Determining Value in David Koehler’s “Taming Application Sprawl”

Posted by Jim Phillips, Director, Learning Technologies and IT Accessibility Officer, UCSC. In a recent EDUCAUSE article titled Taming Application Sprawl, David Koehler provides an easy-to-read overview of the portfolio management methodology used by campus leadership to closely consider the cost and the value of a select set of business applications. My grandfather, a Cornell alum and consummate frugalitarian, would have been proud of their efforts at reducing TCO.

As I was reading the article, I couldn’t help but think of President Yudof, who once compared UC to a museum, but one that never gets rid of anything. The accretive nature of our business as a university is not so surprisingly mirrored in the (for)ever-growing list of applications, systems, and services our IT departments provide.

Determining the value of business applications

Similar to Koehler’s experience at Cornell, the economic downturn led IT groups across UC to seek ways to consolidate and, in some cases, downsize our service portfolios. But, at my campus, we found it challenging to turn anything off, even dis-used or rarely used services. Aside from eliminating the print version of our phone book, most other discussions about reduction were met with some level of protest from members of our campus community.

Koehler describes one brilliant aspect of how Cornell established the value of a given business application:

We determined that we would not ask customers to evaluate the value of their specific applications. We knew that we could not depend on consistency of results using a self-service approach. Business analysts became critical in determining business value.

Disruption and reinvention

Cornell’s use of the application portfolio management approach delivered the data they needed to support their executive decisions to streamline. More importantly, it shifted the responsibility of balancing factional interests out of IT to a broader level on the campus. And the greatest benefit may be that this streamlining effort forces a campus to determine the relative importance of its applications and, by extension, to reflect on what business it’s in. By eliminating or consolidating those applications that are truly no longer useful or valuable or too costly, we free up the resources and capacity to confront the new challenges that lie just ahead. In this sense, then, periodic introspective analysis and the consequent shedding and consolidation of services both reveals and triggers changes in our business processes.

In theory, any UC campus could conduct a similar analysis, perhaps without engaging a consulting firm, to determine if there are applications that make sense to streamline. Consistent use of such a methodology over time might help us determine which business applications and services could be offered collaboratively or systemwide… particularly those high value / high cost solutions that, through scale, could be procured more affordably.

Determining the value of academic applications

Of course, things get more complicated on the academic side of the house. Who determines the value of instructional applications or research endeavors? What about “no cost” applications that have limited value but are popular among students and faculty? With no business analysts to turn to as arbiter, the process of deciding which service to consolidate or discontinue becomes more complicated because there is likely always some vocal constituency impacted by the decision. In the academic context, even highly transparent and successful campus discussions of value can lead to conflicting recommendations. To paraphrase Mark Cianca, Deputy CIO at the UC Office of the President, about 80% of the people will complain when you do something, and about 80% will complain if you don’t do it… and it’s generally the same people in both cases!

In IT during the budget crisis, we looked at redundant services, the various technology stacks, and the different programming skill sets within our organization. As we considered redundant services more specifically, Brad Smith, faculty member in the School of Engineering and ITS Director of Faculty Partnerships at UC Santa Cruz, observed that diversity can be rational or irrational. In some cases, having multiple redundant solutions to the same problem is valuable. While we could and should try to reduce “irrational diversity” to lower costs for infrastructure and basic IT services, or to seek lower cost commodity services from external vendors; some services, particularly those on the academic side, which push the R&D envelope, may benefit from the presence of multiple instances to promote internal competition, to rapidly refine new business processes and, in some cases, to even (constructively) fail. When it comes to the kudzu-like sprawl of technical solutions on our campuses, the challenge is to know and agree on the difference between rational and irrational diversity.

What do you think?

Is the kudzu-like sprawl of technical solutions our way of being nimble to meet the dynamic business needs of our customers?

Comment (1)

  1. Tom A

    This is a good read. I think it is challenging to practice this type of portfolio approach in our environment, but that doesn’t mean we should just ignore the need. I was with some peer CIOs this past week and they all discussed some new ways to think about doing this and some new tools available to IT teams. UCLA will be implementing one of those tools. Maybe they can show us the way



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