Given that IT infrastructure is fundamental to the efficient running of any institution, represents a major area of expenditure and is usually one of the first areas to be considered in relation to shared services, remarkably little has been published on the experiences of transforming IT infrastructure in merged institutions.
The business cases prepared for proposed mergers seem rarely to touch on the topic of IT infrastructure or indeed the innovative application of technology. Some exceptions include:
- the consultation document produced for the proposed merger of Gloucestershire College and Royal Forest of Dean College which stated that,
"All learners in the merged college will benefit from the strengths of each College’s innovation. For example Gloucestershire College is renowned for its use of technology in learning, whereas Royal Forest of Dean College has had success in delivering online learning in basic skills and other areas."
- the consultation document produced for the proposed merger of Newcastle and Northumberland colleges into the Newcastle College Group (NCG) which lists some of its objectives as being to,
"Utilise NCG capacity in IT and e-learning to extend access and improve quality"
- the proposal for a new University of Cumbria (Harris 2005) which states:
"The principal investment needed for this project is to make it possible for teaching delivered on any one campus to be interactively accessed on the others."
It is however unsurprising that that many of the operational issues faced by merged institutions relate to the practicalities of changing systems and business processes. The series of quotes below highlights some of the issues that have emerged in reviews. Such issues have not been a major focus of most of the reviews (which have tended to focus more on the condition of the estate in FE) and anecdotal evidence suggests that the published sources probably under emphasise the pressures faced by staff in adapting to new systems and processes and the time and cost involved in this particular aspect of the merger.
In many cases merged institutions have to make do with operating a range of different systems for many years following the merger. The University of Cumbria Business Plan for 2011/12 to 2015/16 gives a very honest appraisal of the state of the infrastructure it inherited from its constituent colleges stating:
"Service delivery and academic and organisational innovation depends on this foundation and it is in desperate need of improvement to prevent major academic and administrative service issues in two plus years’ time."
It goes on to describe a planned transformational project: ‘Integrated and accessible university IT infrastructure: One University IT.’
"The major changes relate to creating a ‘one university’ communications infrastructure which is secure, resilient and reliable; flexible in design; have sufficient latent capacity for future need; allow staff, students, visitors and collaborators easy yet defined access. A major additional aim of this programme will be to reduce the size and complexity of our IT estate. This whole programme of work will be the single most enabling IT change factor for the whole university."
The University of Cumbria example is also interesting in terms of how it proposed to use a range of partnerships to deliver services in multiple locations described as the flexible campus approach (Weaver & Beaty 2009).
A case study from Kings College London describes how the University set out over a three-year period (2007 to 2010) to create the ‘connected campus’. This aimed to address the issues of a fragmented infrastructure and a range of legacy systems as a result of previous mergers and historic underinvestment in IT to create a virtual environment that would become the University’s ‘sixth campus’.
A major lesson learned from the experience of dealing with multiple sites and legacy systems is that the project would have benefited from the experience of someone skilled in enterprise architecture and the University recommend this that other institutions undertaking similar projects include these skills from a very early stage.
Our '10 Steps to Improving Organisational Efficiency' are as applicable to planning for a merger as to improving efficiency and effectiveness within a single institution.
"Full integration of FE and HE systems has not taken place and this may be hampering harmonisation, clarity in terms of management structures and the achievement of parity of esteem, in terms of the FE provision, within the merged university."
"Management Information Systems (MIS) are fundamental to college processes and there are major opportunities for efficiency in this area. However, there is no uniform MIS across FE – this adds to the cost and complexity of collaboration."
"Good MIS and good systems integration within a single institution, (which can be seen as achieving internal shared services,) is a critical prerequisite to a shared services agenda, for instance. The task of integrating financial systems, dealing with financial problems and ensuring‘business as usual’ often over-stretched management capacity and capability. The new management was often over-optimistic about financial outcomes, assuming larger and earlier financial benefits than in fact emerged."
"One merger did not identify that a large number of students were enrolled in both colleges. This led to a substantial financial loss. In another merger, an extra £1 million was found in the accounts of a less efficient partner."
"In interviews, one of the most commonly identified difficulties with a merger was the paradox that planning should start as early as possible – but no one has full authority to implement decisions until after the merger date."
"The findings suggest that merger substantially hindered the smooth operation and performance of colleges for at least the first year post merger and usually for much longer."
"In at least two instances, principals deliberately and overtly ran their institutions as two separate colleges for a year after the merger date, allowing systems to be properly established before a practical merger could be undertaken."