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Decentralizing Information Technology

Vision for the future? The first of a three-part series

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

No press releases or committee reports marked the revolutionary changes of the past year in what was once Harvard's information technology stronghold, the Office of Information Technology (OIT).

Known widely among students for its control of the phone system and its construction of the computer network, OIT was an organization with big shoes to fill.

Its primary responsibility was the creation and maintenance of the campus-wide backbone for the Internet. As the University's largest organ for handling information technology, OIT became the source for all inquiries involving computers and the Internet.

But for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) as well as Harvard's other schools, OIT was a philosophical battleground.

OIT was run by the central administration and its power ran contrary to the decentralized management style preferred by Harvard's schools--a policy known as "every tub on its own bottom."

The schools, particularly the larger ones, insist on keeping policy- making and innovation within their own control.

"[The argument] wouldn't go away," says former vice president for finance Allen J. Proctor '74, whose main goal in Mass. Hall was to increase coordination among Harvard's disparate schools. "No matter what I did it wouldn't go away.... [It became] a belief system."

As a result, the Deans joined together to push for a shift away from OIT's previous role, according to sources within the administration.

The administration slashed OIT's staff by more than one-third, altered its mission and even changed its name to University Information Systems (UIS).

But even with nearly two-thirds of the same employees, OIT is no more. In the words of Professor of Business Administration Richard L. Nolan, "OIT got blown up."

Although OIT is now defunct, how Harvard dealt with the organization paints a picture of where the University is moving on information technology.

A two-month Crimson investigation, including interviews with about 100 faculty and staff, found that the University is moving toward a hugely decentralized information technology system.

General Mission

OIT strived to be the pinnacle of information technology at Harvard.

"Steve Hall, [the former director of OIT], tried to be the beacon for information technology at Harvard, but that's not how Harvard works," says one faculty member who has had close dealings with OIT.

OIT lacked a clear mission, according to administrators, which resulted in an organization that tried to do everything.

"OIT did not have a lot of administrative direction," says Proctor, who was responsible for OIT when he was vice president of finance. "It was deprived of top down direction."

OIT only had "bottom up priorities," he says, "always offering more services, more availability and always wanting to be on the cutting edge."

As part of the central administration, OIT's funding came from the various schools. The Deans were upset with OIT in part because they felt continuous mismanagement within OIT resulted in bad service and wasted their money.

"When I arrived [in 1994], [OIT] was under severe attack as being inefficient and a waste of money," Proctor says.

For the FAS, this translated into an organization which was out-of-touch and always trying to exceed its purpose.

"OIT was really on the wrong wavelength," says Arnold Professor of Science William H. Bossert '59, a member of the FAS Committee on Information Technology. "Central planing and central administration doesn't work in a university.... I rest having someone tell us what to buy and what to do."

OIT is about the only agency I can remember being hissed at in an FAS meeting," Bossert says.

"If we had in fact had the same [OIT] money in the FAS we could have done better," he says.

In the past two years, problems between the FAS and OIT accelerated to the point where the FAS considered going outside OIT for its connection to the Internet, one of the primary services OIT provides.

Franklin M. Steen, the director of ASCS Computer Services, confirms that the FAS has considered bypassing OIT. "It's always a possibility," he says.

The OIT governing board, a committee of faculty members from the schools responsible for managing OIT, literally became a battle scene as schools competed to set OIT's priorities, according to Proctor.

He says he held only two meetings of the governing board, meetings that he says "made the New York City Council look orderly and civilized."

Reorganization

In reorganizing OIT into UIS, the University sought to correct the problems with OIT.

"OIT had too many managers and too much overhead," says Anne H. Margulies, assistant provost for information systems.

As a result, the reorganization attempted to cut OIT's bloated bureaucracy and streamline its services.

For Margulies, the change has so far consisted largely of demolition work: reducing overhead, closing departments and eliminating employees.

"We've downsized to make UIS more efficient...and the volume of our work has gone up," Margulies says.

Beginning last spring, Margulies began a staff reduction program to eliminate 15 percent of employees through voluntary and involuntary layoffs. To date, OIT has trimmed its 260-person staff by 36 percent through voluntary layoffs.

