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IT Centralization: Impact on Academic Libraries

Authors’ notes: This post is co-authored by Kelly Sattler, Head of Web Services, Michigan State University. It is part one of a two-part series on IT centralization and academic libraries.This post will define IT centralization and talk about what to expect when a centralization initiative begins.  Part two, coming in January, will address how to respond to centralization and what to expect in the longer term. Image free from pixabay

As university budgets continue to be squeezed by increasing costs and decreasing funding, university administrators scour the campus to find ways to make operations more efficient. IT is a frequent target for these exercises, as it is both ubiquitous and expensive. Often, initiatives to centralize IT functions and personnel are undertaken in order to coordinate and standardize services and equipment, theoretically increasing efficiency and reducing costs. Because academic libraries are IT-intensive, centralization can have a significant impact on library staff and operations. Your intrepid authors, Kelly and Janet, are both experiencing IT centralization at their respective institutions. Kelly’s institution, Michigan State University (MSU), initiated their IT centralization on April 12, 2018, while Janet’s institution, Northern Arizona University (NAU), began IT centralization in September 2015. Together we will share what we have learned and are still learning about IT centralization and its impact on libraries and library staff.

What is IT centralization?

Before we go any further, let’s define what we mean by IT centralization. Put simply, IT centralization means taking IT functions from campus units such as the library or colleges and moving those functions and, usually, associated personnel and funding to a central IT department that serves the entire campus or institution. In practice, centralization projects vary across institutions for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways:

  • Purpose: Some institutions might centralize to cope with an immediate budget crisis, while others might gradually implement centralization to reduce costs generally, improve quality and efficiency, or for other reasons. The purpose of a centralization initiative will often determine its scope and timeline.
  • Scope: Some campuses will choose to centralize nearly everything, while others will centralize selected functions and leave some unit IT operations intact. The scope will be determined in part by what remains to be centralized. Some campuses have very few functions centralized, usually enterprise-wide administrative applications for finances and personnel, while others will have few IT functions distributed at the start of the initiative and therefore have little left to centralize
  • Timeline: Some centralization initiatives are pushed through quickly (typically those intended to address a budget shortfall), while others may be implemented more gradually. The ones that are rushed will likely be poorly communicated, poorly implemented and highly frustrating.

What to expect

IT centralization often brings significant organizational change–for the library, for other campus units, and for central IT. To put it simply: this kind of change is hard. Based on our experiences, here are some of the things you can expect during an IT centralization initiative.

Impact on staff

Library IT staff may begin reporting to central IT and may also be physically relocated to central IT, sometimes with little or no notice. They may have their library employment terminated and have to  apply for jobs in central IT, a process which can result in some staff losing their jobs. For many of us who work in libraries, library work is our passion and part of our identity. Being told we will be reporting to campus IT may not be welcome news, and some staff may leave the institution rather than accept the transfer–taking all their knowledge and experience with them. In some cases, a library IT employee can remain in the library–but only by changing their position and responsibilities to exclude IT work. Kelly has seen each happen with people at MSU who were to be centralized.

Employment classifications may also change; for example, centralized staff may move from a union to non-union position (or vice-versa), which can change their benefit package, expectations for work hours, and more.

Centralization can also create new opportunities for centralized staff. They may get higher salaries in their new roles and/or have access to career opportunities that were not available in the library. The bottom line: No matter how well-managed the centralization process may be, it will create significant fear, uncertainty, doubt, and stress among affected staff and their colleagues throughout the library.

Impact on operations

Most academic libraries are IT-intensive. Put another way, we cannot do our jobs or provide services to users without sophisticated and reliable IT systems. When IT functions are centralized, the library loses some if not all control over how those functions are staffed and delivered. Any major change in the way IT is implemented and managed will affect most aspects of library operations.

Service levels

The level of service and hours of operation may be different once functions are centralized, which can be both good and bad. For example, at NAU, central IT is able to provide phone support 24/7 most days, which the library lacked the staff to do. At the same time, centralized classroom IT support is not available during late evening hours, whereas the library provided IT support for its classrooms anytime a class or event was in session.

Standardization

In the centralization initiatives at NAU, many systems were standardized as they were centralized. Standardization may affect the library’s ability to meet specialized needs and may reduce the quality of the experience delivered. Computer purchasing was centralized, which meant purchasing from a pre-approved list or requesting an exception that has to be granted at the VP level. Fortunately, we were given input into that list, and it has worked well for us. In another case, when virtual infrastructure was centralized, the virtual solution offered by central IT could not stream video on thin clients acceptably, while the library’s virtual infrastructure handled video well. The eventual solution, after nearly a year of investigation and negotiation, was to install desktops rather than thin clients for library users.

