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Systems Upgrade

December 2019

By Nancy Mann Jackson

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While guiding Loyola University Maryland through IT improvements, business leaders also modernized established processes to take advantage of new technologies.

As universities grow, they often expand existing buildings or add new construction projects. Similarly, as new technologies have developed, most institutions have created add-ons to their current information systems, expanding their technological capabilities and functions along the way.

But sometimes, just as an old building may need to be gutted and completely renovated, those sprawling information technology systems need to be reexamined, reimagined, and rebuilt to meet an institution’s current business needs.

That was the case at Loyola University Maryland, Baltimore, where business leaders have guided the university through a complete examination and restructuring of the technology services department and its capabilities. “Loyola University believes having IT that provides a superior constituent experience will create a distinguishing competitive advantage for the institution,” says Randall D. Gentzler, vice president for finance and administration/treasurer at Loyola. “And after the overhaul, that’s exactly what the university has.”

The Problems

As of 2016, Loyola’s office of technology services had 60 employees who were struggling to keep up with user needs and complete a large number of projects. “Over the years, we had made progress, but we knew that there were opportunities to advance what we were doing,” Gentzler says. “We recognized that IT faced several challenges.”

For instance, the team had 50 different projects underway with no established procedure for prioritization. Many of the projects were stalled, and the end users who had requested them had no knowledge of where they were in the pipeline.

In addition, pressure to increase the number of applicants and enrollees meant that the office of marketing and communications—which focused on enrollment, advancement, and retention—regularly demanded more sophisticated technology. Also, students’ expectations for sophisticated technology continually increased. As IT worked to meet these demands, it had to stay within the limitations of its technology platform and struggled with managing IT vendors.

“There was a general sense of unmet demand from leadership relative to technology and a difference of opinions on whether or not the IT spend was appropriate,” Gentzler says. “Users didn’t always feel confident that IT understood their business needs. We needed to make sure that we were using our resources appropriately, that our IT spend was defensible, and that we were equipped to meet the needs of our campus community effectively.”

The Solutions

Gentzler, together with his CIO, decided that Loyola’s IT structure was no longer working for the university. With the help of an outside consultant, they launched a detailed analysis and assessment of IT’s organizational structure and its processes and set three main goals for the project:

  1. Create and maintain a focused, agile, and compliant IT organization in an effort to reduce IT costs by 5 to 10 percent over 18 months.
  2. Improve program execution and visibility by developing a prioritization method that incorporates estimating the true value of a project.
  3. Restructure the technology services department to align its initiatives with Loyola’s strategic goals.

Previously, Loyola’s IT department was divided into five divisions, each focused on the specific responsibilities of infrastructure, client services, business services, enterprise applications, and educational technology. Through a deep analysis of IT responsibilities and institutional needs, leaders revised the department’s operational structure to focus on four functional areas—web/CRM, teaching and learning, finance/HR, and architecture—with specialists leading each area.

Part of the structural revision involved performing skills assessments for each position and realigning the types of skills required for each position. Some of the existing jobs were no longer needed in the new operations structure, and the department actually eliminated 17 positions. However, because the new structure required different types of positions, some of the employees whose jobs were being eliminated were offered new positions within the organization, and other positions simply remained unfilled due to attrition.

Rather than taking on any project that comes their way, IT staff developed a process for prioritizing projects and maintaining a healthy project portfolio. The team now accepts 15 or fewer scheduled projects at a time, allowing staff to focus on each project and keep it on schedule. IT leaders also created a weekly project portfolio dashboard to indicate project health and progress. The color-coded dashboard allows Gentzler and other leaders to immediately get up to speed on where each project is in the pipeline, learn about challenges quickly, and help resolve those issues to keep the project on track.

The department started its transformation in September 2016, but it was a lengthy, multiyear process. Beyond reorganizing IT structure and staff, Loyola also needed to reconsider its systems. “In some cases, in order to gain savings, we needed to make investments,” Gentzler says.

One of the biggest systemwide changes involved transitioning from traditional servers to a cloud-based IT system. In July 2017, Loyola’s office of technology services went live on the cloud, a transformation that made the IT organization more agile and useful to the campus community, Gentzler says.

Transitioning to the cloud wasn’t just an operational change; it was also a cultural change. “The transformation allowed us to really push forward a change in culture and pursue change management,” Gentzler says. “Rather than being focused on how we’ve always done it, this process allowed us to optimize our reporting and improve our data. We believed that moving our enterprise resource planning (ERP) system to the cloud would allow staff to begin focusing on supporting end users rather than the care and feeding of software and servers.”

The next big change occurred in 2018 when Loyola transitioned its database from Unidata to SQL. Using a modernized operating system provided flexibility with report writing, and Loyola wanted to capitalize on that. One of the team’s goals was to evaluate all the existing reports that had accumulated over the years—which totaled more than 2,500—and eliminate or combine them to drive efficiency and reduce the number of reports IT was supporting. All departments were expected to convert their existing reports to the new process, requiring IT staff to conduct departmental training across campus, as well as manage widespread anxiety about the change. Gentzler’s team completed the transition in July 2018, having successfully consolidated and reduced the initial 2,500 reports to 750 reports.

The Results

The three-year process of reengineering the office of technology services has benefited Loyola greatly. With 12 fewer positions in the department, savings on software and system support, and lower capital expenditures, it has experienced net savings of $678,000 annually.

Beyond the tremendous cost savings, by having a structure that allows IT to work smarter, Loyola has gained a customer-focused and efficient IT organization that can better serve its end users across campus. The team has also been able to implement new systems more easily—including new CRM and procurement systems, both of which were recently implemented on time and on budget.

The early effort invested in restructuring the department laid the foundation for implementing changes later on. For instance, by the time IT was ready to move to the cloud in 2017, its operational transformation had been in place for almost a year. Having that revised operational structure in place “really helped our movement to the cloud and made the process much more efficient,” Gentzler says.

Similarly, the move to the cloud in 2017 paved the way for transitioning to SQL reporting in 2018. “An important part of why we went to the cloud was that we now have a modernized operating system, which gives us flexibility with report writing and data implementation,” Gentzler says. “Now we can utilize optimized reporting and better data.”

Collectively, all the changes IT made, including moving to the cloud and to SQL, reduced the complexity of providing support to end users. The updated system means that patches are implemented automatically rather than staff having to find time to run updates. Once in the cloud, Loyola was able to continue its journey to a full SaaS (Software as a Service) environment, operating with more standardized software rather than software that has been modified to meet a certain need. “Our staff is now able to focus on business goals rather than patching old systems,” Gentzler says.

While Loyola has experienced significant benefits, the transition process isn’t completely over. “Conversion work continues long after the implementation,” Gentzler says. “It’s not just flipping a switch. There are always blips or problems that need to be addressed, and you should anticipate that until you have been through at least one business cycle.” But with a reliable operational structure in place and strong partnerships with vendors, Loyola continues moving toward a brighter future.

NANCY MANN JACKSON, Huntsville, Ala., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.

Related Topics

“We needed to make sure that we were using our resources appropriately, that our IT spend was defensible, and that we were equipped to meet the needs of our campus community effectively.”

Randall D. Gentzler, Loyola University Maryland