In May, employees were given personalized information on the status of their jobs in the new UIS organization, so they could evaluate what was in their best interest. Voluntary layoffs were encouraged by offering severance pay based upon one's years of service.

In particular, Margulies says the program targeted the bloated management at OIT. Nearly 50 percent--24 of 50 managers--were eliminated.

To quantify the monetary results of these changes, Margulies points to overhead reductions at the Technology Product Center (TPC), where students and faculty can buy computers at educational discounts.

Previously, TPC charged a 35 percent margin to the buyer above cost in order to sustain itself. That margin has been cut to 10 percent.

The reorganization of OIT also eliminated its governing board, putting all control into the provost's office.

Finally, the University changed the mission of the organization, which had previously tried to promote a vision for information technology.

UIS's primary goal is "to provide efficient and effective information technology services [for the University]," according to Margulies.

Out of Touch

Faculty members continuously accuse OIT of having been out of sync with Harvard's work ethic.

"The problem is that there are too many people in the central administration who grew up in business and they're used to doing business the way business does business," says Bossert.

In fact, Hall, the former director of OIT, came to Harvard from a consulting firm.

Again and again during The Crimson's investigation, faculty members returned to the same two examples to highlight how out of touch they considered OIT: the pricing for the phone system and the development group.

As part of the shift to UIS, Margulies is working to eliminate them both.

One of OIT's largest responsibilities was the management of Harvard's phone system. Harvard owns its own phone switch and cables and sets the phone rates it charges faculty, students and staff.

Since Harvard installed its phone system, OIT has charged users more than it costs to operate the system, a policy known as "over-recovery," to help subsidize other activities in OIT.

"Most universities use income from established sources to fund new things," Margulies says.

She emphasizes that this policy applied only to faculty and staff phone use--not students--and that the schools were well aware of this policy. OIT officials did not set rates alone, but formed a University-wide rate-setting commission with representatives from the schools to determine phone rates.

But the faculties were angered by having to pay more for the services.

"We're paying more than if we had contracted it out," Bossert says.

UIS has lowered the phone rates it charges by ending the subsidy system.

But OIT used these cross-subsidies to build the high speed data network and to wire the University for e-mail and Internet services, a pricy installation which no school was willing to take on alone.

Charging schools directly for the cost of maintaining the network was also difficult because the schools could not agree upon a standard level of service.

"There were two points of view," says Proctor, "The network's there and we shouldn't put a lot into it. If it's down, it's down. Or that the network [is] like the telephone service and [is] needed 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

The network operated, and continues to operate, at about a $1 million deficit a year. That deficit was made up through the cross subsidies, according to Margulies.

During the last fiscal year, UIS phased out $1 million in over-recovery and will phase out another $500,000 this year, says Susan S. Walsh, director of telecommunications and technical services at UIS.

However, the schools will have to pay UIS more money for network maintenance because of the deficit, even as the phone rates drop, according to Margulies.

"We want to get our pricing models right," says Walsh. "Our goal is to get the pricing right and make our rates defendable."

UIS is attempting to accommodate the varying needs of the different schools by developing different sets of services, Walsh says. The organization will have a core group of services for which they will charge every school and a second tier of services which schools can subscribe to on a fee-for-service basis.

Development Group

OIT also housed a group of engineers and technicians known as the Development Group whose purpose was to work on complex computing and technology questions for Harvard.

"The group worked on developing special applications and services," says Scott O. Bradner, a former member of the group who is still at Harvard.

One of the group's recent projects was an investigation of e-mail standards at the University, determining which communication protocols OIT should support, Bradner says.

The group also worked on developing special-purpose Web-based applications and investigated University-wide security standards.

The development group--like the telephone over-recovery--worked to benefit the whole University without clearly articulating which school was paying for it.

Despite these projects and its status as the only University group working on research and development, the Development Group was one of the central targets of Faculty criticism and was eliminated in the reorganization.

"A big issue was that the group was established with no real funding plan on how to support their activities and projects," Walsh said in an e-mail message.

Some funding for the Development Group may have come from the telephone over-recovery, but Walsh says she cannot confirm this because OIT's budgetary structures were so complex.

Faculty members saw this development work as utilizing the schools' funding in an unsupervised manner.

