Are Shared Services still in question?

By Jose Bernier Ed.D, Associate VP and CIO, Stetson University

Jose Bernier Ed.D

Recently, I attended a CIO conference by invitation that included several renowned institutions. Admittedly, when the main topic of Shared Services was revealed, I was surprised… to the point of thinking “maybe I am missing something.”


I seem to recall thatI started looking at shared services the day I started working in information technology.  Well, perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but it has definitely been many years since this particular topic reached the top of a list when it comes to new trends and innovation.  So, I started to wonder, is shared services really a relevant topic nowadays?  Are there still people in IT leadership positions at different institutions questioningthe economic impact of shared services?  I really hope not.


While neither proposing nor defending centralized IT departments as one-size-fits-all, I think it is important to recognize that some services are better delivered centrally.  Large institutions, either with multiple locations or massive campuses, benefit from localized IT presence.  The kind of distributed model that allows us to be present, even when physical presence is avoidable through remote support.  After all, we,as IT, understand the peace of mind that a walking geek (myself included) creates for our users and, rightfully so, we accept it.  So, what is the secret formula?  Can these two different approaches to managing technology coexist?  Are they mutually exclusive? Would a hybrid approach work?  Most certainl.  In fact, it is almost preferred.


As members of the Information Technology group, we are all well acquainted with the assertion “we are different” as the response to a collaboration or standardization proposal. I often follow that statement with a simple word, “Great!” then with a pause…after which I add to it my own perception of diversity. “I am glad to see that we are all different;if not, what a boring world, right?”Of course, there is more to support my pledge for those shared services. I engage the stakeholders in a dialog to discover, in their case, and to reassure in mine, that within those unique characteristics, there are also many similarities.  For example, why would an individual school or departmentneed to develop, implement, and run an email system separate from anyone else on campus?  What is so unique about their email environment that cannot be supported from a central department?  Are the email headers and protocolsof the Biology department different from those of Sociology? Do messages and distribution listsfrom an English department need to be handled differently than those from a Mathematics department?  As IT professionals, I would imagine that most of us would agree that there is no reason for separate systems.  Some may even go so far as to insist,“Why have an in-house email system at all with the abundance ofwell-known established solutions available?” However,as users, there may be some concern about administration and support.


Of course, support!  Let’s think about that.  Support, in my mind, is the root of this helm of power through a local IT group.  The fact is that a user’s peace of mind can be disturbed by removing a local resource and migrating it to a remote (scary and unknown) location.  After all, everyone knows “Joe,”our local overworked, often underpaid, and most likely undertrained tech.  What do you mean I have to call a central number to get help on an issue? I’ve always called Joe! (a user will argue with a stunned look and pitchy voice).


For anyone confronted with these conversations,I would advise that you start small and keep gaining advocates by actions, improving the quality of your support, and creating many “Joes” in your central organization. Place these trusted agents strategically to create that sense of omnipresence, and please use some of the savings that shared services will generate to better train and reward Joe.