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IT efficiency at CBS

The College of Biological Sciences is making IT work harder for academics, while saving money in the process.

February 19, 2013

"Operational excellence is not just about purely saving money. It's also about getting more out of the money we have to invest," says Craig Bantz, director of technology innovation with the College of Biological Sciences (CBS). "It's about a better way to do things."

Nevertheless, it's hard to ignore that a "better way to do things" has resulted in CBS spending less now on information technology services than it has at any time in the last decade, while at the same time getting more out of IT than ever before.

Bantz is responsible for leading the CBS Information Technology department. Finding and developing innovative technology solutions for research, education, and the day-to-day work of CBS is at the core of what he does. But the problem is that too much day-to-day work can overwhelm and bog down innovation.

So Bantz and CBS IT have made a number of moves recently to put the core of IT back into the hands of the college.

We need to answer a question for students: Why do you want to go [to the U]? What makes us unique? Here…you're discovering—with leadership from faculty, working right there alongside them. You can't Google that. -Craig Bantz, on reinvesting IT money in academic technology.

Paring back to innovate

One step they took was to transfer the position responsible for installing updates and software on CBS computers—computer management—to central OIT. The move saves the college about $90,000 per year, while freeing CBS-IT staff to work on research support and educational endeavors such as instructional technology, Bantz says.

But it's not just a shifting of costs. Because of the nature of the work, the position is scalable.

Nate Wagenaar, an OIT information technology supervisor who is involved in leading the U-wide Help Desk consolidation effort, says that this computer management aspect of help desk support is an IT service on campus that is often duplicated.

"It uses tools that scale very well. Once you hit a large number of computers, it doesn't increase the amount of effort to do significantly more…so the same amount of work might be required to manage 500 computers, as say, 5,000," says Wagenaar. That puts the CBS-IT staff member who transferred to OIT in a position that can now benefit others at the University.

The U is pushing for similar moves systemwide under the Help Desk consolidation, launched this past December. In fact, CBS just announced that it will shift its desk-side computer support to OIT as well, making it the first tangibly sized collegiate unit to shift all of its help desk functions.

After that, says Bantz, "CBS IT will do only things specific to CBS—it's kind of the holy grail of academic information technology."

Big savings in time and money also came to CBS when the college moved its 3,000-plus web pages to a new web content management system—Drupal—a move the U just announced systemwide. CBS.umn.edu went live with Drupal in June 2011, the first college-wide implementation.

Blink

Getting rid of the day-to-day has freed CBS IT staff to innovate solutions like "Blink" (cbs.umn.edu/blink), a list of life science-related seminars around campus. Previously, says Bantz, seminars were advertised on 30 different websites, usually in the form of 30 PDFs—or worse, he laughs—posted in elevators in 30 different buildings.

Blink captures more than 40 seminar series hosted by departments and centers in the College of Biological Sciences, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, College of Science and Engineering, College of Veterinary Medicine, and Medical School.

When CBS lost a web manager to a new job, they took the opportunity to evaluate the primary responsibilities of the position—which in part included making requested updates to those 3,000 pages. They found that by moving to Drupal, a user-friendly web management system, they could avoid rehiring, save $75,000, and end up with a more efficient process to boot.

"Drupal is so user friendly that our website is updated much more often now by more than 40 people rather then just one person," says Bantz.

Together, these two steps have saved CBS about $165,000, or approximately 5 percent of the $3 million CBS administration budget.

Putting savings to use

Savings have been used to start a computer subsidy program to encourage CBS faculty, staff, and graduate students to buy the highest-performing, most cost-effective computers by consulting with CBS-IT in purchasing decisions.

Another major beneficiary of IT savings has been the creation of the Active Learning Lab, a CBS pilot program that gives undergraduate students all the tools they need to perform independent research in circumstances that mirror those of a professional scientist, says Bantz. The lab is very different from a teaching or instructional lab, where a student might be given a set of instructions, follow an experiment, and—lo and behold—it works out according to a plan.

"How research happens—new research—doesn't come with a manual. Here, undergrads are working with the same tools a grad student or faculty member has. This is something we're going to be talking about in a year," says Bantz.

"Faculty defining themselves via a lecture these days is difficult. There are free lectures online that will be watched by millions of people. We need to answer a question for students: Why do you want to go [to the U]? What makes us unique? Here…you're discovering—with leadership from faculty, working right there alongside them. You can't Google that."

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