Higher Education: 5 Steps to IT Expense Predictability

Whether they’re with campus web services, a central IT team, or work within a department, all EDU IT folks have one thing in common: They’re expected to work miracles on a limited budget.

EDUs aren’t known for having excesses of money on hand. As such, expanding your budget likely means navigating a bureaucratic maze. And there's no guarantee you’ll get what you asked for.

As such, it’s crucial for IT departments to accurately anticipate future needs and plan their budget well in advance. Which would be simple if IT needs were always predictable. We all know, though, that there will be unforeseen circumstances, last-minute requests, and likely a few fires to put out.

calculator and expense reports

It’s clear that 100% accuracy in forecasting isn’t possible. But you can increase predictability with a few easy fixes. Here are five ways to make your budget more predictable:

1. Build an Onboarding and Training Strategy

Inevitably, most IT departments will need to bring on new team members or train new skills throughout the fiscal year. Yet few are willing to make that a line item in the budget. Make training and onboarding part of your ongoing regular expenses. Include internal infrastructure training, teaching agile or other project management models, and skill development.

Having training on the books will lower the risk of project creep, improve your estimation accuracy, and set reasonable expectations for the team, management, and the check-signers.

2. Budget for Development Throughout the Year

Halfway through the year, you might find that your new CMS isn’t working well for the marketing department. Or that your site migration has the comms department panicking. It could even be that your own department needs a deep dive into Drupal or WordPress to finish a project.

It’s a good idea to budget for this kind of development ahead of time, rather than having to put in an extra request in an emergency. For example, Pantheon offers professional services that include problem-solving deep training. If you buy four training sessions at the beginning of the year, you can hold them quarterly—they’re paid for and can be executed when the need arises.

3. Get Out of the Infrastructure Business

Maintaining your own infrastructure while you develop is a recipe for financial uncertainty. You’re likely to end up investing unplanned-for time and resources in keeping the infrastructure up and running, at the expense of the development projects your department should be focusing on.

Simply put, running your own infrastructure means bearing the burden of your EDU’s present and future bandwidth, architecture and security needs. Better to put that burden on companies who have a business incentive to innovate, stay ahead of the competition, and keep your sites up and running smoothly.

4. Use Open Source Tools

For keeping costs low and predictable, open source tools are better than proprietary. The vendor that sells you a proprietary tool gets to set the initial price and the fees for upkeep, upgrades and add-ons. The vendor also decides what other tools their solution is compatible with.

Open source tools are free to use and customize, usually with a higher degree of flexibility than their retail counterparts. And instead of paying for a support plan, you can go to the open source community with questions.

READ: Five Reasons Why Pantheon Wins in Higher Ed

5. Give Your Budget a Baseline

In manufacturing, planning is based on customer demand. Your cloud infrastructure budget should be based on something more than last years spend. Expect your campus marketing efforts, prior traffic trends, even staff changes to affect your needed tech spend. It’s important to understand your end users, their strategy, plans and challenges that will drive spending in the year to come.

Of course, last year’s spend can be part of the planning process. But use it as a starting point to see if it can be reduced, rather than growing by a predicted rate. Set a goal to reduce, for example, your operations costs each year. At the end of the year, see how your spending matched the prediction, and then you have an extra data point for forecasting into the next year.

Cloud infrastructure makes it easier to reduce operations spending, even as your website needs grow more complex. Instead of paying for new servers or buying virtual machines, you can create sites that scale with demand, and only use as much infrastructure as you need.

Bonus Tip: Ask for (and Give) Help

Startups in the public sector do one thing right: They don't mind asking for help. Higher ed IT and marketing teams have a spottier record of admitting a need and seeking expert advice.

Find mentors, contract with consultants, leverage any method to learn about the unknown. And pay it forward: Foster a culture of giving and receiving help by sharing what you have learned.  IT is constantly changing. You can't be an expert at everything, but you can surround yourselves with experts. The more you know, the better you will be at predicting expenses, setting your budget—and coming in under it every year.

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