When clients don't trust IT: How one university reformed its billing system to rebuild client confidence
TechRepublic's Karen Roby spoke with Bill Kasenchar, senior director for the technology business management office at University of Pennsylvania, about how the university's IT department transformed its accounting strategy and the speedy digital transformation of the university when COVID-19 shut it all down. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
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Karen Roby: Bill just recently, you presented at a conference, virtually of course, talking with global tech and finance leaders about why it's so important to have the financial side of a technology house in order. Give us some of the highlights from that discussion.
Bill Kasenchar: I think the presentation works around trust, is one of our primary facets, or the lack of trust, I should start out with. Our [internal] clients did not trust us, from a financial standpoint. It took a lot of effort. The University of Pennsylvania operates on what's called responsibility center management, which means that we have to charge for all of our services, and we have to break even. We have to recover for our costs, and have a clean balance sheet for the university. One of our biggest flaws in our history was that it was difficult for us to provide accurate and auditable invoices to our clients for the services they consumed. If they asked a question, we would come up with a different answer, and that was problematic. So, our clients lost trust in our ability to provide the services in the demand that they need. They would try and do [IT work] themselves, which is not an efficient or effective use of the university's resources. So, our objective was how to rebuild trust.
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In order to rebuild trust, we had to get our house in order, financially. We had to determine what all the services we provide to the community are, and how much they cost on a unit basis. How much does each email account cost, each network for each desktop laptop that we support, and so on. Applications, and servers and things of that nature. It took a lot of work over a number of years in order to get our house in the water. In doing so, we used the tool Apptio to help provide the detail. I think one of the biggest benefits with Apptio is that it made it a self-service tool for our clients. Now, after we did all that work, our clients can go in, and they could see for themselves what our costs were. They could drill down very granular detail, the total number of email addresses they were being charged with. They can drill down into the number of ports, and if Wharton moved to a new building, they would be able to determine, "Oh, are these ports in the old building still being charged to us or not?" It was very effective in showing them the detail of the charges, and being able to go right down to vendors and invoices for the things that they were consuming from us directly.
Karen Roby: When you talk about getting your house in order, and the importance of doing that, how long did you know that this was something that you all needed to do? What did that process look like, in terms of deciding, "OK, these are the steps that we need to take to get where we need to be."
Bill Kasenchar: I think we were always trying to do that. It wasn't a new concept, and responsibility center management wasn't a new concept, but the thing that changed was our CIO. We got a new CIO, and the new CIO is the one who really championed this effort to do it and get it right. There were a lot of efforts previously, some organizations within our IT organization were doing a pretty good job, others were doing a not-so-good job. There were very inconsistent methodologies being used. In coming on board and looking at the big picture, he said we have to be accurate, and consistent, and repeatable, and auditable, [those] were the elements that really drove this as an initiative and an effort, start to finish.
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Karen Roby: IT, of course, is in the spotlight like never before. Why is it so important to have the financial side of things of IT really buttoned up now?
Bill Kasenchar: Talking about the pandemic, and talking about online learning for a minute, the university was a little bit. ... They were dipping their toes in the water from the standpoint of providing online courseware. I mean, they had a bunch of online courses, but they were not providing any degree certifications and things of that nature. The pandemic hit, and we had to shift gears really quickly. In a matter of two weeks in March, they shut down the school, and they brought it back up as a 100% online learning environment. All the research aspects couldn't be 100% online, but whatever could, was online. There was a level of collaboration between central IT and the schools and centers across the university that never happened before that really focused on the technology that made it all work.
There was a tremendous amount of recognition that technology does enable the university, and recognition of how responsive and agile we could be when we needed to be. I think those were a couple of aspects that really were driven by the pandemic. And then, as a result of the pandemic, as a result of the school losing approximately $100 million a quarter in revenue between the health system, and the university, and housing, and such, they stripped $1.2 million out of our budget for the new fiscal year, starting in July. And not just IT, but across all the divisions in the university. And in a normal, let's say five years ago in our normal scenario, that would have been really hard to know, "Where can we actually cut costs?" But I think the work that we had done leading up to this point provided us with very good visibility and knowing where we can cut that $1.2 million and still maintain and support the initiatives that drive the mission of the university.
Karen Roby: Anything else you want to add?
Bill Kasenchar: The consistency is wonderful, having the same person to work with, and the same philosophy to react to, and drive toward the same goals year after year is a very good environment. I think a lot of people come to the university as a stepping stone in their career path, and then they remain here much longer than they ever anticipated.