Capacity for future innovation

One of our biggest fears at NAU was that centralization would limit our ability to innovate. NAU’s Cline Library was often a center for technological innovation on campus. In the last five years, we have built a makerspace that offers high-volume 3D printing and a technology-intensive flipped classroom that, when it was built, was the most technologically-sophisticated teaching space on campus. We were able to complete those projects because we had outstanding in-house IT staff. Now that many of those positions have been centralized, we will need to rely more heavily on central IT for future technology projects.

At MSU, one of our biggest fears is that our projects will never make it up high enough in the queue to be worked on. A project that will enable 3 librarians to do their job better will have a hard time being prioritized over a project that will impact all 40,000+ undergrads. It is easy to understand why a central organization would make that choice, but it does underscore why we hired our own IT staff to begin with. Janet has also experienced this issue at previous institutions with centralized IT environments.

There are a few coping strategies to deal with these scenarios. First, do what you can to set up a process with IT that will enable the cycling of smaller projects into their work cycle. If possible, work with them to have a team that is dedicated to developing application/systems needed as one offs for the library. Ideally, it would be just the library and not all the other colleges too, but that’s unlikely to be seen as practical. If that fails, see if IT has a list of approved vendors that can be hired temporarily by a unit to complete work that central IT doesn’t have the resources to complete. This second option requires having money to pay the vendor, which may not be in the budget, especially if the library’s IT budget was taken with the IT staff. Third, see if IT will give librarians access to the servers so they might develop their own applications.

Workload and turnaround time

At NAU, positions were centralized before central IT was ready to take on some of the work those people performed. In theory, centralized staff would continue to do the same job until centralization was fully implemented, but in reality, some centralized staff left the university, and they were not replaced for some time. That left the library’s remaining IT staff, as well as staff in other areas of the library, to do those jobs as well as their own.

At MSU, we are at the point where the library IT staff report to people in central IT and are thus considered centralized. However, they are still receiving instruction on what to work on from a librarian. In a few cases, this is also the person’s former supervisor, but in most it is not, because the head of the unit opted to move to a different position in the library. We have also had one person quit because of the centralization.Their work was distributed to others still in the unit. We anticipate, with a bit of dread, that it is just a matter of time before library IT people will be pulled into servicing other units on campus. This fear is justifiable as this is exactly what happened at NAU.

In some cases, simple tasks can take a long time in a centralized environment. For example, at NAU, web services were centralized. The library’s website was moved to a new campus-wide web platform and content management service, and we lost access to most editing functions other than modifying existing content. Campus web services is understaffed, so it can take months to have a minor programming change implemented. MSU recently acquired a campus CMS solution. It will take central IT awhile to become functional with the new system. Until then the library will be able to remain in our CMS with full edit rights. However, the only way to justify the expenditure for the campus CMS is to get most, if not all, units to use it too.

At MSU, our library IT staff had already been working with central IT for some functions, such as firewall changes. We’d submit a ticket to the help desk and wait. Central IT does not have a good reputation for fast responses, unless they close your ticket without resolving the issue. Just after the centralization was announced, there was a hallway conversation amongst the library IT folks seeing who had the longest open ticket with central IT. The winner was at 8 months. Going forward, all library IT requests will be using that same system, which brings a lot of fear of a severely lowered standard of response to our IT needs.

Impact on budget

The financial aspects of centralization can vary from institution to institution. In the initial round of centralization at NAU, positions and associated funding lines were transferred to central IT. Later, when the library lost two remaining IT staff to attrition, we were allowed to keep the funding lines but could not use them to hire IT staff. In some cases, central IT will charge units for services formerly provided by the units themselves (e.g. servers, storage).

At MSU, library administration was able to negotiate effectively to mitigate the financial impact of centralization. Our Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with IT, a temporary contract in place until we have Service Level Agreements (SLAs), specifies a one-time transfer of funds for the salaries of the people moved into central IT. It is expected that the funding will be permanently transferred after the SLAs are in place, assuming the centralization continues forward. (We have an interim president mandating centralization, so there is some speculation this will revert back after a new president is selected.) Cost for service from central IT is still being negotiated. If the library were  treated like any other college, we’d be charged an annual maintenance fee for every computer workstation in the library, which would total nearly $1 million annually. This is not feasible. We will also be charged for server housing, networking, etc.

Join us in January for part two of this two-part series on IT centralization: responding to centralization and future possibilities.