"When people are using internal funds [for research or development], there has to be oversight," says Dean of the Division of Applied Sciences Paul C. Martin '53, chair of the FAS Committee on Information Technology. "We have to ask are we getting our money's worth."

The larger schools, in particular, came to feel that OIT was using their funding to benefit other schools, according to Proctor.

"It seemed that they were subsidizing one school against another, which at Harvard is a dangerous situation to be in," Proctor says.

Margulies says the elimination of the Development Group does not mean UIS is not leading any of its own development projects.

She highlights Project ADAPT, a $50 million technological upgrade to the University's financial administrative systems, as the new model for development work in UIS. The funding and organization for ADAPT were arranged specifically for this project, and staffing is being done on a temporary and as needed basis.

"[Abolishing the development group] was the right thing," says Bradner. "If there's a large scale project like ADAPT, then we can recruit the right staff to do the project."

"The idea of staffing a permanent development group without an ongoing predictable level of work doesn't seem to be a good idea," he says.

Academic Computing

Margulies says she is also responsible for "developing mechanism for collaboration and planning across the University."

In other words, she coordinates academic information technology. However, the central administration is not currently planning any University-wide projects in academic computing, according to Margulies.

In 1993, a University-wide committee on information technology called for "the central coordination of academic [information technology]" out of the provost's office.

As part of the reorganization, UIS was moved into the office of the provost, which is responsible for coordinating inter-faculty initiatives, but no one in the central administration suggests that this type of coordination will occur with information technology.

When asked about her efforts to coordinate academic information technology, Margulies says she and Proyost Albert Carnesale have appointed another University-wide committee. The committee met last month but no details were available at press time.

Earlier this year, President Neil L. Rudenstine said he will emphasize academic information technology in the upcoming year, following on the heels of Project ADAPT, but that his initiative will be individually tailored to each school's needs.

Happier Faculties

Members of the FAS say they are happier with the new model for information technology at Harvard.

"Every Dean is concerned to enjoy the best services at the most economical rate," said Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles. "I believe that the changes in OIT (UIS) are going to do just that."

Martin agrees that the changes are for the better.

"There are still some little things to be worked out, but the principles for working things out are agreed upon," he says. "Things have changed a lot."

But some say it is still to early to tell whether the more decentralized model will prove to be more successful.

"Whenever you do things like this, you find some bathwater and some babies," Proctor says. "But this situation is still too emotional to find out how much of each they may have thrown out.... They may have just eliminated the bathroom."

Information Technology Series at a Glance:

TODAY

Harvard's administration has emphasized decentralization of information technology, a move epitomized by changes made in the Office of Information Technology's (OIT) staff and mission. Indeed, OIT's replacement, University Information Systems, focuses on serving the schools, not promoting a centralized vision.

TOMORROW

Most of the support, training and planning for information technology and academic computing at Harvard is handled by individual departments and schools, leading to a highly decentralized system throughout the University which hinders coordination and communication among Harvard's disparate schools and centers.

THURSDAY

Decentralization is troubling for the FAS and its support arm--the Harvard Arts and Sciences Computer Services (HASCS), which has been plagued by technical problems. HASCS's focus on simply keeping the systems operating prevents the FAS and HASCS from creating and following a larger vision for information technology.Crimson File Photo

"When I arrived [in 1994], [OIT] was under severe attack as being inefficient and a waste of money," Proctor says.

For the FAS, this translated into an organization which was out-of-touch and always trying to exceed its purpose.

"OIT was really on the wrong wavelength," says Arnold Professor of Science William H. Bossert '59, a member of the FAS Committee on Information Technology. "Central planing and central administration doesn't work in a university.... I rest having someone tell us what to buy and what to do."

OIT is about the only agency I can remember being hissed at in an FAS meeting," Bossert says.

"If we had in fact had the same [OIT] money in the FAS we could have done better," he says.

In the past two years, problems between the FAS and OIT accelerated to the point where the FAS considered going outside OIT for its connection to the Internet, one of the primary services OIT provides.

Franklin M. Steen, the director of ASCS Computer Services, confirms that the FAS has considered bypassing OIT. "It's always a possibility," he says.

