Software Helps U. of Delaware Prioritize Decisions (Column)

Pat Harker, the president of the University of Delaware, shares his university's answer to the question of how to operate more efficiently.

by Pat Harker / June 18, 2012
Photo of the University of Delaware campus from the Wikimedia Commons.

Editor's note: Pat Harker, the president of the University of Delaware, shares his university's answer to the question of how to operate more efficiently.

Cost escalation in higher education is growing at a rate much greater than inflation. There is no way for organizations to spend their way out of this predicament; these multibillion-dollar operations must be run more efficiently, maximizing the money that goes into the classroom to improve students’ experience.

What can colleges and universities do to control operational costs without sacrificing academics — and can technology make those difficult management decisions easier?

The answer rests in a category of business software known as “collaborative decision-making.” University of Delaware, among other institutions of higher learning, is using this type of enterprise software application to turn complicated decisions into a streamlined, efficient process where everyone’s voice is heard.

Project Motivation – ‘The Path to Prominence’

To focus resources, the University of Delaware has developed a strategic plan with the objective of setting the university on a “Path to Prominence” among other institutions of higher education.

The Path to Prominence has several supporting goals, including: 

  • attracting more external research funds to support programs;
  • attracting world-class faculty and the best and brightest students;
  • enhancing the undergraduate experience;
  • growing graduate and professional programs; and
  • understanding the breadth of the university’s global impact.

Through these objectives, university leadership set out to enable departments to be more focused on resource allocation — aligning department activities to the goals established in the Path to Prominence. University leadership then had to ensure that the various university functions and departments would actually use the goals to guide their decision-making.

The university’s Department of Communications and Marketing realized that communication throughout the university’s departments and functions would be critical to ensuring that people aligned behind the Path to Prominence. The status quo at most universities in such discussions is to have executives huddle around Excel spreadsheets to figure things out. In investigating decision-making tools to support processes for collaborative prioritization, very few were specifically focused around setting and communicating priorities.

Collaborative decision-making software proved to be a standout in engaging leadership in a meaningful dialog about priorities. The system used by the university, called Decision Lens, is a Web-based “meeting room” decision tool that enables stakeholders to compare objectives in pairs, leading to numerically weighted priorities.

The software enables executives to explicitly prioritize goals in the context of the decisions being made, and then to allocate resources (both people and money) to activities that most effectively support leadership priorities.

Collaborative Decision-Making at Work

The University of Delaware has begun using collaborative decision-making software for complex planning decisions — both financial and resource allocation — that can be as daunting as comparing apples with oranges.

Development was among the first areas in which collaborative decision-making was applied. At the university level, campaign planning is one of the most politically charged aspects of organizational decision-making. There typically are quadruple the number of requests for initiatives to be put into the campaign than capacity exists for raising money.

In the past, fundraising organizations pursued donations for educational programs that weren’t effectively aligned with university objectives. Fundraising professionals went after donations in areas where money might be available, but the university was then obligated to use those funds towards activities that might actually weaken the brand or distract from the core university mission.

Using collaborative decision-making software, deans from the university’s various colleges prioritized Path to Prominence objectives in the context of fundraising — along with several other criteria related to the viability of the donor base. With these priorities, the development organization identified and then rigorously prioritized initiatives they could pursue for fundraising. The goal was to more than double the amount of money that the university was bringing in from donations, but to do it in a way that would directly align to Path to Prominence — versus simply raising money because it was available. The result was that the development organization became much more effective at determining where to spend time raising money toward initiatives that would directly support the university’s strategic plan.
Decision Lens was then introduced to the Department of Facilities and Auxiliary Services, which manages portfolios such as the university’s capital maintenance.  Decision Lens is Web-based software equipped with wireless voter keypads for either remote or meeting-room decision-making. The software uses Adobe Flash on the browser to deliver a dynamic Web 2.0 decision-making experience without requiring any downloads.

Facilities received requests from all over the University for capital improvements, but with a limited budget the department lacked a coherent way of engaging decision-makers in a discussion about which capital improvements were most critical. 

The next step was to engage the team to facilitate the process of developing criteria around Path to Prominence goals, and then evaluate capital improvement initiatives again based on their importance in supporting those goals. The team ran budget allocation models with Decision Lens, enabling the university to not only meet the highest priority capital improvement projects, but also to optimize lower priority projects that could be addressed with available budget.
At the College of Arts and Sciences, a top priority was to engage various educational programs in a dialog about the faculty hiring requests that were most important to support the Path to Prominence goals. Using Decision Lens, the management team in the College of Arts and Sciences prioritized criteria and evaluated position requests to determine which were most important in aligning activities with these goals.
The change occurring at the university is a work in progress, but leadership has been proactive in capturing more key activities in the university and aligning them to the strategic plan. Executives now are preparing to use the software in other departments to ensure that resource allocation decisions are aligned with Path to Prominence goals.

Lessons Learned

Like many other institutions of higher education, the University of Delaware understands the need to put a rigorous budgeting process in place. Collaborative decision-making software is a key to establishing that process. It ensures that everyone's voice is heard equally, creating a system that saves time and reduces aggravation — while making the best possible use of limited financial resources. 

Two fundamental considerations will help your organization make the best use of this technology: 

  • Make sure that stakeholders are evaluating priorities for an overall organizational mission, rather than department by department. This requires a firm hand in developing that overall mission before starting on resource allocation. 
  • Understand that your best results may come from allowing a facilitator into your discussions, to help create dispassionate comparisons among stakeholder priorities.

The University of Delaware’s story isn’t unique. Other higher education institutions — including Penn State — also are using collaborative decision-making software. Penn State uses the technology in an IT organization of approximately 2,000 employees. Prioritizing IT resources at Penn State requires evaluation of 400 separate projects and is a complex process, made considerably simpler with collaborative decision-making software.

In the environment of higher education, the amount of time spent as a community making the most mundane decisions is unbelievable. If we can speed up the decision-making process through a methodology, we save an enormous amount of time. Turning to modern technological advances is the best way to streamline that process while ensuring that the voice of each individual stakeholder is heard and considered.