by Dr. Sylvia Charp, Editor-in-Chief Educational institutions are dealing with the explosive growth of networking while trying to simplify business processes and reduce the overhead associated with administrative costs. Proper use of network-related technology is touted to be able to deliver timely, accurate and essential information where, when and to whom needed. The complexity of the computing environment has increased. Unrealistic expectations, or at least the perception of unrealistic expectations, are creating controversy and in some cases, dissatisfaction. Many issues need to be resolved to result in increased efficiency and more skillful management. These include an appropriate balance between in-house information technology staff and external subcontractors, possible purchase of sophisticated administrative packages, technology upgrades, etc. Conversion of existing central information systems from mainframe computing to client /server models requires changes in the central technology organization and clear visions for the future. A Vision for The Nineties, a planning effort by Cornell University, includes the following strategies: Transition to a distributed model; Provide universal access that integrates voice, video and data; Establish support teams that are programmatically oriented; Develop a strategic plan to further the goals of an electronic library; Disseminate information electronically as much as possible; and Provide easy access to data to support student and administrative services. Calls for New Strategies Greater cooperation and development of new financial strategies are stressed by the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) formed by the Association of Research Libraries, CAUSE and EDUCOM in 1990. An Enterprise-wide Information Strategies Initiative focuses on providing a full range of networked activities to include cross-disciplinary teams. These teams may involve academic and administrative computing units, libraries' archives, etc., so that users and institutions can "plan and operate networked information resources in an enterprise-wide context." Business usually lead in proposing and adapting administrative practices. One such practice, "data warehousing," has been hyped. The October 1, 1996 issue of CIO Magazine (The Magazine for Information Executives) defines a data warehouse as "a separate data base dedicated to support data. Data is transferred from transaction-processing systems and integrated. It is arranged by customer -- not data or transaction. It provides management information. It is a software architecture, not a product." Users can extract information as needed. A warehouse is arranged according to business logic rather than computer logic. Industries such as Health Care, Insurance and Government justify their warehouse efforts to increase productivity, lower costs, and speed access to more accurate and relevant data. For example, Travelers Insurance Co. separated the costs of under-insured motorists from losses incurred by un-insured motorists. Travelers was then able to obtain a price hike for under-insured motorists based on the actual loss costs, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional premiums. It is often more cost-effective to purchase services than to develop and manage everything ourselves. Educational institutions are beginning to investigate data warehousing to help cope with their business operations. The University of Texas' College of Business Administration/Graduate School of Business is moving from transaction-based and hierarchical data bases to data warehouse solutions for such problems as scheduling conflicts, obtaining historical information on trend analyses in class enrollment, and faculty evaluations. Business, government leaders and educators are working together to share information, knowledge and resources to best serve the needs of the total community. One example is the announcement of a four state multi-computer cluster including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. The cluster will operate a commercial service bureau able to store and process thousands of terabytes (petabytes) of information. It will consist of several computer centers linked by a high-speed network and shall provide services to businesses, schools and hospitals. The $100 million capital investment is to be funded by federal, state and local governments and the private sector. Leading the Way All this activity, we hope, is leading to better use of technology-based resources and services. We are learning how to save time and money as well as avoid making similar mistakes. We are finding out it is often more cost-effective to purchase services than to develop and manage everything ourselves. We are replacing old, costly distribution and communication networks with "streamlined" technologies. However, all decisions must be made from a knowledge-base if we are to significantly improve the service level to the educational community. We have also learned we cannot mandate new complex business solutions. Results are not immediately evident. Development time must be provided. Systems should be designed in such a way that expansion is possible and enhancements can be accomplished incrementally. Collaboration and cooperation are key factors in facing an accelerating rate of technical advancement, a changing architecture, the need for additional training and increased costs. Transforming and improving business practices present many challenges. Information Technology will play an even greater role. However, better user services will be worth the effort.
This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.