The OIT governing board, a committee of faculty members from the schools responsible for managing OIT, literally became a battle scene as schools competed to set OIT's priorities, according to Proctor.

He says he held only two meetings of the governing board, meetings that he says "made the New York City Council look orderly and civilized."

Reorganization

In reorganizing OIT into UIS, the University sought to correct the problems with OIT.

"OIT had too many managers and too much overhead," says Anne H. Margulies, assistant provost for information systems.

As a result, the reorganization attempted to cut OIT's bloated bureaucracy and streamline its services.

For Margulies, the change has so far consisted largely of demolition work: reducing overhead, closing departments and eliminating employees.

"We've downsized to make UIS more efficient...and the volume of our work has gone up," Margulies says.

Beginning last spring, Margulies began a staff reduction program to eliminate 15 percent of employees through voluntary and involuntary layoffs. To date, OIT has trimmed its 260-person staff by 36 percent through voluntary layoffs.

In May, employees were given personalized information on the status of their jobs in the new UIS organization, so they could evaluate what was in their best interest. Voluntary layoffs were encouraged by offering severance pay based upon one's years of service.

In particular, Margulies says the program targeted the bloated management at OIT. Nearly 50 percent--24 of 50 managers--were eliminated.

To quantify the monetary results of these changes, Margulies points to overhead reductions at the Technology Product Center (TPC), where students and faculty can buy computers at educational discounts.

Previously, TPC charged a 35 percent margin to the buyer above cost in order to sustain itself. That margin has been cut to 10 percent.

The reorganization of OIT also eliminated its governing board, putting all control into the provost's office.

Finally, the University changed the mission of the organization, which had previously tried to promote a vision for information technology.

UIS's primary goal is "to provide efficient and effective information technology services [for the University]," according to Margulies.

Out of Touch

Faculty members continuously accuse OIT of having been out of sync with Harvard's work ethic.

"The problem is that there are too many people in the central administration who grew up in business and they're used to doing business the way business does business," says Bossert.

In fact, Hall, the former director of OIT, came to Harvard from a consulting firm.

Again and again during The Crimson's investigation, faculty members returned to the same two examples to highlight how out of touch they considered OIT: the pricing for the phone system and the development group.

As part of the shift to UIS, Margulies is working to eliminate them both.

One of OIT's largest responsibilities was the management of Harvard's phone system. Harvard owns its own phone switch and cables and sets the phone rates it charges faculty, students and staff.

Since Harvard installed its phone system, OIT has charged users more than it costs to operate the system, a policy known as "over-recovery," to help subsidize other activities in OIT.

"Most universities use income from established sources to fund new things," Margulies says.

She emphasizes that this policy applied only to faculty and staff phone use--not students--and that the schools were well aware of this policy. OIT officials did not set rates alone, but formed a University-wide rate-setting commission with representatives from the schools to determine phone rates.

But the faculties were angered by having to pay more for the services.

"We're paying more than if we had contracted it out," Bossert says.

UIS has lowered the phone rates it charges by ending the subsidy system.

But OIT used these cross-subsidies to build the high speed data network and to wire the University for e-mail and Internet services, a pricy installation which no school was willing to take on alone.

Charging schools directly for the cost of maintaining the network was also difficult because the schools could not agree upon a standard level of service.

"There were two points of view," says Proctor, "The network's there and we shouldn't put a lot into it. If it's down, it's down. Or that the network [is] like the telephone service and [is] needed 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

The network operated, and continues to operate, at about a $1 million deficit a year. That deficit was made up through the cross subsidies, according to Margulies.

During the last fiscal year, UIS phased out $1 million in over-recovery and will phase out another $500,000 this year, says Susan S. Walsh, director of telecommunications and technical services at UIS.

However, the schools will have to pay UIS more money for network maintenance because of the deficit, even as the phone rates drop, according to Margulies.

"We want to get our pricing models right," says Walsh. "Our goal is to get the pricing right and make our rates defendable."

UIS is attempting to accommodate the varying needs of the different schools by developing different sets of services, Walsh says. The organization will have a core group of services for which they will charge every school and a second tier of services which schools can subscribe to on a fee-for-service basis.

Development Group

OIT also housed a group of engineers and technicians known as the Development Group whose purpose was to work on complex computing and technology questions for Harvard.

