Basic business for the millennium

August 1, 1997

Tony Durham reports on Nottingham Trent's IT strategy review - a model endorsed by Dearing

For Martin Reynolds, dean of the business school at Nottingham Trent University, the university's decision to draw up an information technology strategy was an opportunity to practise what he teaches: setting priorities, seeking efficiencies, winning sceptics over to new ways of running things.

Nottingham Trent's decision was part of a growing trend which Sir Ron Dearing's national commission has wholeheartedly endorsed. Many higher education institutions have been developing information strategies, either in a direct effort to improve their efficiency and effectiveness, or more pragmatically as a way of securing funding for IT projects.

Guidelines for preparing an information strategy were issued in December 1995 by the funding bodies' Joint Information Systems Committee and can be found on its web site (www.jisc.ac.uk). Now Sir Ron's commission has urged institutions (Rec 41) to "have in place overarching communications and information technology strategies by 1999/2000".

Nottingham Trent University did not wait for JISC or Dearing. In businesslike fashion it put the job out to tender and late in 1995 it picked the management consultants French Thornton to carry out its IT strategy review.

The consultants came for nine months and pushed the project through with an energy that might otherwise have been difficult to maintain. "It was a very, very intense nine-month period of IT and business strategy debate," Professor Reynolds recalls. The consultants interviewed many university staff, and took the executive board members through a series of one-day workshops. The exercise led to the establishment of two new bodies within the university: an IT steering group, with members at dean and director level, in charge of high level strategy; and a technology advisory group which sets technical standards and decides whether proposals are compatible with the university's existing infrastructure.

A team with a proposal for, say, a new library system, prepares an "investment case" explaining the business and educational benefits. The proposal goes first to the technology advisory group and then to the IT steering group which, if all goes well, recommends the university's executive board to release the necessary funds.

"We've now got 18 projects across the university as a result of the IT strategy review process," says Reynolds. With a Pounds 2 million budget, he adds that many "very credible proposals" were turned down in 1996/97. They may get their chance in future years.

Dearing favours strong institutional management of IT. But Reynolds thinks the big change at Nottingham Trent has been increased "transparency" in IT decision making rather than a simple centralisation of control. He even hints that the pendulum could swing the other way: "Faculties and business areas are wishing to take on additional responsibilities for IT. But different areas are at different stages of development."

Reynolds agrees with Dearing that the benefits will not materialise unless staff and students improve their IT skills and knowledge: "It's not just about IT investment, it's about investment in people."

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