would be used, the team evolved to include communications, web and the Center for Knowledge Management—part of the Health Sciences Library.

At the first meeting, however, Fischer quickly realized that the “old” IT way of doing things wasn’t going to work. “I started rattling off that we needed to give everyone access to our workforce management tool, track our time, do a Gantt chart, etc., and I got a lot of blank stares around the table. It was obvious the other department representatives weren’t going to fit into the way we did things at Student Life. That’s when we realized we have to compromise and think differently than we usually do.”

The group shifted to an “agile” software development approach, wherein a team develops solutions in small, incremental steps. It makes the process adaptive. Then the team pooled its content and digital assets to determine what would provide the most value to the student.

Overcoming the challenges

Sandell says the biggest challenge in fostering a culture of collaboration is the fear IT staffers have of losing control. “If you’re not ready for that openness, it can be very uncomfortable. IT staff are not naturally good at co-creation and letting people in from outside because it requires airing our mistakes in front of others. So being aware of that ahead of time makes it easier.”

One challenge to Ohio State’s mobile app collaboration effort was that there wasn’t a single VP overseeing it, Fischer says. So when project team members went around the university asking for digital assets, they experienced some territorialism and pushback.

“People were asking, ‘Who are you again? And why do you want this?’” he says. “Mobile was new at the time and it was a threat to the normal way of doing tech work, so there wasn’t a lot of interest within central IT. But any good initiative is going to catch some of that.”

For McCartney at Purdue, the challenge lies in building consensus among different groups that are focused on their own motivations, strategic drivers and desired outcomes. “We’ve found success through aligning overarching goals during the strategic planning process,” he says.

The benefits of collaboration

Allowing everyone with a vested interest in a project to participate early in the process can reduce the number of revisions and meetings, shorten the time frame and keep the schedule on track, American U’s Sandell says. Taking time for deeper communication at the beginning shortens other phases of the project. “The end product is more likely to be exactly what someone wanted,” she adds.

For example, in the case of the new graduate admissions website, alumni provided feedback on the pros and cons of the old site. “If I had not gotten [admissions administrators] to the point where they were able to define their vision for the site collectively, they wouldn’t be able to accurately give me what they want,” she says.

Can administrators pinpoint the ROI of collaboration? “I think the genesis of the business case for collaboration is to ask two questions. One, how many projects were delivered on time, and two, how many met expectations?” Sandell says. “You will find that these two measurements still show significant improvement.”

At Ohio State, the benefits derived are hard to calculate but clearly exponential. “Bringing together people from different departments was key to the success of the app,” says Fischer. “We did things that I never would have been able to do previously, and I now understand many different pockets within the university.”

Since the launch of the mobile app, Fischer, who was with Student Life at the time of the mobile app project, and two of the original team members have moved to the office of the CIO. They meet regularly with representatives from a half dozen other departments to work collaboratively on IT projects.

Going forward, “Cross-group collaboration is the only way Ohio State’s IT team will operate,” says CIO Mike Hoefherr. Projects will be worked on by a small group within the originating department first, then slide over to central IT when they’re ready to scale across the campus.

“Smaller groups are more nimble and they’re better able to spark innovation,” he says. “We operate a small city here and we’re too big to make big changes. These tiger-team projects will spin out of the unit because they have the ability to be nimble. Then we’ll come in and take over when they’re ready to scale them.”

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