"The group worked on developing special applications and services," says Scott O. Bradner, a former member of the group who is still at Harvard.

One of the group's recent projects was an investigation of e-mail standards at the University, determining which communication protocols OIT should support, Bradner says.

The group also worked on developing special-purpose Web-based applications and investigated University-wide security standards.

The development group--like the telephone over-recovery--worked to benefit the whole University without clearly articulating which school was paying for it.

Despite these projects and its status as the only University group working on research and development, the Development Group was one of the central targets of Faculty criticism and was eliminated in the reorganization.

"A big issue was that the group was established with no real funding plan on how to support their activities and projects," Walsh said in an e-mail message.

Some funding for the Development Group may have come from the telephone over-recovery, but Walsh says she cannot confirm this because OIT's budgetary structures were so complex.

Faculty members saw this development work as utilizing the schools' funding in an unsupervised manner.

"When people are using internal funds [for research or development], there has to be oversight," says Dean of the Division of Applied Sciences Paul C. Martin '53, chair of the FAS Committee on Information Technology. "We have to ask are we getting our money's worth."

The larger schools, in particular, came to feel that OIT was using their funding to benefit other schools, according to Proctor.

"It seemed that they were subsidizing one school against another, which at Harvard is a dangerous situation to be in," Proctor says.

Margulies says the elimination of the Development Group does not mean UIS is not leading any of its own development projects.

She highlights Project ADAPT, a $50 million technological upgrade to the University's financial administrative systems, as the new model for development work in UIS. The funding and organization for ADAPT were arranged specifically for this project, and staffing is being done on a temporary and as needed basis.

"[Abolishing the development group] was the right thing," says Bradner. "If there's a large scale project like ADAPT, then we can recruit the right staff to do the project."

"The idea of staffing a permanent development group without an ongoing predictable level of work doesn't seem to be a good idea," he says.

Academic Computing

Margulies says she is also responsible for "developing mechanism for collaboration and planning across the University."

In other words, she coordinates academic information technology. However, the central administration is not currently planning any University-wide projects in academic computing, according to Margulies.

In 1993, a University-wide committee on information technology called for "the central coordination of academic [information technology]" out of the provost's office.

As part of the reorganization, UIS was moved into the office of the provost, which is responsible for coordinating inter-faculty initiatives, but no one in the central administration suggests that this type of coordination will occur with information technology.

When asked about her efforts to coordinate academic information technology, Margulies says she and Proyost Albert Carnesale have appointed another University-wide committee. The committee met last month but no details were available at press time.

Earlier this year, President Neil L. Rudenstine said he will emphasize academic information technology in the upcoming year, following on the heels of Project ADAPT, but that his initiative will be individually tailored to each school's needs.

Happier Faculties

Members of the FAS say they are happier with the new model for information technology at Harvard.

"Every Dean is concerned to enjoy the best services at the most economical rate," said Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles. "I believe that the changes in OIT (UIS) are going to do just that."

Martin agrees that the changes are for the better.

"There are still some little things to be worked out, but the principles for working things out are agreed upon," he says. "Things have changed a lot."

But some say it is still to early to tell whether the more decentralized model will prove to be more successful.

"Whenever you do things like this, you find some bathwater and some babies," Proctor says. "But this situation is still too emotional to find out how much of each they may have thrown out.... They may have just eliminated the bathroom."

Information Technology Series at a Glance:

TODAY

Harvard's administration has emphasized decentralization of information technology, a move epitomized by changes made in the Office of Information Technology's (OIT) staff and mission. Indeed, OIT's replacement, University Information Systems, focuses on serving the schools, not promoting a centralized vision.

TOMORROW

Most of the support, training and planning for information technology and academic computing at Harvard is handled by individual departments and schools, leading to a highly decentralized system throughout the University which hinders coordination and communication among Harvard's disparate schools and centers.

THURSDAY

Decentralization is troubling for the FAS and its support arm--the Harvard Arts and Sciences Computer Services (HASCS), which has been plagued by technical problems. HASCS's focus on simply keeping the systems operating prevents the FAS and HASCS from creating and following a larger vision for information technology.Crimson File Photo

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